California Probate DIY – what can possibly go wrong?

Let’s be honest some people are just DIYers and some people want it done for them. There is no judgement one way or the other.  My law firm provides extremely competent, full service, legal services. That’s what we do.  Therefore my post is about full service legal services and, in particular, the problems that can happen with both DIY and if you contact a rookie attorney or a general practitioner.  When you have lost a loved one is not the time, in my opinion, to be looking for a deal.  Get it taken care of right. Otherwise you could end up with headaches to mix in with all the other emotions you are already dealing with.

So I recently met with a potential new client who was not just a DIYer but also they were clearly doing an exhaustive search to “save money.”  I put that in quotes because I know of so many ways this potential client can lose money by their choice in attorneys.  So let’s look at some options when you need to probate an estate in California:

  1. Do It Yourself (DIY):
  2. Hire a Rookie Attorney (Rookie):
  3. Hire a General Practice Attorney (Generalist):
  4. Hire a Highly Experienced Certified Specialist Probate Attorney (Specialist):

Realistically these are the options. Let’s dissect each:


The first one is clearly inferior, in my opinion, because you just a loved one and now you think you will just buy the Dummies Guide to Probate Law and that your work will be the same as an attorney like myself who has completed over 1,500 (YES, MORE THAN One Thousand Five Hundred) California probate cases.  Hopefully, even an old engineer can see that’s not likely.  No matter how smart you are and no matter how well (or how many times) you read the Dummies Guide you just can’t match a highly experienced California probate attorney. If you question that hypothesis please stop reading and go do the probate yourself because you obviously are smarter than me!  I applaud you because I went to law school for 3 years (full time) and then have spent 25 years as a probate attorney. Yet you are so smart you read the Dummies Guide and already better than me!  That’s impressive!

Ok, for those that are still with me you get that the bigger question is not whether you are better than me but whether it’s worth saving the money by doing it yourself.  There are two main factors here to consider:

ONE: It’s a pain in the butt to do a probate when you don’t know what you are doing. Yes, many of my cases are very easy… FOR ME… but that’s because this is all I do for a living. I don’t do anything else except probate estates.  The California probate process is a PITA!  If you don’t know what that is ask your kids or grandkids but just change the “A-word” to “butt.”

TWO: You can make highly costly mistakes in probate. Legal work, in any area of specialty, can appear easy when you don’t know more.  It appears like you fill in some forms and the Court will tell you if you did it right. Yes, that’s sort of trust. However, there are many gotchas in the California probate process and they can frequently create significant delays and other times cost you MONEY. The odds are significant that the DIYer is more likely to make these mistakes than the 25+ year probate attorney. Just spitting facts here people.  Please don’t take offense.


In my experience all highly experienced California probate attorneys charge the statutory fee. As we have talked about before that’s the percentage based fee calculation that is laid out in the California probate code. It is technically a fee cap but in reality it’s what all experienced probate attorneys are going to charge. Why wouldn’t you?  It’s simplest and it balances out the headache cases and the easy cases so we get paid fairly overall – you win some and you lose some as they say!  A rookie is starving though!  She is looking to pay her rent, her car payment, her law school student loans, and wants to go to dinner with her friends Saturday night because she is a big time attorney.  She might take a probate case on some type of modified fee structure.  You, the economically savvy consumer, consider this as who doesn’t want to save some money!?  Much like the DIYer going with the rookie attorney can be costly.  I have vivid memories of giving a probate seminar (something I used to do frequently) to a room full of lawyers.  One young lawyer asked me a question, I gave them the correct answer, and they gave me the deer in the headlight look and I believe (assuming I could read their mind) they said “oh poop I screwed that up… and I don’t even malpractice insurance….”  The point is a rookie is learning. Do you want them learning on your case?


The generalist is basically the same thing as a rookie. They don’t have a good law practice so they do a little of everything.  Like the rookie they might offer a little discount off the statutory fee.  Again, this is a great way to cost yourself a ton of time and money.  I recall a case I took over last year from a generalist.  The funny thing was he was as happy to get out of the case as his client was happy to hire me and get rid of that guy.  It had been about 6 months since  he had been hired and he still had not gotten letters testamentary issued by the court.  In fact, I still had to file stuff to fix his mess!  That should be done in a month or two!  All I can do is caution you. This selection can cost you dearly!


Yes, I saved the best for last. This is what I know because this is who I am.  I took a second bar exam back in 2007 (I believe it was) in the area of trust, estate and probate law. I then passed the background evaluation of lawyers and Judges and completed a significant number of additional continuing education in this area of law.  It took a year to get it all done but then I could call myself a Certified Specialist in Probate, Trust and Estate Planning as determined by the California Board of Legal Specialization.  In addition to that I have completed over 1,500 California probate cases.  Lastly, several years ago I modified my personal practice so that it is now 100% probate court cases only. I do not know of any other attorney in the state who operates on such a narrow focus.  I do this because I like knowing I am doing stuff right in each case.  Repetition is the key to mastery in my experience!

So, if you are still reading you understand there are choices.  Before you try to do this yourself and before you try to “save” yourself money with the wrong attorney choice please contact me to discuss your probate case.  We can discuss statutory attorney fee (which is often less than people realize) and what the court costs will be. I will lay it all out so you know exactly. You can then weigh your options better.  I look forward to hearing from you.  -John Palley

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