What to expect from a probate lawyer
For most people, interacting with a lawyer causes some anxiety. You’re often in a situation you don’t want to be in (a divorce, a lawsuit, a death), you don’t fully understand the landscape, and you’re afraid you’re about to be on the hook for a huge amount of money.
We can’t erase all the difficult situations from your life, but we can help give you some information and hopefully boost your confidence around one topic—what to expect from a probate lawyer...and whether you actually need one.
What probate lawyers do
A probate lawyer is a licensed attorney that guides individuals through the probate process. Depending on the complexity of the case and your agreement with them, a probate attorney may fill out and submit paperwork to the probate court, keep track of important dates, and accompany you to court for any hearings.
Generally, during an initial meeting or phone call, a probate lawyer will ask you a series of questions about the deceased and their estate — questions like whether they have a will, what types of assets they had, whether you know asset values, etc.
Once the attorney has some initial information, they will provide you a rate for their services.
How probate lawyers charge for their services
The average probate attorney may charge anywhere from $3,500 to $7,000 to manage a simple probate case. More complex cases can cost significantly more. Some states regulate how much a probate lawyer can charge. For instance, in California an attorney can collect a percentage of the value of the estate.
For the first $100,000 of value, the attorney can collect 4% (aka, $4000).
For the next $100,000 of value, the attorney can collect 3%.
For the next $800,000, they can collect 2%. The percentage decreases from there.
You can imagine a situation where someone dies with a house that’s appraised at $300,000, a couple bank accounts with $20,000 in them, and other assets (a car, furniture, jewelry, etc) worth another $25,000.
The probate process could be relatively standard, but In California, their probate attorney can still charge almost $10,000 — regardless of how complex (or not) the case is.
Traditionally, probate attorneys would take on the entire probate matter and charge clients either a flat fee (like the California percentages listed above) or an hourly rate for that representation.
Full representation means the attorney takes primary responsibility for all of the probate process that involves dealing with the probate court — preparing and filling out the probate forms, interacting with the probate clerk, and representing your interests at any hearing. They might also provide information about the steps that need to be taken by an executor and answer questions you have along the way.
It’s important to understand that even with full representation, you as the executor are still responsible for a lot of the legwork of probate, like gathering assets, paying bills, taking inventory of assets, calling institutions like the Department of Motor Vehicles or banks where the deceased had accounts.
Many lawyers will take on some of these tasks if you ask them to, but you’ll be paying them for the service. And they definitely don’t require a legal degree.
Limited representation or unbundled services
More and more probate lawyers are offering limited representation — sometimes called “unbundled services.” If you are using a probate attorney, limited representation is a way to save a significant amount of money.
In a limited representation scenario, the executor takes on primary responsibility for the probate matter and uses the probate attorney’s services on a limited basis when they need something specific.
For instance, an executor might fill out and file all the probate forms with the court but asks a probate lawyer to accompany them to an in-person hearing at the courthouse.
If you’re entering into a limited representation agreement with an attorney, make sure you clarify who is responsible for which tasks. You don’t want to duplicate efforts or have anything fall through the cracks.
Tasks that you might specify include:
- Ordering death certificates
- Filling out the probate petition
- Filing the will with the local probate court
- Filing the deceased person’s last income tax return
- Getting appraisals of valuable property
- Communicating with beneficiaries
Make sure any agreements you make with the attorney are in writing. And ask for a schedule of important deadlines, like when creditors have to come forward with valid claims.
How to save money when using a probate lawyer
Of course, the best way to save money when using a probate lawyer is not to use one at all (and we’ll talk more about that below). But if you have to use a probate lawyer (like if the estate is especially complex or there is a contest against the will), you can save money by thinking strategically about your legal representation.
Don’t go in blind
Before you meet with a probate lawyer, understand what an executor’s role is and what will be expected of you. This article on executor duties can help you develop a list of specific tasks for the estate you are managing.
By identifying in advance what you can handle in the case and what you might need help with, you’ll be in a better position to advocate for yourself with the attorney.
Be mindful of time
Many attorneys charge by the hour, in 15-minute increments. If an attorney bills in 15-minute increments and charges $250 an hour, when they spend 20 minutes on your case, you get billed $125. Keep that hourly rate in mind to encourage you to write any questions down before you call or meet with your attorney and to keep conversations short.
Don’t be afraid to be clear about your financial constraints. The lawyer may be an expert, but they work for you.
If the attorney is going to research a question or take on a particular task, ask them how long they anticipate it taking and tell them to check in with you if it seems like it will take longer. You may decide you’d rather do the legwork yourself than pay their hourly rate for it.
Be aware of deadlines but don’t nag
Probate cases can drag on. They have to stay open for at least a few months to allow creditors or interested parties to come forward, and sometimes they last much longer than that. Big chunks of time could go by when nothing is happening in the court part of the case, and you may not hear from your attorney during that time.
That’s okay. Remember: every time you contact an attorney, you’re adding money to your bill. Of course, if an important deadline is about to slip by with no word from your attorney, you might want to check in (and maybe get a new attorney). But in general, before you reach out, ask yourself whether you really need your lawyer’s time in that moment.
Do you need a probate lawyer?
The truth is, most people don’t need a probate lawyer to go through the probate process. The necessary forms are publicly available, and you don’t need a legal degree to fill them out.
Some estates are incredibly complex — they have royalties or business assets. Some wills get challenged by heirs. In these instances, we would definitely recommend a probate attorney.
But if you’re dealing with a standard estate and an uncontested will, paying a probate attorney may be unnecessary and could cost you a lot of money you don’t really have.
We work with executors everyday who use our ready-to-sign probate forms and step-by-step instructions to skip the probate attorney entirely and save their money. Fill out a quick questionnaire to get your Petition for Probate risk free.