WHY IS IT SO expensive to probate the estate of a relative in Maryland? Some expenses involved in probating an estate can be anticipated, of course, and prepared for. Funeral expenses and taxes are in this category. But one item that usually comes as a surprise is attorneys' fees. The law provides that the court may authorize payment of administration fees not to exceed 10 percent of the first $20,000 in the estate, plus 4 percent of the rest. The key word in the sentence above is "may." Nothing in the law requires that fees be based on the size of the estate--that would be unreasonable.

One can imagine, for example, in a $200,000 estate consisting entirely of cash in savings accounts, that the task of filling out the appropriate court paper and supervising distribution of money among the heirs would not be complicated. Certainly the work would not merit a fee of $9,200. The paper work to transfer $500,000 worth of corporate stock is the same as that required to transfer $5,000 worth, yet the administrator's fee in the first case could be $21,200, and in the second $500. It doesn't make sense.

Any layman knows that. Most lawyers would agree. The problem is that many consumers think the percentage figure is required by law, instead of simply permitted. Many courts go along with these high fee requests because they have become the norm.

This year the Maryland legislature considered legislation to move away from percentage fees and require that fees be based on the actual time spent and on the complexity of services rendered. The bill, introduced by Del. Stewart Bainum of Montgomery County, had the support of the Maryland Bar Association and passed the House by a vote of 108-1. It was killed in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on a tie vote. Consumer groups, senior citizens and HALT, a nonprofit organization working for legal reform, supported the bill and will push for its adoption next year.

Meanwhile, Maryland residents who might be faced with probate problems should keep three things in mind: the percentage figures in the law are meant to illustrate the maximum fees allowed; they are designed for complicated cases requiring a great deal of legal time. Percentage fees in any amount are not required by the law. Finally, it is always best to reach an understanding wih attorneys before any services are rendered and to agree on a fee arrangement based on the actual work involved.