Someone’s last will and testament lays out what should happen to their money and possessions after they die. If someone disagrees with the contents of a will, they may be able to contest the will. Challenging a will costs thousands of dollars, with lawyer fees likely reaching $5,000 to $10,000 at a minimum. Prepare for even higher costs, though, because will challenges are often difficult to win and thus quite expensive.
No matter which probate lawyer or attorney you hire, make sure to understand their fees before signing any contracts. You don’t want to be left on the hook for attorney fees you can’t afford. Also make sure that contesting is even worth the thousands you’ll pay to a law firm. Beyond monetary costs, there is also the potential that a family is torn apart because of a protracted court battle.
How much does it cost to contest a will?
The cost to contest a will depends on your specific case, but it will almost certainly cost you thousands of dollars. It’s very possible for a lawyer’s services to cost you $10,000 or more for a will contest or inheritance dispute, according to one estate planning attorney who spoke with Consumer Reports.
Winning a will contest is usually difficult to do and lawyers’ costs reflect that difficulty. You’ll pay even more if it’s a large estate or your will contest is particularly challenging. There may also be court fees and additional legal expenses, like fees for legal advice you receive in lawyer consultations.
How lawyer costs are calculated
The fee structure your lawyer uses depends on the specific lawyer and the value of your will contest. Most lawyers prefer to charge an hourly fee with a retainer instead of a flat fee. The retainer is an amount you pay upfront. As the case progresses, lawyers bill you against that retainer and you won’t need to pay more unless the cost of their work either exceeds the retainer or your retainer is set up such that you need to top it off after the lawyer bills you each month (or more frequently).
If you can’t afford the upfront cost of a retainer, some lawyers will agree to charge a contingency fee instead. With a contingency fee, you only pay the lawyer if they win the case. You'll pay according to a percentage of the inheritance they win you (additional costs are also possible). Paying on a contingency basis is usually only an option if the possible inheritance is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Before signing any contingency agreement, make sure you understand what fee you’ll owe if you win. In some cases, you may end up having to pay one-third or more of the inheritance you’re awarded.
Learn how to find an estate lawyer.
Who pays to contest a will
When someone contests a will, they need to pay all upfront costs for beginning a court case. As litigation continues, they’ll need to pay probate lawyers or other professionals they hire. If someone loses their case to contest a will, they may have to cover court costs for the winning party. When someone wins a contest, they may be able to recoup money from the estate but laws vary by state and you may never recover the cost of contesting a will.
How contesting a will works
After someone dies, their estate goes through the probate process so that everything they owned can be legally passed on to the proper heirs. The estate’s executor — the person in charge of managing the estate — initiates probate at the local probate court and a notice of probate is shared with beneficiaries and other interested parties. (Find out how to know if you’re in a will.) Someone who wants to contest the terms of the deceased person’s will must file a claim with the court, which costs a nominal fee.
You can hire a probate lawyer or estate attorney to file the claim for you and if you plan to work with a lawyer for the contest, filing this form may be included in their fee. There is a statute of limitations and how much time you have to submit your will challenge depends on state law where the decedent lived.
Next, the estate and the person contesting the will can discuss a settlement. If there’s no settlement agreement, both sides (the estate and the person contesting) will meet in court for probate litigation. After the necessary court proceedings, the probate judge will make a final decision (there is no jury).
For a more thorough guide, read our article on how will contests work.
Who can contest a will
To challenge a will you need to be an interested party. An interested party can fall into three general categories:
A beneficiary of a previous version of the decedent’s will
Someone who isn’t a will beneficiary but would have inherited if there was no will (according to the state’s intestacy laws)
Additionally, someone must have a valid legal reason to contest a will. Disliking the terms of a will may not be enough to win a will contest. Possible legal grounds for contesting wills include the following:
The testator was not of sound mind (lacked testamentary capacity).
Someone coerced the testator into creating the will (an issue of undue influence).
Someone tricked the testator into creating the will (fraud was committed).
The will otherwise isn’t a valid will — like if it wasn't properly witnessed or the testator was underage when they created it.
Beware these things that make a will invalid.