When Nell Platt Rall died in a Kensington nursing home in 1979, she left her son Joseph an estate made up mostly of stocks and valued at $113,103.
Most Maryland laywers would charge $5,724 to process the estate, under the percentage formula allowed by state courts, but in this case the legal cost, billed at an hourly rate, came to a mere $210 for the three hours required to do the job.
Rall's attorney happened to be David L. Schull, a gadfly legislator out to reform the legal profession. Yesterday, Democrat Scull, chairman of the Montgomery County delegation to the House of Delegates, raised the Rall example in support of his bill to change the way lawyers charge for processing estates.
Some of Scull's committee colleagues, however, scoffed at his example.Raymond E. Beck (R-Frederick-Caroll) called the Rall case "atypical from where I practice law." And Del. Gerard F. Devlin (D-Prince George's) added, "I'd like to have one like this. I always have the ones with crazy wills and people out of state."
And if Scull's fellow lawyers on the committee did not enthusiastically endorse his proposal, two witnesses representing Maryland's legal establishment found the whole idea downright offensive.
"In four out of five estates we handle, the beneficiary consent to the compensation," declared Allan H. Fisher Jr. of the Maryland bar's section on estate and trust law. "They don't think we're robbing them. The court's usually go along because nobody's being hurt."
"It would take more time to justify the fee [under Scull's bill] than to do the work," snapped Del. Theodore Levin (D-Baltimore County). "Shouldn't this be between a client and his lawyer."
Under a present law, a "personal represenative," who is often but not always a lawyer, can charge up to 10 percent of the first $20,000 of an estate, and 4 percent of the value above that. By case law and tradition, lawyers may demand similar fees, Scull said, and judges are often lax in assuring that charges are reasonably related to work performed.
Scull sought to bolster his case with figures supplied by HALT, a Washington based public interest group that studied 516 cases in Baltimore and in Charles, Frederick and Montogmery counties.
The higest dollar amount paid came to $5,702 in Mongomery County, while the highest percentage, 11 percent went to Baltimore lawyers. Charles County fees were the lowest in both categories, averaging $2,242 and 5 percent.
Mike Richards, a HALT staff member, said the survey showed "conclusively . . . that attorneys charge close to or the exact maximum regardless of efficency, complexity and time expended." Scull asserted, "The work is so simple that a percentage fee means atorneys in many cases will earn over $1,000 an hour."
But J. Darby Bowman Jr., another Maryland probate lawyer, demurred. He said it was a "myth" that any lawyer had charged $1,000 an hour and "gotten away with it."
He also rejected the notion that an estate lawyer merely fills out a few forms. In many cases, he said, there are tax implications. If a lawyer ignores these, "he better keep his malpractice insurance premiums up to date," Bowman said.
The lawyers objected also to another proposal in the bill that would allow sizeable estates to be processed with a simple, one-step procedure when all parties consent -- so easy, it was said, anyone could do it. Lawyer Fisher called it a "fertile field for fraud . . . an unmitigated disaster."
Testifying on the measure's behalf were several senior citizens and their advocates who said lower legal fees would benefit the needy. Seated silently throughout the hearing were several county registers of wills. After the hearing, they said the bill was "too far-reaching" and needed more study.