Hiring a Probate Attorney: Hourly Fees, Flat Fees and Unbundled Services
Feb 2018 | Estate Planning & Probate
For some people, hiring an attorney can be intimidating. But it doesn’t need to be. If the attorney is intimidating, find another one. If the attorney can’t explain the legal issues in terms you understand, find another one. If the attorney can’t give you an estimate of legal fees with reasonable certainly, definitely find another one!
Fortunately, the legal fees for a probate attorney are typically considered expenses of the estate. Therefore, the administrator or personal representative who hires a lawyer and incurs legal bills in the administration of the estate can be reimbursed by the estate for those fees. Still, the administrator or personal representative has a fiduciary duty to spend the estate's funds wisely, and paying reasonable fees is part of that duty.
There are generally three types of fee arrangements you and a probate attorney might agree to.
The most traditional type of billing method is “hourly billing,” where an attorney bills a fixed hourly rate for each hour he or she works. While this billing method might work well in some situations, it has significant drawbacks for clients. The most significant being uncertainty. Often an attorney will give you an estimate of the total bill, but the attorney can’t be sure, and the monthly drip of lawyer fees can cause clients some anxiety.
A less traditional method for billing is the flat fee. This is growing in popularity among lawyers and clients, and it’s my preferred way of billing. With flat fee billing, the client and attorney agree on a set price for a project, which could be an entire probate or some limited aspect of it. The terms of the engagement are clearly spelled out in a fee agreement, which you and the lawyer sign. Flat fee arrangements have the advantage of certainty, and they avoid the monthly annoyance of lawyer invoices. Both you and your lawyer can focus on getting the job done right, and remove the issue of fees. Under this type of an arrangement, you can call your lawyer if you have a question without worrying about the clock running.
Unbundled services is also a less traditional method for billing, but it is also growing in popularity. Whether it be probates, family law, or other types of law, more and more people are trying to tackle the legal system on their own. Often this is because they don’t have the money to afford an attorney, or they believe, mistakenly, that practicing law is easy. Unbundled services is much like the flat fee arrangement discussed above, but usually on a more limited scope. For example, you and your attorney can agree that the attorney will review the pleadings and documents you’ve prepared, but that you will do everything else. Or the attorney might prepare the documents for you, and file them with the court, but then you’re on your own. Also, you could pay for a couple of hours of the lawyer’s time to get general advice and sketch out a strategy for your probate matter. Whatever you and your lawyer decide, the terms of the limited scope of services must be clearly defined in a fee agreement. Typically, these types of arrangements cost less than hourly or flat fee arrangements, but they require more work and skill from the client.