Choosing an Estate Law Attorney: Here’s What to Ask
You already know having an estate plan is an important part of caring for yourself and your family.
Even so, you may be dragging your feet on taking that next step. How do you get started? What attorney should you use? Can you be sure what you get is worth the investment?
Those are good questions. That type of careful consideration is what you need when you’re starting work on your estate plan. You don’t want to just throw something together so you can check it off a list.
You want to know you’ve created a plan that will meet your needs while you’re still living and will meet your family’s needs once you’re gone. That plan won’t be the same for everyone.
So you’re smart to think carefully about who you can trust to help you put together the right plan for you.
How do you know if you’ve found the right person? Ask some questions.
Don’t worry — you don’t have to have consultations with thirty different attorneys. You can find out a lot from an attorney’s website.
Here are a few things you want to know:
Do they focus primarily on estate planning?
Decades ago, an attorney might commonly handle many types of legal issues. You may imagine the type of small town attorney you’ve seen in television shows. Attorneys with a general practice still exist, but they’re less common.
The truth is, the law is getting more and more complex. Today’s lawyers usually specialize in a particular area. That specialization allows them to remain up-to-date on any changes to the law. Someone who knows how the law is evolving can give you the best advice and help you develop a plan that will best protect your assets.
Plus, they’ll have seen many different types of estate plans for many different circumstances. If they’ve done probate cases, they’ll also have seen poorly drafted estate plans that caused problems later. They’ll have a wealth of knowledge and can create the most effective documents for you and your family.
A generalist won’t have that expertise.
See more: What Does an Estate Planning Attorney Do?
How many years have they been practicing?
Someone right out of law school will have the skills to understand the statutes and rules that regulate estates. They can probably create a by-the-book estate plan, and they’ll charge a low rate to do it.
But they won’t have years of experience working strategically with clients to develop estate plans that serve their needs. They won’t have learned from their mistakes yet — they’ll still be making them.
Of course everyone needs an opportunity to learn, but the stakes are high when you’re choosing a lawyer to create your estate plan. Having an ineffective plan can create financial and emotional strain for your family after your death. It could also impact your ability to manage your assets flexibly during your life.
Choose someone with plenty of experience. That way you can rest easy knowing you have an effective estate plan.
See more: Avoiding Estate Planning Disasters
Can they help you think strategically about a comprehensive estate plan?
An estate plan is more than a will or even a trust. An estate plan should be a comprehensive blueprint carefully designed to do more than say who gets what. An estate plan should:
- Allow for flexible management of assets while you’re alive
- Ensure that your loved ones receive the full amount of your assets
- Maintain management of assets if you are living but incapacitated
- If you have children, name their legal guardian
- Reduce conflict or confusion about the distribution of assets after your death
- Minimize taxes and legal expenses
Yes, there are traditional vehicles — such as trusts — that help address many of these issues. But estate planning is not a one-size-fits-all process. An estate planning attorney should do more than ask you to fill in the blanks on a form.
They should help guide you through a decision-making process that will result in a well-designed estate plan. And they should make sure that your final plan has any supplementary pieces it needs. For instance, if your attorney helps you create a trust, make sure they’re also going to help transfer your property deed into it if that’s included in the trust.
See more: Why Proper Estate Planning is So Important
How do they charge?
Estate planning attorneys charge either an hourly rate or a flat fee.
If an attorney bills by the hour, they’ll may ask for a retainer upfront. This is a lump sum that they’ll work against during their representation. For instance, if they ask you for a $4,000 retainer, they’ll work until their hourly charges add up to $4,000. If they bill $400 per hour, then that gets you 10 hours of work.
If they finish your plan before they’ve spent 10 hours, they’ll refund the remainder. If they need more time to work on it, they’ll ask you for another retainer. Or they may transition to monthly billing.
The downside of hourly billing is that it can lead to surprises. In the above example, the attorney asked for a $4,000 retainer based on their estimate that creating your plan would take 10 hours. If it ends up taking more time, you may not be prepared for another bill.
Or an attorney may not require a retainer but may quote you a fee of $3500. When you get the final bill, it’s for $5000. The project took more time than they anticipated.
The lack of cost certainty can be challenging for clients.
Many estate planning attorneys charge a flat fee for your estate plan. In contrast to an hourly rate, a flat fee provides you certainty about how much your estate plan will cost. The attorney — not the client — bears the risk that the project requires more work than they estimated.
How long will it take to get your estate plan?
Each day without an estate plan is another day you risk leaving your assets and your loved ones unprotected. It’s an unpleasant thought, but we don’t know what could happen tomorrow.
If you’re interested in working with an attorney that won’t be able to get you an estate plan for six months, you may want to look elsewhere.
As long as you’re quickly responding to their requests for information, you should be able to meet with an attorney and have an estate plan within a couple months.
See more: Why Might You Want to Avoid Probate?
Will you be working with someone else in their office?
More established lawyers often work with junior attorneys or paralegals. They may help draft documents or communicate with clients on basic issues.
There’s nothing wrong with these layers of staffing. In fact, they often indicate increased professionalism and experience. Whether they have additional staff or not, it’s helpful to find out up front.
Knowing who you’ll be working with can put you at ease during your consultations with the attorney. Make sure that the attorney you hired reviews all documents, and make sure you can talk to them if you have specific questions you need answered.
How do they make you feel?
The answer to this question can be a little harder to pin down.
Here’s the thing: the whole point of estate planning is creating confidence and security. Confidence that your assets are protected. Confidence that your family and loved ones will be financially secure.
If you work with an attorney that you don’t really trust, that feels salesy or slick, you’re not going to have that confidence and security. You’ll have an estate plan, but you’ll wonder if it’s actually going to do the job you need it to do.
You deserve an estate planning attorney who listens carefully to your needs. You deserve an attorney who takes the time to explore every option and find the ones that are right for you.
It’s never too early to protect your future, and we’re here to help. Schedule a consultation today.
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Whether you’re in the Atlanta and Brookhaven areas, or in Cobb, DeKalb , Fulton, Gwinnett, or another county in metro Atlanta, we can help you. We can also work with executors by phone or video conference if they are out of state or far away. Only after listening carefully will we present the options that are right for you and explore the benefits and costs of each one.