There is no "one size fits all" answer to this question. There are many factors that will influence the cost of setting up your estate, the type of estate planning tool used, the size of the testator’s assets, the complexity of the estate requests in the document, and the skill and experience of the attorney. Also there can be extra costs in addition to attorney’s fees depending on the type of estate planning, including: probate court costs, filing fees, and payments made to the executor of the estate.

What Factors Cause the Costs of an Estate to Vary? 

The primary factors that cause the cost of an estate to vary include:

  • Size of the Estate and Types of Assets – When there are more assets or particularly valuable assets, the process of dividing up those assets will take more time and legal work. Moreover, it may require hiring the skills of a forensic accountant or other specialist to properly evaluate the assets. Additionally, for larger estates there can be significant state and federal estate tax issues to address.
  • Nature of the Family – legal disputes over the estate of a deceased family member can be emotionally charged and contentious. Family members may disagree on how the assets are distributed in a will or non-probate instrument and choose to contest it in court. Even if everyone gets along, yet the family is large, it will take time and precision to ensure an estate is properly divided under the intent of the testator. Hiring an experienced estate lawyer can help you create clearly worded estate documents, which can help limit the potential of legal conflict later on.
  • Attorney’s Fees – Planning an estate with the above considerations in mind requires professional advice. While writing a will or handling an estate without the help of a lawyer may seem like a desirable and affordable option, the cost of probate and estate taxes may ultimately wind up making that "savings" a huge cost to the loved ones that are left behind. 

What Goes into Determining a Lawyer's Fees? 

A number of factors affect how much an attorney will charge. The biggest factors tend to be the experience of the attorney, where the attorney is located, and the complexity of the work requested.

Generally, estate lawyers either bill their clients according to a flat fee or an hourly rate. Estate lawyers will usually only charge a flat fee for less complex estate matters such as drafting and executing a simple will or setting up a trust. For a flat fee, expect to pay a minimum of $150-$600. With an hourly fee, it is not uncommon for legal bills to quickly get into the $10,000 range, though it may also ultimately wind up being less than a flat fee arrangement. Again, it will depend on the needs of the client.

Why Would an Estate Lawyer Charge an Hourly Fee? 

An estate lawyer will likely charge by the hour if the estate is large and complex, or the client will require several services, such as a trust, healthcare directive, and tax planning. Hourly rates will vary greatly, depending on the relative ability of the lawyer. Expect to pay $100-$500 an hour for a lawyer’s time. A lawyer who works on an hourly rate may also require the payment of a retainer. This retainer will cover a certain amount of that lawyer’s time. After the retainer is expended, a standard (or potentially discounted) hourly rate will apply.

Is One Fee Structure Better Than Another? 

The best billing structure is ultimately the one that works for the client. Wills, trusts, and estates lawyers understand this, and tend to bill accordingly. Regardless, it is always best to understand what you are paying for. Having a general idea as to what a lawyer may charge is the first step to starting a meaningful conversation with your lawyer about their billing structure, and how it best serves your interest and the interest of your loved ones.