Probate is a term commonly used to describe the process of applying for the right to deal with the affairs of someone who has died.
In order to obtain the legal authority to deal with the deceased person’s assets (property, money and belongings which are collectively referred to as the deceased’s estate) and get their inheritance, the next-of-kin of the deceased would have to take the necessary steps towards obtaining the Grant of Probate (when there’s a will) or Grant of Letters of Administration (when there’s no will).
It is not a legal requirement for the next-of-kin of the deceased to appoint a probate lawyer to assist them to apply for and extract the Grant of Probate or Grant of Letters of Administration.
However, it is advisable to obtain the assistance of a probate lawyer during this stressful time.
Need for a Probate Lawyer
An experienced probate lawyer could help to simplify the entire probate process by guiding the personal representatives of the deceased through the entire probate process from start to finish.
When representing the personal representative of an estate, the probate lawyer would be able to advise and assist with the following:
- Locating and securing all the assets of the deceased
- Obtaining date of death values and appraisals of all of the deceased’s property
- Preparing and filing all documents required by the probate court in a timely manner
- Collecting life insurance proceeds
- Advising on the payment of the deceased’s outstanding debts
- Settling disputes among personal representatives and beneficiaries
- Assisting with the sale of estate property
How Do Lawyers Charge for Probate Work?
Generally, probate lawyers charge on an hourly basis and would need the client to pay a deposit of a certain sum to the law firm before commencing any work.
Some law firms will bill their clients monthly for the amount of work undertaken on the probate file during the preceding month.
Alternatively, law firms may require payments to be made at key junctures, such as after the filing of all the necessary documents for the Grant of Probate, after the extraction of the Grant of Probate etc.
At the same time, there are also probate lawyers who charge a fixed fee for their services. Law firms such as PKWA Law have fixed fee packages, where a client is charged $1,200 for applying for a Grant of Probate or $1,500 for applying for a Grant of Letters of Administration.
This package deal does not include disbursements, which are generally expenses a lawyer has to pay out on behalf of a client such as for filing fees, photocopying charges, courier costs and the like. The package fee also excludes GST, which would be calculated on the total bill.
In order for the fixed price package to apply it is commonly assumed that the value of the estate is less than S$3 million, that the matter is non-contentious, that there are no caveats lodged against the estate of the deceased and that the will is valid and defect free.
Legal fees for contentious probate matters
Usually, parties who apply for probate rarely anticipate that the matter would become contentious. However, if a probate proceeding is contested by the beneficiaries or other parties
who have a claim to the estate of the deceased person, the proceeding could end up becoming contentious.
The deceased could also have dependents, who are deliberately left out of the will, but who want to make a claim on the estate.
In such instances, when there are disputes over probate, the probate case becomes contentious and it would not be possible for the parties to rely on the standard probate fee packages. This is because the probate action may go to trial in a Singapore court and the cost for doing so can be rather unpredictable.
In certain cases, some probate lawyers would agree at the consultation stage to bill the client for each service provided, in a piecemeal fashion. On the other hand, other lawyers may give an hourly rate but with a rough estimate of the anticipated range of fees to complete a case.
The lawyer may also give estimates in tranches i.e. by reference to completion of certain points in the case, e.g. completion of filing of court documents, discovery, trial and so on. Again, disbursements and GST are usually added on later to the total bill.
When May It Be More Expensive to Hire a Probate Lawyer?
If the probate matter requires a lot more attention from the lawyer and/or the client expects the matter to receive high priority, it is only fair that the lawyers’ fees would be higher.
It may be more expensive to hire a probate lawyer where:
- The estate has complex arrangements, such as assets held in a trust. This would lead to complications in the preparation of the Schedule of Assets and Liabilities (a compilation of all assets of a deceased person that are subject to estate administration or creditor claims). This is because it would be necessary for the lawyer to undertake a greater volume of specialised searches and legal action before being able to extract the grant.
- The executor or administrator is unsure about the assets or liabilities of the deceased. In such cases, the probate lawyer would need to write to local institutions (e.g. insurers and banks) to discover the assets and liabilities of the deceased. These institutions might require payment of certain fees before they release information required to complete the Schedule of Assets.
- The estate includes foreign property or foreign assets. When the estate consists of foreign assets, the probate lawyer would need to write to overseas institutions to obtain information on the nature of these assets to prepare the Schedule of Assets and Liabilities. Again, these institutions may charge for the release of such information. Additional fees will also be charged by the probate lawyer for such services.
- The deceased did not leave behind a will. In such a situation, the probate lawyer will need to prepare and file additional documents with the court before he can apply to extract the Grant of Letters of Administration. This is compared to applying to extract a Grant of Probate if the deceased had written a will, which is more straightforward and requires less documents.
At the end of the day, the role of a probate lawyer is to help take the fear and confusion out of the probate process for the executor or administrator during a stressful period of time.
The process of applying for the Grant of Probate or Grant of Letters of Administration is simple but tedious and time-consuming. In the circumstances, it would be easier to engage probate lawyers to handle the matter, especially if the probate case is likely to become complex or contentious.
As discussed, many lawyers offer fixed fee services or have a discussion to explain their fees and other costs at the consultation stage of the probate process. In short, costs charged in probate cases should be fixed, clear and transparent.