How much does probate cost and how long does it take?

The time it takes to probate an estate depends on how complicated the estate is, including whether or not the deceased left things in order. If the deceased left piles of papers to be filed and a paper bag full of receipts, it may take time to sort out initial issues, such as gathering assets, filing tax returns, and paying debts.

Other situations can cause delays such as a complicated tax situation, many assets to be sold, debt disputes, lawsuits against the estate, or difficulty finding the people who will inherit the estate under a will or under state law (beneficiaries). A lawsuit involving a challenge to a will may cause long delays.

Other Factors that Affect Probate Progress

The time probate will take also depends on the procedures your state requires. Every state has it’s own laws on probate, with specified procedures and documents that must be filed. Many states have summary procedures for simple or small estates, and these summary procedures are usually quite a bit faster than the regular probate procedures (and consequently less expensive).

Considering all of these factors, probate can take anywhere from 3–6 months to several years. In California, for example, the average estate takes 7–9 months to get through probate, if all goes well, but if there is something like a will contest or some other lawsuit, all bets are off. Some matters have taken decades to resolve. 

Probate Costs

The cost of probate may be set by state law or by practice and custom in your community, so it will differ from place to place. When all the costs are tallied, probate can easily cost from 3–7% of the total estate value, and more. The costs may include appraisal costs, personal representative fees, court costs, costs for a type of insurance policy known as a surety bond plus legal and accounting fees. Some of these costs are set by law and there’s nothing you can do about them, but you may be able to negotiate a lower fee for services like accounting, legal advice, real estate sales, and so on.

California, for example, is one of a few states that set statutory attorney’s fees based on a percentage of the gross estate, even though the net estate (after paying mortgages, debts, and so on) may be considerably smaller and a fee based on a gross estate may be unfair. These fees are only the maximum fees that can be charged, however. Nothing would stop the personal representative (administrator, executor) of an estate in California from contracting with an attorney for services based on an hourly rate instead of the statutory fee.

Probate Disputes

If there is a will contest or other litigation involving an estate, there is no way to predict how much of the estate assets will be used up. Disputes have been known to consume all or most estate assets, which is why it’s in everyone’s interest to resolve difficulties as quickly and amicably as possible.