A probate lawyer is a certified professional who can walk executors, beneficiaries, and families through the probate process.
Probate, when required, starts shortly after the death of a loved one. It is the legal “putting to rest” of someone’s financial life, and it involves validating a will (if it exists), appointing an executor, cataloging all known probate assets, paying final taxes and debts, and ultimately distributing inheritances according to the will, or according to local intestate succession laws if the person passed without a will.
Probate is typically a long and emotional process, but it can also be a deeply rewarding and inspiring one. Although many executors are capable of completing probate on their own, some executors choose to hire a probate attorney for guidance and assistance during probate.
Like any other type of lawyer, probate attorneys can be found in nearly every county and city. An executor who is seeking legal advice will likely not have any difficulty finding a probate attorney in their area.
What does a probate lawyer do?
Probate lawyers typically guide families through probate, settle disputes, and ensure all forms are completed correctly.
Probate lawyers don’t only offer legal advice to the executor. Probate lawyers can represent the deceased’s heirs, estate beneficiaries, the deceased’s business partners, or even the estate itself.
The role of a probate lawyer includes the following actions:
- Offering general legal advice to any party involved in the probate process.
- Filing a notice to creditors.
- Locating the deceased’s will.
- Representing heirs, beneficiaries, executors, or the estate in a will contest.
- Paying any debts.
- Paying tax liens and inheritance taxes.
- Interpreting the deceased’s will or codicil.
- Managing the deceased’s checking accounts or savings accounts.
- Overseeing the deceased’s trust accounts.
- Offering legal counsel on intestate distributions.
- Interpreting the IRS’ published duties for estate administrators*.
- Creating an inventory of assets.
- Accessing the deceased’s safe deposit box.
- Overseeing property appraisals of the deceased’s estate.
- Retitling real estate and assets in the name of the beneficiaries.
- Preparing and filing probate documents.
- Ensuring that all probate deadlines are met.
- Completing all final distributions to beneficiaries.
- Filing the final estate taxes.
This is just a small fraction of the potential duties of a probate attorney.
A probate lawyer can be an essential member of the probate process. A reliable probate attorney can assist the executor or estate through probate with ease, navigating around potential obstacles that could delay the estate settlement process.
With the benefits that come from hiring a probate attorney, though, there are also expected costs.
The cost of a probate lawyer
The average probate lawyer in the United States charges between $200 and $500 per hour.
But… probate lawyers can vary in cost depending on the specific services provided to the estate, with fees ranging from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.
It ultimately depends on the tasks that a probate attorney is asked to complete.
If a probate attorney is only hired for a consultation on a legal matter, the cost will likely only end up being a few hundred dollars. If the probate attorney is hired to represent the estate through the entire probate process though, then the final cost will likely end up being thousands of dollars.
A number of factors influence that cost, though, so don’t be surprised if you find probate lawyers who charge fees outside of that range.
Factors that influence the cost of a probate lawyer
The predominant factors that influence the cost of a probate lawyer include the following:
- The probate lawyer’s experience
- The probate attorney’s reputation
- The location of the estate
- The demand for the probate lawyer’s services
- The probate lawyer’s skill set
- The complexity of the estate
- The length of the probate process
- The number of beneficiaries involved in the estate
- The occurrence of a will contest or legal dispute among heirs and beneficiaries
A handful of those factors are specific to the probate attorney. The probate attorney’s level of experience, reputation, and skill set will all influence the fees that the probate lawyer charges. The demand for the probate lawyer’s services will also boost up the probate attorney’s fees.
The other factors are specific to the deceased’s estate. A complicated estate with many assets and beneficiaries will undoubtedly incur higher probate attorney fees than a simple estate.
Who pays for the probate lawyer?
The deceased’s estate pays for the probate lawyer.
The executor does not pay for the probate lawyer. The beneficiaries do not pay for the probate lawyer. The deceased’s heirs do not pay for the probate lawyer.
The estate is the only one that pays, assuming the expenses of hiring the lawyer are incurred for the administration of the estate.
So as long as the expenses are reasonable and the probate lawyer is hired for the sole purpose of assisting in the probate process, the estate funds will cover the cost of a probate lawyer.
And, as an additional bonus:
According to the IRS, any estate administration expenses from hiring an attorney are deductible from the overall estate value and are deductible from the estate tax
According to the IRS, any estate administration expenses from hiring an attorney are deductible from the overall estate value and are deductible from the estate tax*.
How probate lawyers charge fees
Probate attorneys collect fees in a number of ways, from charging hourly fees to taking a percentage of the estate’s value.
The most common ways that probate lawyers charge fees through one of the 5 following payment structures:
- Hourly rates
- Retainer fees
- Flat fees
- Contingency Fees
- Percentage of the estate value
For a complete breakdown of probate lawyer cost structures and fees, read: How Much Does a Probate Lawyer Cost? Averages By State
Do you even need a probate lawyer?
The need for a probate lawyer depends on the specific legal situation facing the estate.
If you live in one of the following states and meet the criteria within the state, you are often required to hire a probate lawyer during the probate process:
- In Hawaii, probate lawyer is required in all cases.
- In Missouri, a probate lawyer is required for estates over $40k.
- In North Carolina, a probate lawyer is required if you live in a different state than the deceased.
- In North Dakota, a probate lawyer is required if you are going through formal probate.
- In Texas, a probate lawyer is required in nearly all cases, with exceptions if the executor is also the sole beneficiary of the estate and if there are no debts again the estate.
- In Arizona, a probate lawyer is required unless you complete and present a Certificate of Completion to the probate court.
If you live in one of the other 44 states, though, you will need to consider a variety of factors before you decide to hire a probate lawyer.
To determine if you need a probate lawyer, ask yourself the following questions:
- How large is the deceased’s estate?
- How complicated are the deceased’s assets?
- How complicated are the state laws?
- Are there any tax liens on the estate?
- Are there many debts or liabilities involved with the estate?
- How many beneficiaries are involved in the estate?
- Are the beneficiaries likely to start a will contest or a legal dispute?
- Did the deceased pass away testate (with a will) or intestate (without a will)?
- Are you ready to meet the duties and responsibilities that the role of executor requires?
Those 9 questions will give you an initial indication of whether you need a probate lawyer or not. If you find yourself overwhelmed by any of those questions, then you should strongly consider hiring a probate attorney to guide you through the probate process and address the concerns that you’re facing.
How do you find a probate lawyer?
There are 5 main avenues to begin searching for a probate attorney:
- Search Engines, like Google
- Word of mouth
- Lawyer referral service
- Online lawyer directories
Using search engines, like Google, to find a probate lawyer
Google is the obvious first step in finding a probate lawyer. A brief internet search for “probate lawyers near me” or “probate lawyers in my city” will bring up a wide variety of options.
If you want to see what other clients say about specific lawyers, you should be able to see Google Reviews or other ratings on similar platforms. This will give you a general sense of the probate lawyer’s skills, costs, and services.
Once you’ve completed a general Google search, write down a list of the top 10 probate lawyers in your area. Then, once you have the 10 lawyers, do a bit more research on each of the individuals.
You should be able to find information on the lawyers’ backgrounds, their clientele, and whether their services fit your specific needs.
Trusting word of mouth to find a probate lawyer
Even if you’ve never hired a probate attorney before, you probably know someone who has. Or, even if that’s not the case, then it’s likely that you know someone who has a friend or family member who has hired a probate attorney in the past.
Reach out to your family, friends, neighbors, business acquaintances, and other members of your community to see if they know of any probate lawyers in your area.
You might be surprised at some of the helpful leads you receive from the people closest to you.
In addition to telling you about great probate lawyers in your area, the people closest to you will also be able to tell you about the probate lawyers to avoid. If a family member had a bad experience with a probate lawyer, then they’ll likely be willing to tell you all about it so that you can avoid hiring that lawyer.
Searching newspapers to find a probate lawyer
Although no longer our primary source for information, newspapers are still a valuable resource in locating and hiring probate lawyers.
Many probate lawyers will place advertisements in newspapers—often near obituaries or notices to creditors—in the hopes of attracting clients. Those sections of the newspaper are a great place to start.
If you’re searching for a local probate attorney, look for your town or city’s newspaper and see if you can find any advertisements within the pages. Who knows? You just might find some great leads.
Using local referral service to find a probate lawyer
If you’ve searched through Google, asked your family, friends, and business acquaintances for recommendations, scanned the local newspaper, but still cannot find a reputable probate attorney, another option might be to hire a referral service to recommend a lawyer for your specific situation.
For what is usually a one-time fee, a referral service will evaluate your specific situation and then connect you with a lawyer who can meet your needs. So if you’re dealing with a probate issue or problems with the probate process, the referral service would review your situation and then connect you with a handful of probate lawyers in your area.
If you’re having trouble finding probate lawyers and feel like you’re at the end of your rope, a referral service might be able to find that elusive probate lawyer that you’re looking for. And, although it will incur an additional cost, hiring the referral service might end up saving you time and money in the long run.
Using online directories to find a probate lawyer
Another option to locate a probate attorney is to search through an online lawyer directory such as Cornell’s lawyer directory.
Many lawyers pay small monthly fees to be included in online lawyer directories. Those directories showcase a list of potential lawyers in a specific county or region, often segmenting the lawyers into specific categories based on their specific area of legal expertise.
Lawyer directories benefit both clients and probate lawyers. The directories bring business to the lawyers and also make it much easier for a prospective client to find the right probate lawyer.
So if you’re still looking for a probate lawyer, consider scanning through online legal directories to help you in your search.
You found a potential probate lawyer– what’s next?
Once you find a potential probate lawyer, you’ll need to schedule an initial consultation with the lawyer.
You can think of an initial consultation as an informal interview between the probate lawyer and the client. You’ll want to see if the probate lawyer is a good fit for your needs, and the lawyer will need to ensure that they can provide the specific services that will address your situation.
If you’re worried about the potential cost, then you should remember the following:
Probate lawyers will typically offer initial consultations free of charge.
Although the initial consultation is free, you’ll want to ensure that you’re taking advantage of both your time and the lawyer’s time.
To make sure that the consultation is productive, remember to bring the following to your meeting:
- A copy of the estate owner’s death certificate
- The last will and testament (if it exists)
- Any codicils to the will
- Any trust agreements or information regarding non-probate assets
- Bank statements and financial records
- An inventory of assets (it can be in progress)
- Information regarding debts, tax liens, and liabilities
- A list of all beneficiaries and heirs
- A written list of any questions that you have for the lawyer
- A notebook to record any notes that you take during the meeting
Bringing those items and documents to the meeting will ensure that you are able to have a productive meeting with the probate lawyer.
After you have the initial consultation, you might decide that the lawyer isn’t the right fit for your needs. And that’s okay—you shouldn’t feel pressured into choosing a probate lawyer just because you already had an initial consultation with them.
What should you look for in a probate lawyer?
There are many great probate attorneys out there. But, like any profession, there are also some lawyers that give good lawyers a bad name (cue the lawyer jokes).
When looking for a good probate lawyer, there are 6 different questions you should ask yourself:
- Is the lawyer licensed to practice in my state?
- Is the lawyer experienced?
- Is the lawyer reputable?
- Does the lawyer offer the services I need?
- Does the lawyer seem to care about the issues I am facing?
- Do the lawyer’s prices seem reasonable?
Is the lawyer licensed to practice in my state?
You’ve found the name of a probate attorney or stumbled upon a legal group online that specializes in probate law.
But even though you’ve found a potential lawyer, there’s still a bit more due diligence to be completed on your end.
Your first step in researching the lawyer is to ensure that the lawyer is licensed to practice in the state where the deceased’s asset is located (also known as the estate domicile).
That might seem like a silly first step, but there’s a reason we advise it. Each year, potential clients are scammed by so-called “lawyers” who act like they are actually licensed to practice law in the state where they’re located. In many cases, those lawyers have only taken a few online legal classes and are trying to make a quick buck without having completed any of the legal education required to practice law.
Fake lawyers give real probate lawyers a bad name—and they’re important to avoid.
To ensure that the lawyer is licensed to practice law in the state, search through the membership directory of the state bar. Most states have an online membership directory where you can search for the name of the lawyer.
The directory will then tell you if the lawyer is actually licensed to practice law or if their license has been revoked.
This will help you ensure that the lawyer you are hiring is legitimate and qualified to practice law in the state where the deceased’s estate is located.
Is the lawyer experienced?
There’s nothing wrong with choosing a probate lawyer who is relatively new to the industry. In fact, as we’ll see a bit later, a less-experienced lawyer may end up being more affordable than one who is very experienced.
At the same time, however, you want to ensure that the lawyer has experience dealing with the specific issues that you need assistance with. You likely don’t want to hire a lawyer who has never been part of a probate process before.
Knowing that the probate lawyer has specific experience addressing the issues that you’re facing will bring you peace of mind and also ensure that you can circumvent potential pitfalls.
Is the lawyer reputable?
Another key question that you need to ask is whether the lawyer has a positive reputation in the town or city where you live.
Just as a poor lawyer will receive negative attention and amass a list of unhappy clients, a good lawyer should garner positive public feedback from clients. You’ll know who those good lawyers are by reading online reviews or talking to the lawyer’s former clients.
Does the lawyer offer the services I need?
You might find an experienced lawyer with a strong reputation, but neither experience nor reputation matters if the lawyer cannot meet your specific needs.
Many probate attorneys specialize in specific aspects of the probate process. Before hiring a probate lawyer, you should consult with the lawyer to confirm that your specific needs will be handled.
Does the lawyer seem to care about the issues I’m facing?
It might seem obvious to say this, but you should look for a probate lawyer who truly cares about the issues that you are facing.
A good probate lawyer should show that they are passionate to help you address the issues that you are facing, and they should also express empathy for whatever challenges you have already encountered during the probate process.
Yes, it is their job. And yes, the probate lawyer should be interested in their job (and making money) in addition to being interested in helping clients.
But just as you might be able to tell if friends and family members do not care about the challenges you have encountered during the probate process, you will likely be able to tell if a probate lawyer does not care about the issues that you’re facing.
Get a lawyer who cares. It will truly make all the difference.
Do the lawyer’s prices seem reasonable?
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that probate can often be very expensive. Like, very expensive.
In fact, the typical probate process for the average estate costs approximately $14,000*.
The typical probate process for the average estate costs approximately $14,000
Many details go into that total average sum—appraisal fees, filing costs, administrative expenses, and everything in between. Although it is just a small aspect of the probate process, much of that $14K sum also comes from the costs associated with hiring and retaining a probate lawyer.
It’s tempting to look at that sticker price and run the opposite direction, seeking the cheapest probate attorney that you can find in your state or county.
But should you just go with the cheapest probate attorney? No, not at all.
A probate attorney’s fees are often based upon demand for the lawyer and the reputation or experience of the attorney. Unless the probate attorney is overcharging clients, you’ll likely be paying more if you want an attorney who has a positive reputation and is experienced in the field.
That’s not to say that an experienced and reputable probate attorney cannot also charge reasonable fees. After all, affordability is a huge factor that influences reputation.
But just like purchasing or investing in anything else, you’ll need to shop around to see what fees look reasonable and affordable. You’ll ultimately need to find a healthy balance between paying more for high quality and reputation and just overpaying for an overcharging probate attorney.
The Bottom Line on Probate Lawyers
You may be required to get a probate attorney in your state, but in most states probate lawyers are not a necessity. That being said, having a guide who knows your jurisdiction can take a lot of the weight and stress of the probate process. And in cases of disputes with large settlements, they are invaluable.
If you do choose to hire a probate lawyer, make sure you vet them to ensure that your family and estate are taken care of correctly.