You are here: Home E-Guide to Real Estate in Costa Rica Chapter 11 - Legal Matters Finding a lawyer

Finding a lawyer

In general: Technically, you don’t need a lawyer to buy property in Costa Rica. You do need a lawyer if you want to buy a property safely. Costa Rica is crawling with lawyers, so it’s not hard to find one, but it’s a little trickier to find a good one that meets your needs.

An attorney can help you understand the complexities of the Costa Rican legal system, which is based on Napoleonic law. You are guilty until proven innocent, just the opposite of the system in the United States. A lawyer is one of the best investments you can make because he can assist you with bureaucratic procedures and handle other legal matters that arise.

It is very important to watch your lawyer closely, since most Costa Rican lawyers tend to drag their feet as bureaucrats do. Never take anything for granted. Refuse to believe that things are getting done, even if you are assured they are. Check with your lawyer on a regular basis and ask to see your file to make sure he has taken care of business. As you might imagine, paperwork moves slowly in Costa Rica, so you do not want a procrastinating lawyer to prolong the process.

When you first contact a lawyer, make sure he is accessible at all hours. Make sure you have your lawyer’s office and home telephone number in case you need him in an emergency. If you are told your lawyer is always “in meetings” or “out of the office,” this is a clear sign your work is being neglected and you have chosen the wrong lawyer.

Most attorneys charge an hourly rate depending on your problem and their expertise. It is inadvisable to select your lawyer solely on the basis of legal fees. Lawyer’s fees, or honorarios, vary. Never, ever pay for the entire amount required up front. Pay no more than fifty percent initially and the other half upon completion.

Notary: You will need a notary to complete a property transaction that have to do with the National Registry – whether they the transfer of property or corporations. Either your lawyer or the seller’s lawyer must be one. If you’re paying cash, your lawyer will probably act as notary, so make sure your lawyer is also a registered notary (property lawyers generally are).

Bilingual: Unless you’re perfectly fluent in Spanish, get a bilingual lawyer. All contracts will be in Spanish, so you will probably need him to translate them for you. It is important that the lawyer is one hundred percent bilingual. There are many lawyers who say that they are bilingual but are not. They have a thick Spanish accent when they speak English and can’t explain things so you will fully understand.

References: Ask for recommendations for a good lawyer from people you trust, and ask that lawyer for references once you get in touch with him or her. As with real estate brokers, brand doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Big, important-sounding firms or bufetes are more networking devices in Costa Rica than they are companies, as each lawyer still works for his or her own meal ticket. As networking devices, however, they work rather well, and you’ll be more likely to find bilingual lawyers with property transaction experience in these firms.

Background: You can check your lawyer’s background rather easily on the Costa Rican Bar Association’s Web site. Go to Hover the mouse pointer over the link t the top of the page, quejas y suspensiones. From the menu that pops up, go to Profesionales suspedidos, then click Por causa disiplinaria. On the resulting page, you can search for your lawyer by name, partial name, ID number, or just click Ver Lista Completa to see a complete list of suspended lawyers. Note, however, that the site does not record previous suspensions that have been served, which is why recent references are so important when picking a lawyer. If you do have a problem, you CAN file a complaint against an attorney, but it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to get another attorney to represent you, so be prepared to represent yourself, which requires fluent Spanish.

Books: It is advisable to purchase The Legal Guide To Costa Rica by Roger Petersen. Although this book is no substitute for a good lawyer, it is still very useful for the layman. We also recommend purchasing a copy of Diccionario de Términos Jurídicos by Enrique Alcaraz. It is a complete English-Spanish dictionary of legal terms.

Sources: There is an ample list of lawyers and law firms in Chapter 18, the reference section of this book. A few sites on the Internet (for example, on the U.S. Embassy’s Web site, also have good listings, and a quick phone call to the American Chamber of Commerce will likely net you some recommendations as well.