We develop a general likelihood-based framework for use in the estimation of neural firing rates, which is designed to choose the temporal smoothing parameters that maximize the likelihood of missing data. This general framework is algorithm-independent and thus can be applied to a multitude of established methods for firing rate or conditional intensity estimation. As a simple example of the use of the general framework, we apply it to the peristimulus time histogram and kernel smoother, the methods most widely used for firing rate estimation in the electrophysiological literature and practice. In doing so, we illustrate how the use of the framework can employ the general point process likelihood as a principled cost function and can provide substantial improvements in estimation accuracy for even the most basic of rate estimation algorithms. In particular, the resultant kernel smoother is simple to implement, efficient to compute, and can accurately determine the bandwidth of a given rate process from individual spike trains. We perform a simulation study to illustrate how the likelihood framework enables the kernel smoother to pick the bandwidth parameter that best predicts missing data, and we show applications to real experimental spike train data. Additionally, we discuss how the general likelihood framework may be used in conjunction with more sophisticated methods for firing rate and conditional intensity estimation and suggest possible applications.