Can a beneficiary challenge the legal costs of probate?
A man left a substantial sum in his mother’s Will has been given the go-ahead to challenge a law firm’s charges after the final bill for administering her estate came in at four times the original estimate.
Initially, the law firm appointed by the executor of Philippa Cunnick’s £2.9 million estate, said its fees would be between £10,000 and £15,000.
However, it ultimately charged £54,411 with VAT and expenses on top – a sum approved by both the executor of the estate, Mrs Cunnick’s brother, and her daughter, the other main beneficiary.
This amount, said Mrs Cunnick’s son, was ‘grossly excessive’ for an uncomplicated estate and the High Court agreed there was a ‘substantial discrepancy’ which warranted further investigation.
It is far more unusual for a beneficiary to challenge legal costs in probate cases than the executor of the Will but this case shows it is possible – and Wards Solicitors’ acclaimed Contentious Probate team can give you all the advice you need.
Why did the court agree this beneficiary could challenge the legal charges?
When Daniel Kenig found out how much had been paid to the law firm appointed by his mother’s executor, he objected and made a claim under the Solicitors Act 1974.
The solicitors concerned defended the claim and blamed some of the increase on the cost of liaising with the beneficiaries’ own lawyers, including Mr Kenig’s. It also said it had a duty to keep some documents relevant to the dispute private as they were protected by privilege.
Ordering an assessment of all the bills, the High Court’s Judge Brown, said: “In my view, it is plain that the sums claimed in the bills call for an explanation and amount in themselves to special circumstances.
“The extent of the discrepancy between the initial estimate and the costs claimed is very substantial indeed – a multiple of some four to five. Indeed, it is notable how quickly after instruction the estimate was exceeded.”
The law firm involved has been given leave to appeal.
What does the law say on costs in probate cases?
They are governed by what’s known as non-contentious costs rules. They must be fair and reasonable and the client – the executor of the estate – has a right to challenge those costs within strict timescales.
So too, do people who are beneficiaries and not executors. They are also entitled to apply to the court for an order of assessment if their legacy has been reduced by the deduction of liabilities, like legal costs, which they do not think are reasonable.
Get in touch
If you are a beneficiary, or an executor, needing advice on how to challenge probate costs, please contact Wards Solicitors’ Contentious Trusts and Probate Team.
Our lawyers are members of the Association of Contentious Trusts and Probate Specialists (ACTAPS), the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP), Solicitors for the Elderly (SFE) and the Law Society’s Probate Panel. All demand a high level of expertise and up to date knowledge from their members.
Wards Solicitors’ team is praised by the Legal 500 Guide for 2023 for its broad contentious trusts and probate practice with a particular emphasis on Inheritance Act and Court of Protection matters.
Head of the team, Elizabeth Fry, is highlighted as a key lawyer specialising in high value and multi-jurisdictional matters with four other members of the team also recommended.