I have been the the executor of three estates in two different states They have had a range of wills/no wills, simple assests and distribution - comlplex assests and distribution, and different complexities of state laws and probate court procedures.
I reccomend that the executor and you (if and only if she welcomes your assistance) take the long Thanksgiving weekend and document exeactly what the "complete" list of estate assets and assests that trasfer outside the scope of the probate (benificary accounts (insurance, retirement accounts, financial accounts), jointly held real and presonal property property, etc...) Note: you will need to do this however you move forward.
I also suggest you go online and try to determine the probate rules, procedures, and forms in the state. Here again even if you retain a lawyer to do all probate activities, it makes sense to know what you are hiring them for. Then I would then try to determine some of the issues to determine the deliniation of probate activities between the executor and professionals (lawyer, accountant, retirement specialist, etc...)
1. How savy in financial matters is the executor or can be with assistance.
2. How much desire, patience, and time will there be to dedicate to the probate process. It will be frustrating
3. How complex will the assets be that fall witin the scope of the estate
4. What will the rough size of the estate be (five figures, six figures, seven figures (<$5M or >$5M).
5. How complex are the probate court's rules, procedures and forms.
From these issues and an initial meeting with the lawyer the executor (and input she values ) can determine the course of action.
A. Do it completely without professional representation. The court clerks can be very helpful. The state like mine may have a brochure detailing all the steps. I do not reccomend this course of action for anything other than a simple administration.
B. There is much of the process that involves research (reviewing statements, many phone calls, and online activities), completing of forms, notices and mailings to beneficiaries and others, and legwork supporting the above and vistits to the probate court. Except in the case of disputes or complex issues, you will probably never see a judge or have a hearing.
The executor can do most of this busy work and retain a lawyer for consultation and document review. It also, makes sense if there is a family accountant, they assist in filing the decedents last tax return and the estate tax return. Finally, it is important that any retirement accounts are handled properly. Make sure RMDs are taken for this year and any beneficiary transfers happen next year.
C. Finally, you can retain a lawyer for a turnkey probate service. This can be expensive, but there are usually state bar guidelines, or court guidelines, or even state laws governing what can be charged. This may be wise if there is some combination of disputes/challenges, complex probate rules, complex estate, and significant money involved.
The key here as others have said is to get started early and get the probate process moving. In all three of the estates I was involved in the glacial pace of the probate court was the biggest frustration.