Those looking to organize their estate and minimize estate taxes turn to attorneys specializing in estate planning and wills. And estate planning attorneys interested in running an efficient, cost-effective business turn to paralegals with expertise in this popular area of law.
A comprehensive estate plan, designed to allow individuals to manage their personal affairs in anticipation of their incapacity and death, involves a number of steps and a host of documents.
It therefore comes as little surprise that paralegals in this area of law have earned a solid reputation as highly valuable members of the legal team.
Paralegals Specializing in Estate Planning and Wills: Job Duties and Responsibilities
Paralegals are qualified to lend their support throughout the entire estate planning, administration, and litigation process:
Paralegals organize and draft estate planning documents and help clients fund their trusts. They are also involved in estate tax research and planning.
Estate planning documents include:
- Health care directives and proxies
- Powers of attorney
- Living trusts
- Declarations of homestead
- Transfer deeds
- Life insurance trusts
Probate and Estate Administration
Paralegals assist in the transfer and distribution of trust and probate estates, the preparation and use of disclaimers, and the funding of sub-trusts. Their expertise allows them to also open probate proceedings, which includes valuating estate assets and drafting court forms, petitions, and orders.
Their job responsibilities in trust administration include:
- Preparing sub-trust allocation schedules and distribution plans
- Managing trust administration and maintaining files and compliance calendars
- Notifying beneficiaries
- Preparing and filing all necessary documentation for distributions and taxes
- Ensuring compliance with services related to trust entity and maintenance
In probate and litigation, paralegals have a wide range of responsibilities, such as:
- Drafting and editing petitions and supporting documents required for trust administration, probate, and conservatorship
- Investigating and performing legal research regarding wills, trusts, entitlement issues, creditor claims, and conservatorship challenges
- Preparing summaries and analyses of estate planning documents
- Preparing inventories, real estate transfer deeds, change of ownership reports, and similar documents necessary for the transfer of real estate
- Preparing distribution plans for probate administration
- Drafting documents in response to inquiries by probate attorneys and examiners
- 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
The direct route to becoming a paralegal involves the completion of a formal paralegal program approved by the American Bar Association (ABA).
ABA-approved paralegal programs range from certificate programs to associate and bachelor degrees in paralegal studies. Most paralegal associations, including the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), recommend completing a paralegal program of at least 60 semester credits—the equivalent of an associate’s degree. Both the AAfPE and NALA also recommend the completion of an internship of at least six months.
An internship provides students or recent graduates with the opportunity to apply their recently acquired knowledge and receive valuable, on-the-job training in a chosen area of law.
Professional paralegal certification is not mandatory to become a paralegal; however, many paralegals choose to pursue one or more designations because it demonstrates a commitment to the profession and an advanced level of expertise.
Paralegals with their sights set on specializing their career to include estate planning law often pursue advanced paralegal programs or courses in this area of law.
For example, the ABA Section of Real Property, Trust and Estate Law offers e-learning programs for paralegals, which are designed to provide advanced study in substantive legal and ethics issues and best practices.
Topics covered in these programs include collecting assets and handling creditor claims, distributions, income tax issues, and estate expenses, among others.
NALA also offers advanced paralegal certification in Estate Planning, which includes a distance-based course that is broken down into multiple, online modules.