What a probate lawyer does.
If you’ve been named executor of an estate or find yourself in a position to administer an estate, your first thought may be to hire a probate attorney. But before you rush to sign an agreement, you may want to think carefully about what a probate attorney does and whether you actually need one.
What a probate attorney does
In general, a probate attorney manages the probate process. That means that they—or their paralegal or legal assistant—fill out forms to submit to the local probate court, get appraisals, keep track of relevant dates, and accompany you to court hearings if needed. These activities don’t require a law degree. They may be tedious, requiring time on the phone and filling out forms, but they don’t necessarily require any specialized skill set.
In fact, every year, thousands of people administer estates and complete probate without an attorney.
A probate attorney might also advise you on actions or communications during the probate process, and in certain instances, their expertise may be needed. We’ll talk more below about when hiring a probate lawyer is a good idea.
Average cost of a probate attorney
The average cost of a probate attorney can vary significantly depending on your location, the attorney’s fee structure and the complexity of the estate.
An attorney who specializes in probate will likely charge more than one who maintains a general practice. And an attorney in a large city or practicing in a large firm will likely have a larger fee. Probate attorneys generally charge in one of three ways: a flat fee, an hourly rate, or a percentage of the estate.
Many probate attorneys charge a flat fee for probate cases. This fee could range from $3,000 to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the attorney and the complexity of the estate. A flat fee provides certainty to both the attorney and the client about the final cost of the project, but it may result in your paying for things you don’t actually need someone else to do — like a legal assistant filling out the probate forms.
While a flat fee is often the standard, more and more attorneys are willing to work on an hourly rate. Hourly rates could be anywhere from $150 to $300 or $400 per hour. With an hourly rate, you have the ability to limit your costs and contact the attorney only when you absolutely need to. For instance, you could fill out all the forms yourself and keep track of the probate process, only reaching out to the attorney if you have a question about how to communicate with a difficult relative who’s threatening to contest the will.
Keep in mind that most attorneys bill in six-minute increments, so if you check in with a two-minute email, you’ll get billed for six minutes of the attorney’s time.
Some probate attorneys still request a percentage of the estate. Only seven states allow attorneys to charge in this manner, largely because it’s almost always a bad bet for the estate. The fees are based on the gross value of the estate rather than the net value, aka the value after all the debts have been paid. That can leave an estate in a difficult position.
Can an executor probate an estate without an attorney?
Now that you know what a probate attorney does and how much using one could cost, you’re probably wondering whether you actually need a probate attorney.
The good news: there’s a pretty good chance you don’t.
While many people think that the probate process must be handled by an attorney, only two states actually require that an executor hire an attorney for the process — Texas and Iowa. Florida also requires an attorney if there are more than two heirs.
In all other states, you are permitted to probate an estate on your own. The probate process can be tedious, but in most cases, it’s also completely manageable by the average person as long as you can fill out forms, make phone calls, and follow instructions. And we’ve provided plenty of resources to help along the way.
There are a few instances where you may want to have an attorney on hand to provide advice or assistance: if you know that someone is going to challenge the validity of the will, if the estate includes a business or commercial real estate, if the estate’s assets won’t be enough to cover all of its debts, or if the estate’s value surpasses the state or federal estate tax exemption limits and you’ll need to file estate tax returns.
But for most other estates — especially estates that meet the requirements for small estate procedures in their state — a probate lawyer is an additional expense that’s simply not necessary. We work with executors and administrators every day to help them probate estates without an attorney and save thousands of dollars.