The 4 Things You Should Know About Settling An Estate

If you’re responsible for settling the estate of a deceased family member or friend, you’ll probably find that you could use expert assistance at some point, from legal advice to preparing tax returns. How does that actually work? When do you need an attorney? Can you split up the tasks? We surveyed readers across the United States who had recently served as executors, personal representatives, trustees, and/or administrators of estates to find out how they worked with lawyers and other experts. Here’s what we learned.

When You May (or May Not) Need a Probate or Estate Administration Lawyer

Whether it’s authorized by state law or by the will or trust document, you’ll almost always be able to use estate or trust funds to pay for a lawyer or other expert assistance. Still, not all executors or trustees need or choose to hire experts. In fact, less than half (45%) of our readers said they had a lawyer’s help with the work of estate administration.

Those who were handling relatively small estates (with a value of less than $200,000) were somewhat less likely to use an attorney’s services; in our survey, just under a third (32%) of those readers hired a lawyer. Smaller estates are less likely to involve some of the complications that call for expert advice or assistance, such as when:

  • someone is threatening to contest the will or trust in court
  • the estate includes a business, commercial real estate, or unusual assets that may be difficult to distribute among beneficiaries
  • the estate may owe state or federal estate taxes, or
  • a complex or ongoing trust needs to be administered, such as a trust for minor children or a special needs trust.

Also, states have simplified shortcut probate procedures for settling small estates. So if you’re serving as an executor for an estate that’s worth less than the upper limit for small estates in your state, you most likely won’t need a probate lawyer’s help. (Still, if there’s not enough money in the estate to cover all of its debts, you should get legal advice before paying any bills.)

Splitting Estate Administration Tasks With a Lawyer

Just because you need a lawyer to help with estate administration doesn’t necessarily mean you will turn over all of the work to the attorney. Even though you don’t have to pay the cost of hiring a probate or estate administration lawyer out of your own money, it’s your responsibility as the executor or trustee not to waste estate funds. (You’re also likely to be a beneficiary yourself, which provides even more incentive to save money for the estate.) So it’s no surprise that more than three-fourths (76%) of our readers said they tried to reduce the legal fees by doing some of the work on the estate themselves.

Most probate and estate administration attorneys are accustomed to sharing the work with the executors and trustees, and many lawyers offer unbundled services. In fact, nearly eight in ten (79%) readers said that their attorneys supported them in doing some of the work. That support took various forms, including:

  • giving them a list of tasks to do (49% mentioned this assistance)
  • explaining how to do certain tasks (64%), and
  • directing them to other nonlawyer experts (26%).

Other readers mentioned that the attorneys answered their questions along the way or gave them advice on particular issues.

What Tasks Do Lawyers Handle Within Estate Administration?

If you find that you need a lawyer to help you with settling an estate, you will probably use the attorney only for certain services or advice. Because it may be helpful to know the types of legal assistance other executors or trustees sought, we asked readers what parts of the process lawyers handled. About half (49%) of those who hired attorneys had them prepare and file the paperwork for probate court. This isn’t surprising, since the probate rules vary from state to state, and executors may find the process and paperwork intimidating.

Many executors and trustees used attorneys to assist with distributing the estate’s property and communicating with beneficiaries (47% and 44%, respectively, of readers who hired lawyers). More than a third (35%) got legal advice and assistance on tax issues, while fewer than two in 10 (17%) had the attorneys deal with the estate’s creditors.

The type of help an attorney provides will usually depend on the make-up of the estate. But it also may vary depending on the executor’s or trustee’s specific skills or circumstances. For example, if the executor or trustee is an accountant, the estate may not need any additional tax advice. On the other hand, if the executor or trustee has strained relationships with other beneficiaries, the estate may need to hire a lawyer to handle even the most basic communications with beneficiaries.

Other Types of Expert Help With Estate Administration

Lawyers aren’t the only experts who can help you with estate administration work. You may turn to other types of professionals for assistance with particular tasks, including:

  • accountants or other tax professionals
  • appraisers
  • financial advisors
  • real estate or stock brokers, and
  • paralegals or legal document preparers.

About three in 10 readers told us that they received a little help from an expert other than an attorney, while 14% said they relied on several professionals for assistance. If you’re not sure what kinds of professionals you might need to hire, a good place to start would be to ask a trusts and estates attorney. After taking a look at the estate, an experienced lawyer should be able to tell you what other experts you might need along the way.

Finding Legal Help for Estate Administration

If you think you could use a lawyer’s help with settling an estate, these survey results should provide some insight into how other executors and trustees have worked with attorneys during the process. This information can also help you organize your thoughts and questions as you prepare to find the right probate lawyer.

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