How to Choose an Estate Planning Attorney
Developing a comprehensive estate plan requires a lot of thought and time, and sometimes a lot of money. It is not always a simple or easy task, so having the right advisor can make all the difference in the world. Most people do not have an established relationship with an estate planning attorney, or any lawyer, for that matter. How do you go about choosing the right attorney to help you implement an estate plan that will protect your family, preserve your assets, and possibly save hundreds of thousands of dollars in estate taxes?
The purpose of this article is to provide you with some guidance in choosing the right estate planning attorney for you.
Where to Find an Estate Planning Attorney
When looking for any kind of professional service provider, many people simply ask friends, family or colleagues. Your CPA, banker, financial advisor and insurance agent are also good resources, as these professionals frequently work closely with estate planning attorneys in assisting their clients. This is a good way to get a few names. If you ask several people for a referral and the name of one attorney seems to keep coming up, this is often a sign that the attorney has a good reputation.
Attorney listings in phone directories generally contain subheadings for “Estate Planning” or “Wills and Estates” or similar terms. Yellow page ads may provide some information about individual attorneys, but the information is generally limited. However, the ads sometimes list the attorney’s website, which should provide a fair amount of detail on the attorney’s credentials.
Internet Legal Directories
Dozens of attorney directories have sprung up on the web over the last few years. Most require that the attorney pay a fee to be listed, and inclusion or prominence in the directory does not ensure a certain level of competence or credentials. On the other hand, just because an attorney is not listed in a particular directory under estate planning does not mean he or she does not handle estate planning matters.
Two of the most inclusive and comprehensive directories are Martindale-Hubbell’s lawyers.com and West Legal Directory, available at Findlaw.com.
How to Choose which Attorney to work with
All attorneys, of course, must have a law degree (Juris Doctor) and be licensed in the state in which they practice. Some estate planning attorneys have additional Masters of Law (LL.M.) degrees in Estate Planning or Taxation, which require an extra year of so of study. In many states, attorneys can become certified as specialists in Estate Planning. To become certified, the attorney generally must have a certain number of years of experience, have taken a certain amount of continuing legal education in estate planning, received favorable peer reviews, and passed an examination. Specialization and advanced degrees provide objective evidence of an attorney’s level of expertise.
The number of years an attorney has been practicing is not in and of itself a reliable indication of how much experience he or she has in estate planning. Many solo practitioners and small firm lawyers prepare wills and handle estates as part of their general practice, but do not have the extensive knowledge possessed by specialists.
Lots of impressive credentials will not help if your attorney does not explain things well, fails to return your calls, or doesn’t do the work when promised. Before hiring an attorney, you should make sure you will feel comfortable working with him or her.
Some attorneys charge by the hour for estate planning work, but flat fees are becoming more common. If an attorney charges by the hour, make sure you know what the hourly rate is and receive an estimate of the total fees. With flat fees, the attorney should tell you exactly what is included in the price. It is not wise to choose an attorney simply because he or she has the lowest fees. However, you should also not assume that just because an attorney charges more that he or she is “better.” Fees vary significantly depending on the type of plan or documents, the credentials of the attorney, and how efficient the attorney is in doing the work
When you hire an estate planning attorney, you may be establishing a working relationship that will last for many years. So, take the time to investigate your options, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. The important thing is to make an informed decision and work together with your attorney to implement an estate plan that fits your needs and will accomplish your goals.