You have recently married, had or adopted a child, divorced, come into a large sum of money or encountered another event in your life that makes you realize you need to plan for your possible death or incapacity in order to protect those important to you. This is commonly known as an “estate plan” and often involves a number of considerations and documents, such as a Will, Trust, Living Will, Durable Power of Attorney, Advanced Directive for Health Care and others. Maybe you have an estate plan and it needs review and updating due to one of the factors listed above or just because you haven’t updated it in many years. What is the best way to find an estate planning attorney to help you?
There are lots of professionals who will be happy to help you. Aside from possessing technical knowledge, a professional, whether a doctor, dentist, lawyer or another kind, is an individual with whom you will have a close relationship and share your most intimate financial and family information. Your first action should be to ask your friends and associates whose judgment you trust for a referral. If a friend who thinks like you has used an estate planner and was happy with him/her, odds are you might be comfortable with the planner too.
If you have no one to ask for a referral, there are numerous places to obtain information on estate planners in your geographic area. In addition to online lawyer search sites, the Bar Association of each state also will be able to provide information on lawyers who practice in estate planning. Many states have a certification program requiring lawyers to have several years of experience in a specified legal area and then pass an extensive examination. These “board certified” lawyers generally are very capable and help to narrow the field of experts.
While this may seem obvious, you should understand that only a lawyer is permitted to draft estate planning documents. While other professionals may be able to legally create corporations, 401(k) plans and do other “legal” types of things, it is the unauthorized practice of law to draft wills and trusts.
Before agreeing to hire a lawyer, ask for an engagement letter. This is a document that says what the lawyer is being hired to do, who is the client (you or you and your spouse), fees and charges (hourly rate vs. flat fee), any retainer required, billing and payment terms and any other thing you or the lawyer feels is relevant. Engagement letters help to eliminate many possible disputes later as to just what was agreed to.
Don’t be afraid to call and ask to speak with the lawyer yourself, rather than having an assistant set up an appointment for a meeting. You are entitled to hear how the professional conducts himself/herself first. Maybe the attorney will turn you off or will really impress you. If the former, there is no need to go further and you can continue your search.
Don’t be afraid to ask if the professional will give you an initial consultation without charge. Some will and some won’t. This is sometimes a touchy issue because if a lot of productive work is done at the initial meeting, it’s fair that the professional be paid for it. It wouldn’t make sense to go and meet the person and find out you like him/her, only to have to return for another meeting where you get down to business.
There is a big difference between a multimillionaire’s estate plan and that of someone with moderate assets and who may just need a simple will. The former may require multiple trusts and other advanced techniques, along with sophisticated income, estate, gift and generation-skipping tax planning. If you are not in that category, perhaps going to a large firm with very high-priced lawyers is not necessary. It can be difficult to say at what point you need a more advanced professional, but today’s estate tax laws do not require you to pay any estate tax until your assets exceed amounts over $5 million ($10 million for a married couple). That’s a pretty high number for the vast majority of Americans.
It is generally best to use an estate planning expert from your state of residence. Each state has different laws and many expensive errors have been made by lawyers from another state who were not familiar with those laws. If you have an estate plan and move to another state, it’s a good idea to have that plan reviewed by an expert in the new state of residence to make sure it will still work as intended.
A handwritten will signed by the individual (the “Testator”) who wrote it is called a “holographic will.” These are no longer legal in most jurisdictions, but remain valid in a few states. It is a too important area of your life for you to do it yourself. There are experts in every field (you are probably one in your field) and you should call upon them to avoid making big mistakes. Also, there are a number of websites that will sell you forms to do your own estate planning documents. Again, this is not much different than writing your own will and should not be used in this sensitive part of your life’s planning.
Like any other professional engagement, the biggest problem is often finding the one you are comfortable with and who possesses the skill and knowledge to address your situation properly. The list of do’s and don’ts is a starting point designed to head you in the right direction in finding the best estate planner for you.
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