How Your Probate Attorney’s Fees Could Get Out of Hand Outside of California

A recent probate case has brought into sharp contrast the attorney’s fees in probate in California as opposed to attorney’s fees in other states. The probate system in California was originally designed to protect beneficiaries. As part of that design, the attorney’s fees are regulated by statute and can only be paid when the probate is closed and by court order. Learn more about fee structures here.

So why does this have any value to a beneficiary of the estate? Well, the typical rule for attorney’s fees in many states is that (1) they are not regulated, and, (2) you pay as you go, typically on a monthly basis at whatever the going hourly rate is for the attorney in question, regardless of whether or not the case is closed or successful. The problem with this system was brought home recently in one of my cases.

The person who passed away was wealthy and owned real property in two different states, including California. In the California probate proceeding, the fees were set by statute and were not paid until the property was sold and distributed to the heirs. In the other state, there was no regulation of the attorney fees and they went out of control, at least two or three times as much as what was ordered in California. Then, the estate was never closed by the first attorney. The client got fed up by the endless billings and found new counsel and eventually closed the out of state case and distributed the property. But the client went through two sets of attorneys before she was able to do so.

So what is the take away in this situation? Buyer beware. Look carefully before choosing an attorney.

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