The cost of probate — settling an estate — depends on the type of probate procedure used, which is determined by what’s available in the state and the value of the decedent’s estate. Probate costs include court filing fees, executor fees, attorney fees if applicable, as well as miscellaneous fees incurred by the executor while administering the estate. Some of these fees are set by the state and if you’re administering an estate, you may not encounter all of these costs.
Since probate costs are often paid with estate funds, they can eat away at the inheritance that the deceased had wanted to leave behind for their loved ones. A strong estate plan can try to address these issues by taking measures to avoid probate or reduce court involvement, which would help keep potential fees and probate costs to a minimum.
How much does probate cost?
Probate costs may be anywhere from 3% to 8% of the estate value according to LegalMatch. So if you die leaving behind an estate worth $500,000, your estate may lose anywhere from $10,000 to $35,000 to probate costs. Next, we'll discuss various fees you’ll commonly pay during probate and how much each of them might be calculated.
Court filing fees are the first probate cost that you'll encounter when settling the decedent's estate. Probate is the process of proving a will and distributing the decedent's assets, but an estate may still need to be probated even if there is no will. (See: Does a will need to be probated?)
Each state typically offers a few different probate procedures (for example: informal probate, formal probate, supervised probate), and which one should be used depends on the types of assets the decedent had and their total gross value. Different procedures may also have different filing fees.
For example, an initial filing to open probate may be a flat fee across all estates and probate procedures, or it may be a tiered cost based on the value of the decedent's estate, usually with higher rates for wealthier estates. It all depends on the state. The probate filing fee in New York starts at $45 and goes up to $1,250, while in Texas filing a will is a flat rate of $266, and in California it is $435.
In addition, every time you need to take an action that requires filing paperwork with the probate court, you'll have to pay another fee. For example, you may have to pay an extra filing fee if you need to do any of the following:
Determine heirship (find out who the decedent's heirs are if there is no will)
Object to the nomination of a personal representative
Object to the will or a codicil
Petition the testator's testamentary capacity (the will writer’s mental competence)
Appoint a guardian or temporary guardian
Get additional copies of letters testamentary
Open a safety deposit box
File a foreign will (an out-of-state will)
Reopen a probate case
The person who carries out the terms of the will is called the executor or personal administrator and they are typically paid for their role in settling the estate. They don't just call the deceased person’s beneficiaries and read them the will (in fact, will readings rarely ever happen) but have a full list of responsibilities they need to take care on behalf of the estate before the assets can be distributed.
The testator can specify the executor's compensation in their will, either as a flat fee or percentage of the estate. If the will does not explicitly state a fee, or there was no will, the executor is entitled to a statutory fee set by the state's probate law.
Learn more in this guide to executor fees.
Keep in mind that anyone serving as executor may choose to waive their payment, so you could nominate a relative to be your estate's personal representative in the hopes that they might waive the fees.
Common estate administration fees
Some extra fees may arise during probate as part of day-to-day estate administration. The executor would cover these costs from the estate bank account and they may include:
Accounting fee (when filing taxes)
Property appraisal fee (for valuing real estate, antiques, etc.)
Business valuation fee
Fee for posting public notice in the local newspaper
Retitling fees for cars and real estate
Property management (storage costs, upkeep)
Closing or transfer fees for financial accounts
Probate bond fee
Bond fees are a small percentage based on the estate value and are typically paid with estate funds. The executor is required to get a probate bond before the court gives them legal permission to administer the estate in certain situations, like when the executor is not a resident of the state where the decedent lived and probate is taking place. The executor can shop around for a bond and may get a better rate depending on their creditworthiness. The probate court may also provide a list of local bond companies.
A probate bond (also known as a fiduciary bond) is like an insurance policy to make sure that the executor does not steal or misappropriate the deceased’s money and assets. If they do, a beneficiary can make a claim to the bond company. The bond is not refundable, even if the executor completes their duties, and may be waived in the terms of the will. The executor may have to pay even more bond money if they do not settle the estate within a certain period of time.
Attorney's fees may be worked out between the executor and the decedent’s family, determined by the judge, or based on the state guidelines. An attorney may charge a flat fee or by the hour, and their rates may increase depending on their level of involvement in the probate process, so make sure you discuss their fees ahead of time. (In the case of small estates, your state may also restrict how much an attorney can receive for assisting with probate administration.)
If the executor doesn’t feel comfortable going through the probate process on their own, they can hire a lawyer to help, but it is not usually required. However, some states may require a lawyer to file certain paperwork or represent the estate in certain probate proceedings, so the executor will need to hire a probate attorney. (In these situations, the attorney deals with the court, but doesn’t take on the full slate of the executor's responsibilities.) The estate pays the attorney’s fees.
Otherwise, an attorney is not usually involved in the probate process unless there is a problem. For instance, if a will beneficiary objects to the appointment of an executor or believes that the testator wrote an invalid will, they may hire an attorney (at their own expense) to help them prove their case. If you’re the executor, you might similarly end up hiring an attorney for legal advice.
How to minimize probate costs
If you are thinking ahead, you can decrease the cost of probate with proper estate planning. Certain types of assets — jointly owned property, trust property, and transferable- and payable-on-death accounts — are not subject to probate. They may not count when calculating the value of the estate, which means you could pay a smaller filing fee, and they won’t be the subject of a will contest or challenged by a beneficiary, which reduces the chance that you’ll need to hire and pay for an attorney.
If an estate is worth less than a certain value, it may be considered a “small estate.” Almost every state has a procedure for administering small estates with an affidavit, which may minimize probate and the related costs.