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Court Decides Legal Fees from Will Proceeding


A rich man died in 1958 leaving a will and a codicil. The distributees of the properties and assets named in the instruments were his wife, two daughters as distributes and two other persons as executors. The letters testamentary were issued to the executors after the will was presented to probate by the assigned parties. Based on the will, the decedent gave the surviving spouse personal properties and also gave to individuals and charities named in the will. The daughters also received a large amount of money from their father. Legacies were also given to 13 individuals and the remainder of the wealth was placed in trust with the income from such investment directed to be paid to the widow during her entire lifetime. The will also directed that upon the death of the surviving spouse, the principal of the trust investment be paid to the two daughters who where earlier declared as trustees when the said trust was created.

Upon the death of the decedent, the executors hired a law firm to represent them in the Surrogate court of St. Lawrence County for the estate administration of the decedent.
A few months after, another law firm was retained and both firms worked on the proceedings and the tasks involved in settling the estate of the decedent. Since the decedent was a rich man and had many properties as well as investment exposures in many different corporations, the work entailed among others settling accounts and other transactions needed to facilitate the entire Surrogate court’s proceedings.

A New York Probate Lawyer said when the time came for the two law firms to ask for the payment of their professional and legal fees, they demanded a total of $150,000 minus the advance payment given to them in the amount of close to $50,000. The executors-distributees objected to the professional fees demanded by the lawyers and hence, the court was made to rule on the reasonableness of the demand for the above-stated amount.

In justifying the amount of fees that they demanded, the lawyers presented an outline of the work that they performed for the estate. They reiterated that the decedent had a lot of properties and interests amounting to a gross estate of more than $6 million and the same required them to perform a lot of work in the process. Westchester County Probate Lawyers said that the work they performed is commensurate to the amount of fees that they require and that under the circumstances it is a reasonable representation of their efforts. In further justifying their arguments, the petitioner law firms even presented to the court 2 witnesses who were considered experts on the issues at hand. The experts testified that given the amount of work demanded from the petitioners they are even entitled to a higher amount of professional fees. One witness said they should be entitled to $185,000 while the other said they should be paid $175,000.

Before the court ruled on the issue at hand, it referred to various guidelines concerning legal fees in will contest proceedings from different States. The court also consulted and obtained from the New York State Bar Association the schedule of fees pertaining to estate administration proceedings because the same is also being used as the basis of the local bar association in measuring the amount of fees needed in a particular case. After weighing all the arguments presented by the petitioner, the court ruled that the proper amount to be paid to them as professional fees should only be a total of $50,000 pursuant to section 231-a of the Surrogate Court Act. Suffolk County Probate Laywers said that in so ruling, the court reasoned among others that the legal profession is not a money making trade and that though there are many parties involved in the proceedings, there was no actual estate litigation as it involved only purely settlement and accounting.

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