Involving everything from wills and assigning power of attorney to healthcare proxies and trust agreements, the estate planning process can be quite complex. This is why so many people turn to attorneys when creating an estate plan. It is also why so many attorneys turn to paralegals with estate planning and probate expertise who can ensure that all necessary documents are executed as part of a comprehensive estate plan or probate process.
Job Description for Paralegals Working in Estate Planning and Probate Law
The job duties and responsibilities of an estate planning and probate paralegal include:
- Assisting the attorney during initial client interview
- Securing documents related to the client’s estate
- Collecting and valuating estate assets
- Drafting estate documents for the attorney’s review (wills, powers of attorney, healthcare directives, and living wills)
- Preparing documents and assisting the transfer of assets into trusts
- Preparing and recording powers of attorney, deeds, memoranda of trust, and other recordable forms
- Researching foreign jurisdictions for out-of-state client assets and re-registering them
In the event of probate proceedings, paralegals assist attorneys by:
- Preparing and filing probate documents in the administration of an estate (petitions, motions, testamentary letters, inventories, accountings, and notices)
- Filing life insurance claims and other death benefits
- Contacting beneficiaries and next of kin regarding admission of the will and other probate hearings
- Administering estate accounts
- Assisting with the investment, transfer, and/or liquidation of estate assets
- Preparing and filing the decedent’s final income and tax returns
- Preparing documents associated with land sale proceedings
- Drafting documents to approve distribution of wrongful death settlements
- Participating in the administration of guardianships and trusts
- Assisting with name changes and adoption proceedings
Paralegals in estate planning and probate law research the law and local court rules to better guide the attorney when making estate decisions. Depending on the jurisdiction, paralegals are also often allowed to meet with magistrates and other officials and present routine filings and accountings.
In a trial setting, paralegals assist the lawyer by preparing and organizing pertinent documents and preparing exhibits. In certain jurisdictions, paralegals are permitted to sit at counsel’s table before a probate judge and provide the attorney with the documents needed for effective testimony.
Client communication is an important part of an estate planning and probate paralegal. Once the attorney has met with and secured the client, paralegals often replace the attorney as the primary contact for the client. They are responsible for:
- Answering questions about the estate planning or probate process
- Scheduling client appointments with the attorney
- Gathering information and documents
- Keeping the client updated on the status of the case
- Informing the client of any upcoming hearings, depositions, or meetings
Paralegals in estate planning and probate also spend much of their time corresponding with other professionals. Their job duties include:
- Working with bank representatives regarding the collection of estate assets
- Notifying creditors to negotiate a compromise or arrange payment of a debt
- Collecting assets from retirement, investment, and other accounts
- Working with appraisers to obtain appraisals for real or personal property
How to Become an Estate Planning and Probate Paralegal
The American Bar Association (ABA) approves paralegal programs in the U.S. at every level, from certificate programs to master’s degree programs. Although paralegals may practice at any educational level, both the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) recommend that students complete a paralegal program of at least 60 credits—equivalent to an associate’s degree.
These paralegal associations also recommend that students complete an internship of at least six months. Internships allow students to gain knowledge specific to estate planning and probate law.
Professional certification, although voluntary, is a popular pursuit among paralegals and a standard requirement among many employers.
While paralegal educational programs include an introduction to estate planning and probate, advanced study in this area of law is often advantageous for those paralegals seeking to specialize their career.
For example, the American Bar Association’s Section of Real Property, Trust and Estate Law offers an e-learning training service for new lawyers and paralegals in the areas of trust and estate law. Paralegals in the ABA’s program learn about substantive legal and ethical issues and best practices from leading industry professionals, which includes in-depth knowledge and hands-on experience in trust and estate law.