In some states, payment is capped at a percentage of the estate’s value.
In other states, lawyers they are simply paid by the hour—plus fees—without a cap.
An estate with few complications can expect to legal costs between $3,500 and $7,000, but estates with more issues are costlier to resolve.
Common issues that can add to your probate lawyer’s workload include: questions over the will, estates with a large number of heirs, and any disputes that lead to additional court dates.
Lawyers are paid from the estate’s funds, so make sure there are enough assets to cover the expense before you hire an attorney.
Although it may be the last thing you want to deal with after you lose someone, probate is sometimes part of the equation. While in the simplest of terms, probate is the judicial process in which the last will and testament are deemed valid, the estate’s value is assessed, and its assets are distributed according to instructions in the will (or, if there is not a valid will, according to state law).
If you’ve already been through probate in the past, you know that certain issues can complicate the process and stretch the timeline for months. A probate lawyer who can guide you through it all, from beginning to end, can be a welcome relief—but also an expensive one.
How expensive? In some places, the cost is tied to the size of the estate and in others you’ll pay an hourly rate, plus fees, for their work. Either way, it adds up fast. So it’s important to know what kind of financial toll the lawyer or lawyers you hire will have on the value of the estate—since they will be paid out of the estate’s funds.
In California, the probate fees are determined by the value of the estate. If the estate is worth $100,000, then the maximum amount an attorney can receive is 4% of the estate’s value. If the estate is $200,000, on that additional $100,000, the attorney can collect up to 3%, and so on down a tiered scale.
This is known as fees set by statute. Although this maximum statute exists, it doesn’t mean you can’t find an attorney to bill you by the hour or find one you can try to negotiate with who might be willing to take a smaller portion of the maximum statutory fee. Other states that allow this statutory technique of charging fees are Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, and Wyoming.
In other places, where a percentage of the value of the estate isn’t the fee, you’ll end up paying hourly or a flat fee. Depending on the case and the state in which you live, that hourly rate or flat fee can differ greatly.
It’s also important to know that the flat fee doesn’t include additional fees for court filing ($50 to $1200, depending on the estate), appraisers, handling of documents, notification fees for heirs and creditors ($10 to $300, depending on how many), postage, notary, and storage fees, among other things. For a relatively simple case, you can expect to pay somewhere between $3,500 and $7,000, depending on location and the amount of work needed. If any hiccups or complications arise, though, that amount can significantly increase.
When compiling all the necessary paperwork for the lawyer, you want to not just double check, but triple check documents. The reason for this is that any issue, even one that might seem like a small inconvenience, will cost you. Here are some common problems that could add time and expense:
Issues with the will, especially those that contain provisions that are not allowed in the state where your loved one died.
People contesting the will.
Death certificate errors.
Notifying potential heirs, especially if there are 20 or more.
Additional court appearances to settle disagreements or challenges.
Fees for these issues can vary, so you want to make sure your attorney gives you a ballpark figure as to how much.
Granted, in the beginning, the lawyer may not know how often they’ll be in court or how many hours they’ll be working on the case, but if you can get a rough estimate, then that can help you with any surprises down the road.
For a relatively simple case, you can expect to pay somewhere between $3,500 and $7,000, depending on location and the amount of work needed.
Just remember, even five minutes of work by your attorney will be charged to you. And since average-size estates can have a probate process that ranges from six months to two years, so the longer it takes to settle the estate, the more the expenses will add up.
Ultimately, the estate will pay for all legal fees and, in most cases, nothing is paid up front. Even if a will goes to litigation, the executor and the lawyer can’t collect a dime until the court case is settled.
If they win, the executor can ask the court for the necessary amount needed to cover the lawyer fees. However, if the estate is broke, meaning the debts are greater than the assets, things won’t go as smoothly.
Before probate lawyers agree to represent the estate, they’ll review it with the executor. If there’s no money, no assets, no property, or anything else of value, then the lawyer might suggest skipping probate.
If a probate lawyer suggests you take care of the probate process on your own, listen to them.
If there are funds there, but perhaps not enough to cover lawyer expenses, then the probate lawyer may ask the executor for money up front (a retainer) to cover filing fees and similar administrator details. Once the estate is settled, the executor can request to be reimbursed, but if there’s nothing there, then there’s nothing there—you’ll simply lose that money.
With this in mind, if a probate lawyer suggests you take care of the probate process on your own, listen to them. If the estate can’t cover these types of expenses, there’s only so much of your own money you want to invest into a process that’s left beneficiaries empty-handed and there’s just a mound of bills to pay.
Although lawyers want to make money, it’s not unheard of to negotiate flat fees or hourly rates. You can also save money by doing your own research on specific topics, instead of calling them every time you have a question. Or, if you’re capable and understand the process a bit, you can do some of the work yourself. When it comes to signing an agreement with an attorney, make sure you get everything you agreed upon in writing, down to the most minute detail. Are you agreeing on a flat fee or an hourly fee? Which lawyer at the firm will be your main contact? What’s their best estimate of the number of hours it will take and the total cost to the estate?
Ask for explanations of all the legal jargon on the bill so you know exactly what everything means, as well as how you will be billed and when payments will be expected. Estate attorneys are the experts when it comes to probate, so they are the voices of authority for legal matters.
But they are also service providers, and there’s no reason you can’t respect their expertise while working with them in a way that makes you feel protected as a consumer—especially one who is grieving someone close to you ●
Probate is often a long and complex process, but it is also completely manageable if you stay organized and follow the instructions of the court. It’s definitely still a good idea to avoid the full probate process, if you can. We’ll walk you through whichever scenario applies to your loved one’s estate.