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I am trying to ascertain how long it should take a lawyer to close someone's estate. I know that each situation is different, but let me provide you with some general details: A Rhode Island woman who lived in assisted living died in March, 2020 and divided her estate amongst 18-20 nieces and nephews. Among other things, the executor, a Rhode Island lawyer, had to close out an annuity and file the deceased's income tax for 2020. To the best of my knowledge, there were no illiquid assets to convert into cash.

How long should all this take? It has been 16 months now and still no sign that the estate is nearing a close.

Some of the beneficiaries have taken it upon themselves to contact the lawyer and complain about the delay. Some have complained about rude treatment.

Let's say, for example, that at the time of death, the estate was worth $1 million. Generally speaking, how long should a non-complicated estate take to close (even with a slow IRS )? How much should the family expect the lawyer to take out of that before the final distribution.? Does the family have any recourse (without hiring lawyer ) to expedite matters?

Should the Rhode Island bar be contacted at this point? If not, when? or ever?

What is the recourse for families in similar situations?

Thank you.

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    In an estate like that two or three years would be common, and four or five wouldn't be unheard of. Sixteen months is very much within the realm of the normal. The 2020 final tax return wasn't even due until May 2021, the final estate return would be due mid-June 2021 even if everything we done within a year, the executor needs IRS clearance of those, and that many heirs makes it phenomenally more complex.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 23 '21 at 20:48
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It has to take at least 6 months because that is how long creditors have to file claims. This gives one opinion that "A typical probate process will take up to 24 months from the date of the decedent's death". It really depends on the circumstances (e.g. is there real estate that needs to be sold: is there a title snafu that you didn't know about? Is someone contesting the will?). The bar association won't help you, so it you want to get legal on the executor, you will have to hire an attorney. An inventory of debts and assets is supposed to be files within 90 days of appointment by law, but it also has an exception "or such longer period as may be allowed by the probate court". You can petition the court to order an interim accounting, and if the court things the executor is delaying, it can require an interim accounting. You should assume that the executor will respond with a good reason for the delay. Here is a form in case you are interested.

You can always hire an attorney to write a letter asking what the delay is, but this is not a shocking delay.

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  • It is my understanding that the will is not being contested; several probate hearings have already taken place; nothing out of the ordinary occurred; and that an initial small distribution has already been given to the beneficiaries several months ago---with the bulk of the estate still outstanding.
    – Bonacorsi
    Jul 23 '21 at 21:28
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The time taken to close an estate is highly variable, and in addition to the complexity of the tasks involved, may depend on the busyness of the lawyer involved.

Fees and costs are also variable, but are subject to the approval of the probate court. Some courts look into fees closely, some rubber stamp any charges not blatantly excessive.

A family member of mine was involved in a case where an estate lawyer was highly dilatory, and cost the estate money by missing deadliness for filing estate tax returns. The family complained to the probate court, and the judge assigned to the case sanctioned the lawyer. (It turned out that the lawyer had been dilatory on a number of estate cases.) In that case the lawyer was ordered not to accept any new estate cases until existing cases were closed, and I think other sanctions were applied as well. That was an extreme and unusual case, but an inquiry to the Clerk of the Probate Court with jurisdiction would not be unreasonable when the lawyer has allowed inquire to go unanswered for a long time, say 2 months or more.

Note that in my very limited experience, it is unusual for even a very simple probate to close in less than a year.

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  • Would you have any idea, when all is done and said, what a typical (range) percentage might be that the lawyer ultimately takes from the estate that would not be considered excessive? Common sense dictates, of course, that the longer an estate takes to close, the more it costs the beneficiaries.
    – Bonacorsi
    Jul 23 '21 at 21:24
  • @Bonacorsi I believe that usually a lawyer bills the estate on an hourly basis for services performed, such as assembling a list of heirs, notifying them, evaluating claims by creditors, preparing tax returns, searching for and inventorying assets, etc. Rates may range from $100 to $1,000 /hr or more. So the percentage of a small estate will typically be higher than of a large one. Jul 23 '21 at 21:30
  • In your opinion, if an heir calls the lawyers office to inquire what is taking so long? Say the conversations lasts 5 minutes. Would that be a billable charge? if so, is that a billable hour'' or a fractional billable hour''? Thank you again.
    – Bonacorsi
    Jul 23 '21 at 22:20
  • @Bonacorsi There is really no telling. That depends entirely on the policy of the lawyer/firm, and there is no wide regulation of such policies. Some lawyer would bill for such a call, some would not. Of those who do, some would bill 1/10 hr, some 1/4 hr, some a full hour. I have heard anecdotes of young corporate lawyers told by a partner "if you think about a case while eating lunch, bill at least 1 hr" but that is probably unusual. The court approves fees for probate work, but I doubt it gets into that level of detail. A law firm may have a billing policy available to clients. Jul 23 '21 at 22:29

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