Not always. Doing a good job requires persistence, and attention to tedious detail, but not necessarily a law degree. If assets must go through probate court, the process is mainly paperwork. In the vast majority of cases, there are no disputes that require a decision by a judge, and the executor may never see the inside of a courtroom. It may even be possible to do everything by mail.
An executor can probably handle the paperwork without a lawyer if he or she is the main beneficiary, the deceased person’s property consists of common kinds of assets (house, bank accounts, insurance), the will seems straightforward, and good self-help materials are at hand. (One good book is The Executor’s Guide, by attorney Mary Randolph (Nolo), which guides executors through the process of winding up a loved one’s estate, step by step.)
If, however, the estate has many types of property, significant tax liability, or potential disputes among inheritors, an executor may want some help.
There are two ways for an executor to get help from a lawyer:
- Hire a lawyer to act as a "coach," answering legal questions as they come up. The lawyer might also do some research, look over documents before the executor files them, or prepare an estate tax return.
- Turn the probate over to the lawyer. If the executor just doesn’t want to deal with the probate process, a lawyer can do everything. The lawyer will be paid out of the estate. In most states, lawyers charge by the hour ($150-$200 is common) or charge a lump sum. But in a few places, including Arkansas, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, and Wyoming, state law authorizes the lawyer to take a certain percentage of the gross value of the deceased person’s estate unless the executor makes a written agreement calling for less. An executor can probably find a competent lawyer who will agree to a lower fee.