Attorney fees are only one part of the costs of closing a deceased person's estate. Settling an estate can entail paying off debts and appraising property and may also involve court filing fees, accounting fees and fees paid to the executor. Additionally, hidden costs can lurk in the closing of the estate.
How much you pay your attorney for her services depends on the state where you reside, the attorney's own fee structure and the disposition of the estate to be settled.
The Probate Attorney
A state's probate court determines whether a last will and testament is valid or -- in the event of no will -- distributes assets to beneficiaries according to state statute. Depending on your state's probate process, some or all of the estate in question may not have to pass through probate, and you may be able to avoid it altogether. If you are embroiled in probate, an attorney specializing in probate procedures can help you through those intricacies. If you are able to bypass that route, an estate planning attorney may be sufficient for your purposes.
Factors in Cost
A probate or estate attorney's rates depend on a variety of factors, including:
- Size of the estate: The gross value of the estate affects what a state considers "reasonable" as an attorney fee. Larger estates also involve higher federal and state estate taxes, which may require the specialized skills and experience of an attorney to navigate with dexterity.
- Complexity of the estate: As the State Bar of Montana notes, a wills and estate planning lawyer can be called upon to perform tasks as simple as drawing up a will, or as wide-ranging as inquiring into the deceased's investments, insurance policies, home and business ownership. The latter requires more of the time and resources of the attorney and therefore, costs more.
- Any ceilings placed by the state on how much attorneys can be paid. As consumer website CostHelper notes, the maximum an attorney can charge in California for a $100,000 estate is $4,000 as of 2015.
- Number of beneficiaries and disputes among beneficiaries: Contested wills and multiple beneficiaries add to the complexity of an estate, and hence your attorney fees.
Percentage of Estate
Some states allow attorneys to charge a percentage of the estate's value. These states include California, Missouri and Montana. For example, California as of 2015 has a tiered fee structure for allowable probate fees. The higher the gross value of the estate, the smaller the percentage applied.
Attorneys may opt to charge an hourly rate even if allowed by the state to charge a percentage of the estate. Expect to pay a probate lawyer $200 per hour in metropolitan areas, otherwise $150 per hour in rural areas.
Probate attorneys also may charge by flat rate. This route can reduce stress for both the attorney and the administrator of the estate, in that you don't have to be bound by the billable hour. Complex estates can expect higher flat rates. According to Legal Match as of 2015, a flat fee for an estate lawyer ranges between $300 and $1,500.
However, obtain in writing what the flat fee covers. You may have to pay extra for:
- appraisal fees
- court filing fees
- record-tabulating fees