Probate and Trust Administration Billing Explanation

When a loved one dies, a range of emotions typically follow for the individual tasked to handle matters. Many individuals ask a series of questions:

 “How do I inform the immediate family and, then, the extended family, of the death?”

“Did my loved one leave burial and/or cremation instructions? Is there a specific mortuary I’m supposed to deal with? Is organ donation a consideration?”

“Who will plan a memorial service? Did our loved one even want a service?”

“How do we address the bills that are already rolling in? Should we pay the mortgage that’s past due? Using what funds?”

“I’m getting calls from family members asking about a Will or a Trust – how can they even be thinking about an inheritance so quickly?”

“The house is an absolute mess – am I required to go through all of the personal belongings? How do I know which items should be trashed, donated, sold, or retained for a beneficiary?”

“I don’t want to have any communication with an estranged sibling or relative – will I be forced to? Even worse, will I be required to discuss money matters with him/her? How can I avoid communication with him/her during this process (which could take many months or even over a year)?”

“I heard Probate is very expensive and time consuming. If I don’t feel comfortable pursuing probate on my own, will a lawyer hold my hand through the process to ensure I don’t ‘mess up’?”

Each question is extremely common. And this list is by no means exhaustive; these questions don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the legal process by which the family, through an Executor or Trustee, must follow. This process, generally referred to as an estate administration (specifically, either a Probate or Trust Administration), typically involves at least 10 tasks the family must address in the weeks and months and, sometimes even, years that follow. This is true even for a “straightforward” estate. Most of our client’s estate administration include over 20 tasks, ranging from filing final tax return(s), addressing medical bills and/or possible debts, sending out statute-required opening letters and asset inventories to each beneficiary, making critical tax decisions related to retirement plans, and much more. Because each case varies significantly, our firm will not quote a legal fee until we feel we have a solid grasp of your case, and all that your case will require from our dedicated team. We find it most fair to offer a no-obligation initial meeting to discuss immediate items that must be addressed while also creating a larger list of estate administration-related tasks. Only then will our attorneys quote a legal fee.

 For rather “straightforward” cases, we typically offer to represent the Executor/Trustee on a “flat fee” basis that, barring something unforeseen occurring during the administration (e.g. a legal challenge, back tax issue, locating previously-unknown assets, etc.), will remain a fixed, known amount. This allows the client to have confidence knowing the fee, in a large majority of cases, will not increase later on in the administration. The flat fee represents an amount our firm agrees to receive in exchange for representing the Executor/Trustee with the entire case (or, occasionally, with a narrowed scope of work to which the client and our firm mutually-agree to up front).

For more “complex” cases, which usually means there are one or more aspects of the case which are difficult to anticipate, we typically offer to represent the Executor/Trustee on a “retainer” basis. With retainer cases, our firm will ask for an agreed-upon amount of funds up front (usually based on a reasonably-projected total fee to cover the entire length of the case) and, as the case develops, will bill against that retainer at various staff members billable rates. Our firm tries to avoid this billing structure, when able, as it creates more uncertainty for the client as to what the final legal bill may end up being. Still, it is occasionally the only realistic billing structure when a case involves a number of unique challenges or characteristics. Most commonly, these challenges may include: handling multiple real estate properties, beneficiaries who do not get along, unusual or unique assets, an uncertainty as to where all of the assets are located, dealing with large creditors, negotiating which beneficiaries will receive which assets (e.g. a family cabin), and more.

We look forward to meeting with you at an no-obligation initial meeting to discuss your case and its unique circumstances. More importantly, we are honored to have the opportunity to serve you during a difficult time.