What Fees Do Estate and Trust Attorneys Charge?

Estates and trust attorneys typically charge clients in one of three ways: hourly fee, flat fee, or contingency fee. In addition to the attorney’s regular fees, you should expect to be billed for miscellaneous disbursements.

Here is what you should know about the fees your estate or trust attorney may charge:

  • Hourly fee: This is the most common type of fee arrangement. Attorneys bill you for the number of hours or partial hours they spend on your estate or trust. They’ll tell you upfront how much they charge per hour. Don’t be shocked at some of the numbers you’ll hear. High hourly rates don’t always equate to the best legal help money can buy.

  • Flat fee: This fee is usually calculated as a percentage of the value of the estate. Flat fees are normally paid on a schedule. This sort of fee arrangement is most common in small- to medium-size estates. This is because not only the probate court but also the IRS must approve the fees an estate attorney charges if an estate tax return is filed.

  • Contingency fee: This type of fee is rare in the world of trusts and estates. However, in certain circumstances an attorney may accept an estate on a contingency fee basis. If a trust or estate is in a lawsuit and may receive a substantial cash award, a lawyer may agree to represent it — and you, as fiduciary — in exchange for the chance to receive a portion of the award.

  • Miscellaneous disbursements: In general, all the attorney’s fee covers is his or her time. Everything else is extra. Expect an itemized breakdown on every invoice of things like postage, photocopying, delivery services, filing fees, and even the sandwich you ate when you met the attorney for a lunchtime conference.

Large firms charge more because their overhead is greater. Single practitioners tend to charge less. Keep in mind, though, that the overall fees charged by the large firm are often comparable to those of the single practitioner because the large firm has staff such as trust and estate administrators. These administrators actually perform the work, and bill their time at a much lower rate. The attorney in charge mostly supervises.

Fees aren’t typically negotiable. An attorney presents you with his or her terms before you decide to do business. You can usually ask an attorney who normally charges a flat fee to bill you on an hourly basis, but those who charge hourly or on a contingency basis probably won’t change.

You may be able to convince an attorney to give you some sort of discount — if, for example, your attorney is a family friend. Even a discounted rate will cost you plenty if the attorney is doing everything. The best, and surest, way to keep fees low is to do as much of the work as you can yourself.

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