Hiring a professional appraiser for an estate 

7 min read

When to hire an appraiser for an estate

  • Large estates that may be subject to estate tax, and estates with valuable items, may be required to hire an appraiser during probate.

  • In other cases, you may want to hire one to give you certainty and peace of mind.

  • An appraiser can help you put things up for auction and avoid costly errors.

  • They can also give you context for these items that might bring you closure.

After a loved one dies, there are often a thousand different things you need to do, which can be a huge challenge when you’re also dealing with the emotional fallout of the loss. Fortunately there are certain tasks that are best handled by professionals, such as estimating the value of the estate, or particular property and valuables that your loved one owned.

Do I need an appraiser?

Professional appraisers are experienced or certified experts who determine the approximate monetary value of various types of personal property. Some items, like cars or real estate, can be valued simply by using commonly available appraisal guides, but trying to determine the value of things like artwork, antiques, collectibles or even whole businesses requires such an large amount of work that it is not feasible to attempt it on your own. 

A reputable appraiser with experience and expertise can help you get a clearer sense of which items have a high market value and can help you eventually decide what to sell, what to donate, and what to keep. You may already be feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed, so hiring someone trustworthy and knowledgeable to value the contents of the estate can help bring peace of mind.

The timeline for conducting the appraisal on an estate varies depending on local laws and your individual situation. Some states have set deadlines for when it has to be done, while in others probate courts determine a timeline on a case-by-case basis. If you are overseeing the settlement of a complex estate, find out as much as you can about local laws regarding timelines. It is always advisable to contact an estate attorney in the area.

If you will be going through the full probate process, one of the very first things you will need to do is conduct an inventory of the estate’s assets, a task that may require a professional appraiser, particularly if the estate is large, or if some of the items in it are very valuable. A proper appraisal will help you know whether you need to get insurance and how to divide assets, and will determine whether state and federal estate taxes will need to be paid.

In general, it is advisable to look into the local laws before determining the right choice for you and your family. Even if you aren’t going through probate, or suspect you might need to but aren’t sure, working with a professional appraiser can bring you peace of mind. 

How do appraisals work?

When a valuation is required for an estate, it’s usually the executor who makes the decision to call in an appraiser. The estate will generally pay the cost of hiring the appraiser. Most appraisers charge by the hour, typically starting at a rate of about $150. Depending on location and the level of expertise your property requires, this can quickly add up to quite a bit of money. 

If they are helping to liquidate an estate, they can charge a flat percentage on the sale. For that fee, you will probably receive a written report that includes a description of the item or items, the value of each, and what procedure the appraiser used to get to that number. 

A good appraiser can answer your questions and give advice on how to handle particular items, helping you avoid making potentially costly mistakes. In addition to navigating the requirements of things like auctions and estate tax law, a qualified appraiser can provide the kind of common-sense advice that is cultivated over years of experience. For example, they will tell you to check the pockets of any clothes you want to donate, because it’s common to find small valuables like money, watches, or jewelry hidden away. When valuing artwork, it’s important to realize that artists sometimes reuse canvases or frames, and the painting beneath or behind a picture could be even more valuable than the one you can see. An appraiser knows what to look for and can offer indispensable wisdom. 

A qualified appraiser can provide the kind of common-sense advice that is cultivated over years of experience.

The scope of an appraiser’s work can generally be scaled up or down depending on your needs. Whether it’s a single item, a highly specialized collection like coins or stamps, or a large number of different types of items, like an entire house full of artwork and antiques, most appraisers can assemble and organize the property and even arrange to put the items up for sale. 

An appraiser can set up an auction that is open to the public, but keep in mind that it may involve a conflict of interest if an appraiser values and then sells the same items directly to individual buyers.

Alternatively, instead of hiring an appraiser you can reach out to local auction houses, which often offer free professional appraisals in hopes of collecting a commission on anything you sell through one of their auctions. 

Finding an appraiser

If you decide to work with an appraiser, there are a few things to keep in mind as you conduct your search. There are no state licensing requirements for appraisers, so make sure to ask around or read online reviews to make sure the person you engage has a reputation for being fair and honest. 

Although there are no legal requirements to become an appraiser, there are three professional associations in the field—The American Society of Appraisers, the International Society of Appraisers, and the Appraisers Association of America. Each of these organizations has a different area of expertise, but they all require members to comply with an ethical standard called the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice. In addition to the USPAP, they require members to pass tests and provide proof of continuing education, so these can be a good standard to look for as you vet your options. Additionally, any appraisal submitted to the IRS is required to adhere to USPAP guidelines. 

A reliable appraiser will be open about which areas they are strongest in, but most can still do a great job of navigating subjects they are less familiar with, either in cooperation with a larger team or with friends and colleagues within the industry who can provide advice and insights. Be wary of an appraiser who claims they can handle anything. They may not be attuned to the particular needs of your estate and could miss important details. 

You can also look into the person’s history. If any of their appraisals have ever been questioned or legally challenged, ask about the outcome and how they handled it. If you’re looking out for red flags, this one place where they are likely to pop up.

Intangible benefits

One of the more interesting, or even enjoyable, aspects of determining the value of your loved one’s possessions is working with an appraiser to put them into a larger context, to understand the narrative behind certain items and why they may have held value to the person who died. If your loved one was a coin collector, for instance, determining the value of their collection and the histories and origin of individual pieces can be a way of getting to know them better, to understand what they cherished and found interesting. 

If you choose or are required to work with an appraiser, remember that they are working to support you. Just because a particular item doesn’t have a high market value doesn’t discount its sentimental value. The one thing a professional appraiser can’t determine is the personal worth any single item may hold for you. 

Give space to whatever feelings you happen to be experiencing and move at the speed that feels right to you—while still keeping legal deadlines in mind. Take the time you need to organize your loved one’s estate and create a plan for whatever tasks you need to manage. Going through the estate can be another way of feeling close to your loved one; it can become its own version of a grieving ritual and help provide a sense of peace and comfort.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.