There is a trend for people to represent themselves more and more in legal matters. This is called appearing “in propria persona” or “pro per.” But unless it is an extremely simple legal matter (such as a speeding ticket or small claims court dispute), you are always going to be better served by having an experienced legal advocate on your side. Here are the top 4 reasons why you shouldn’t represent yourself (even if you’re a lawyer) in probate court.
Reason #1: Even if there is no dispute now, there could be if you do something wrong. If you are the person in charge, such as the personal representative or trustee, then you are held to a very high standard. You have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the estate, to act fairly, and to administer the estate or trust expeditiously. But the applicable probate statutes, plus case law, are complicated even for lawyers who practice exclusively in this area. And if you make a wrong move (such as distributing money to the wrong people), you can be held personally liable. Is it really worth saving a few thousand dollars to risk this much personal liability?
Reason #2: You don’t know the applicable law and rules of procedure. Unless you are an experienced probate and estate planning attorney, you are at a severe disadvantage. You are expected to know all of the applicable probate statutes, plus the probate rules, plus the civil rules (to the extent that they do not conflict with the probate rules). Then there are the softer issues, such as knowing when the hearsay rule or the Dead Man’s Statute apply. (Hint: Even if you can recite these rules by heart, that has very little to do with their application in real life during a real evidentiary hearing.)
Reason #3: You are taken more seriously by the opposing parties (and the court) if you have a lawyer. In grade school, did you ever have an older sibling, or a friend, who could help you stand up to a bully or show you the ropes of how to deal with social situations? I had an older sister who would give me straight-forward advice about how to handle various social situations. Or have you ever gone to a party in which you didn’t know anyone? That is a lot easier with a “buddy” as well. Having a lawyer is somewhat like this. You don’t need to always worry that you might forget something or do something wrong, because your lawyer has your back and is helping you navigate the system.
Reason #4: You can’t see outside your own bottle. We all imagine that we are the stars of our own movies. Yet we don’t know how others perceive us. Are we being taken seriously? Do our legal arguments make sense to other people? Is our line of thinking persuasive? There is a saying among attorneys that “An attorney who chooses to represent himself in court has a fool for a client.” Even lawyers who routinely handle legal matters know better than to handle their own cases. The reason is this: We (as lawyers) would be too emotionally involved in our own situation to be able to make rational decisions. This hurts us when it comes to making sound, logical decisions. It also hinders our ability to see the big picture, possible flaws in our thinking, and possible solutions.