If you have had a spouse or parent die, you already know that it is an emotional time, and at the same time you are grieving and making funeral arrangements, you are asking questions like Where is everything? or What Am I Supposed to do Next? or What do I need to get started?" or Who do I call?
Always Use Specialists and Experts
This may be your first time going through the administration of an estate, and you may or may not know what to do next, but lawyers who specialize in Wills, Trusts and Estate Administration have staff and systems to make the process far less daunting and burdensome than you may think. Even if there is some odd or troubling fact or person that is worrying you, the experienced estate administration attorney has seen and heard almost everything. You should make an appointment with an attorney who specializes in estate administration as soon as you are able.
Most families have some situation about which they are embarrassed: Cluttered house, an alcoholic child, or something. Those of us who specialize in this area have see pretty much everything there is to see, and will put you at ease about whatever is troubling to you. Your estate planning attorney will be understanding and empathetic about difficult circumstances.
What do you need to get started?
You can get a checklist from my firm's website (see link below), but here are the basics:
Original Will and/or Trust(s)
Comprehensive information about spouse, all "Next of Kin," (usually just children), persons named in the Will ("legatees") and persons named in the Trust(s) ("beneficiaries"). You should have name, address, phone number(s) and email address, birthdate for each such person.
Contact information for other professional advisors: Accountant, investment advisor, life insurance professional, business or real estate attorney (if any) and funeral director.
Financial information: Most recent tax return, most recent statements from all investment and bank accounts, most recent annual statement for life insurance policies, checkbook ledger, car titles, real estate deeds.
This may seem like a lot of work, and if you are not well organized, it may be a lot of work, but you will need all these things eventually, and the sooner you can provide them to the attorney, the better will be the information and advice you receive ... and the less you will end up paying the attorney.
What Will it Cost?
The standard lawyer answer to this question is "It depends." But here are some guidelines.
Most lawyers charge by the hour for estate administration. Some of us charge--as often as possible--fixed fees. I don't like hourly billing, in which inefficient law firms get paid by you for their inefficiency. And in any event clients always think hourly rates are too high and the lawyer could have worked faster. This is not a good foundation for pleasant lawyer/client relationships.
If the firm you use engages in hourly billing, there will be different rates for paralegals, associate attorneys and partners. Paralegals may be anywhere from $25 to $150 per hour; associate attorneys $100 to $200; partners from $100 to $350 (sometimes more). These seem like outrageous fees, but the costs of running modern law offices--rent, furniture, skilled staff, copiers, paper, telephones, computer hardware and software, internet, training, research resources, insurance and on and on--are very high. If your estate is a probate estate, there will be an initial filing fee of $100 to $250. In probate estates, the Court must approve fees, and they are usually paid at the end. In trust estates, the fees are strictly a matter between the client and attorney. Although not strictly required by the rules in Ohio, there should always be something in writing that says what the fees are going to be.
It was once a common practice for the probate courts of various Ohio counties to adopt a probate attorney "fee schedule" that is used to establish attorney fees for estate administration, usually a sliding percentage scale of up to 8% of assets. Today, these fee schedules exist in only a handful of Ohio counties, primarily smaller counties.
A few years ago, one of my colleagues did a study to determine the cost of estate administration in Franklin County (Columbus). The average total cost of a probate estate administration was determined to be 3.94% of total assets, including attorney and executor fees and miscellaneous costs. Today, most--perhaps even all--probate courts will approve attorney fees of 2% of total probate assets.
When we do estates for a fixed fee, our fees are usually between 1.25% and 1.75% of total assets ... for the clients who have done their planning with us.
How Long Will it Take?
Again, it depends. Some estates can be closed in matter of weeks. Others may take 2 or 3 years. The factors which affect time, other than the caseload and efficiency of the law firm, are (a) whether or not the estate is large enough to require the filing of an Federal and/or an Ohio Estate Tax Return; (b) whether or not the estate can be administered entirely in Ohio, or whether there is real estate that will require an "ancillary" administration in another State; (c) whether or not there are conflicts and disputes within the family; and (d) whether or not there are problems in obtaining information about specific assets.
If an estate takes a long time, it does not necessarily mean that all the assets will be tied up in the estate for the whole time. With trusts, it can be easy to make distributions during the administration. With probate, it is possible to apply to the court for a partial distribution during the administration.
Most of the activity seen by the client occurs at the beginning and end of the administration. There are a variety of rules regarding notices, responses, hearings, etc. that simply require waiting for a specified amount of time to pass before the next thing can happen.
Estate Administration, whether probate or trust (or both), requires meticulous adherence to procedures and protocols. Some administrations are highly technical. Most administrations are reasonably routine, but rarely is there an estate without surprises. You should expect the unexpected. When surprises occur, the client and the attorney usually need to work together to address the new issue and minimize additional cost and frustration. There are always exceptions, but most clients are surprised at how smoothly things proceed.