Attorneys who specialize in estate planning and wills can help clients organize their estate and minimize estate taxes. Paralegals aid estate planning attorneys in this process by providing efficient, cost-effective aid. While most people think of paralegals as working for defense attorneys, paralegals actually work in all fields of law, including estate planning. Paralegals will have general knowledge of the law, but many can also specialize in specific areas of the law.
A paralegal who specializes in estate planning will aid an attorney in creating a comprehensive estate plan, which will allow individuals to manage their personal affairs in anticipation of their incapacity and/or death. This is a complex process which involves a number of steps and many legal documents. Paralegals who work with estate planning attorneys are extremely valuable resources to help with this extensive process.
What Does a Paralegal Working in Estate Planning and Probate Do?
Through proper training and experience, paralegals working in estate planning and probate tackle a number of important tasks throughout the entire estate planning, administration, and litigation process.
Paralegals who work in estate planning spend their time organizing and drafting estate planning documents, including:
- Health care directives and proxies
- Powers of attorney
- Living trusts
- Declarations of homestead
- Transfer deeds
- Life insurance trusts
Many paralegals in this field are also involved in estate tax research and planning.
Probate and Estate Administration
Paralegals can also specialize in probate and estate administration. Within this field, paralegals assist in a number of tasks, including the transfer and distribution of trust and probate estates, the preparation and use of disclaimers, and the funding of sub-trusts. In addition, many have the expertise to open probate proceedings, including valuating estate assets and drafting court forms, petitions, and orders.
The typical job responsibilities in trust administration include:
- Preparing sub-trust allocation schedules and distribution plans
- Notifying beneficiaries
- Ensuring compliance with services related to trust entity and maintenance
- Managing trust administration
- Maintaining files and compliance calendars
- Preparing and filing all necessary documentation for distributions and taxes
In probate and litigation, paralegals can be assigned a wide range of responsibilities, including:
- Drafting and editing petitions and supporting documents required for trust administration, probate, and conservatorship
- Preparing distribution plans for probate administration
- Investigating and performing legal research related to wills, entitlement issues, trusts, creditor claims, and conservatorship challenges
- Preparing summaries and analyses of estate planning documents
- Drafting documents in response to inquiries by probate attorneys and examiners
- Preparing inventories, real estate transfer deeds, change of ownership reports, and similar documents necessary for the transfer of real estate
- Assisting with trial preparation, including preparing exhibits and related documentation
- Drafting and editing gift tax and federal estate tax returns
How to Become a Paralegal in Estate Planning Law
Before you can specialize in a specific area of the law, you must first receive general training as a paralegal. To become a paralegal, you need to complete a formal paralegal program that has been approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). ABA-approved paralegal programs offer many different training options, from certificate programs to associate and bachelor degrees in paralegal studies. The majority of paralegal associations, like the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), recommend that those seeking a job as a paralegal complete a paralegal program of at least 60 semester credits. This is the equivalent of an associate’s degree.
In addition, both the AAfPE and NALA also recommend the completion of an internship of at least six months. An internship will provide you with the opportunity to apply your recently acquired knowledge to actual work situation. Through this process, you will receive specific, valuable, on-the-job training in your chosen area of law.
Certification is an additional option to your formal education and internship training. It is important to note that professional paralegal certification is not mandatory for those who want to become a paralegal. However, many paralegals choose to pursue certification because it demonstrates a commitment to the legal profession and serves as proof that you possess an advanced level of expertise.
If you plan on specializing in a specific area of the law, such as estate planning, it is highly recommended that you pursue advanced paralegal programs or courses in this specific area of the law. Topics that should be covered in your specialized training include:
- Collecting assets
- Handling creditor claims, distributions, income tax issues, and estate expenses
Many paralegal training programs are available online and part- or full-time.