How should your clients pick an attorney to be their estate planning attorney? The first question the client probably has is whether or not a separate estate planning attorney is necessary. Many clients feel quite comfortable, and more importantly, trust the attorney they have used in the past—although it may have only been for real estate transactions, traffic violations, business related issues, or a simple will. There are many aspects of estate planning that only an attorney can perform. However, like almost all professionals, sometimes the skills of a specialist are required. The clients probably would not have their family doctor attempt heart surgery, and they probably would choose a specialist attorney when it comes to their estate planning. So, back to the initial question: How should your clients pick an attorney to be their estate planning attorney? There are five areas of questions that the client should have answers to before selecting his or her estate planning attorney.
How long has the attorney been doing estate plans? It normally takes years to become proficient in estate planning as there are a number of specialties within the estate planning field such as probate, related litigation, trust administration, valuations, taxation and tax appeals, insurance arrangements, business succession, and more. It is also very important that the estate attorney know what they don’t know! Only years of experience allows an attorney to spot those areas where further expertise may be needed.
Does the attorney have ample and available resources and expertise to handle any complex issues that may arise? No one attorney is expected to know all the answers, but experience is the best way for an attorney to learn where and how to obtain any needed answer. Remember, experience is not always measured in length of time.
Understanding Clients’ Needs
Can the attorney relate to the client? If the attorney does not have the same values and similar life experiences as the clients, it is difficult for them to understand the needs and feelings of the clients. Estate planning is a very personal, feelings-based process, but uses complex and detailed techniques and approaches. For the attorney to get the complex stuff right, they must understand the underlying emotions with which these techniques handle. If the attorney’s real life situation mirrors yours, have they done what they are asking you to do? Do they practice what they preach? The client should always feel that if the estate planning attorney were in the identical situation, he would take the same advice he is giving the client.
How is the attorney paid? There is not a standard arrangement or fee, but the client needs to know how, when, and how much before starting the process. A clear understanding at the beginning assures no later surprises. The fee may be only a small fraction of the savings afforded the client’s family, which can still be a sizable dollar amount. Questions clients should ask:
- Is there an initial consultation fee? Often there is a charge made for the first meeting in which both the clients and the attorney are determining if they want to continue the estate planning process with each other. If the client cannot relate with the attorney, or the attorney realizes that he cannot fulfill the needs of the clients, this minimizes everyone’s time and costs.
- Is the initial fee waived if the estate planning services of the firm are retained? Often, the initial fee is applied to the overall cost.
- Is there a flat fee if the estate planning services are retained? And, what exactly does it cover? Are telephone or email inquiries included? Many estate attorneys charge a basic flat fee that includes the entire process. Some charge for the initial consultation, and an hourly charge thereafter, as well as any special services such as appraisals, etc.Special rates when referred by specific financial advisors are often quoted. Based on the completeness and quality of the advice the client may have already, or is in the process of receiving, from a financial advisor, allows the estate planning attorney to reduce the normal fee. As the legal partner within an estate planning team, the attorney knows that they will be primarily responsible for the legal work, but will not need to take the primary role in all aspects.
- What additional charges may be expected? Special legal work or research may be required that will require special attention and additional fees or hourly charges. These matters and rates should also be disclosed when rates are being discussed.
- When are any fees payable? Are the fees payable in advance, monthly throughout the process, or half now and half upon completion? A clear understanding at the start of the process prevents the costs or billings from distracting from the planning process. Experienced estate planning attorneys welcome these inquires.
Taxes and Trust Administration
What experience does the attorney have with trust administration at a client’s death? An attorney who has administered trusts at death is better able to draft the clients’ trusts so that they are easily administered. Estate taxes, state inheritance taxes, probate, income taxes for the estate, gift taxes, and trust taxation are not your ordinary taxes. The estate planning attorney must be knowledgeable with all of these taxes as the drafting and execution of many legal documents will affect these directly. Also, they must be able to explain the tax issues and their effects on various planning strategies techniques. However, most attorneys don’t offer specific tax advice and refer that to certified public accountants.
Will the estate planning attorney be available and able to help with any trust administration at death? Many strategies and techniques involve the creation of trusts at the client’s death. Will the estate planning attorney be there to help the beneficiaries of the trust and the trustee make the strategies work? The experienced estate planning attorney has helped with trust administration many times and is better able to draft trust documents that work as planned.
Be There for You
Will the estate attorney be there for you, your family, and your business? The client needs to be able to answer this question, “Yes.” The best one to administer an estate plan at death is the one who helped create it. If the attorney is not there, will the firm be there? The estate plan represents a lifetime of work and love for his or her family. The client should always have the trust and confidence that his or her wishes will be carried out in the manner they have chosen.
By getting these questions answered, and finding an estate attorney they can trusts, clients can have the confidence that their wishes will be the result of their planning.