Choosing an estate planning attorney is a significant decision that will impact you and your heirs. Everyone agrees on the need for a competent estate planning attorney, but how do you determine who is right for you? This article explores what to look for in an attorney’s education, experience, teamwork with other experts, staff support, and technological adeptness. It also explains what to expect as you get started in the estate planning process. Let’s dive into what to look for to make an informed choice that meets both your immediate and long-term needs.
Education and Experience
A good estate planning attorney should have a J.D. degree. But those with an LL.M degree in taxation bring an added advantage, especially if you have significant assets. This specialized degree means they’ve received an advanced education in tax law, which can be vital for more complex planning.
Your estate plan isn’t a generic document. It should reflect your life, goals, and concerns. A dedicated attorney will engage in deep conversations with you, understanding your assets, potential risks, growth opportunities, and personal strengths to craft a plan that fits you perfectly.
Look for client testimonials and especially peer endorsements. Other professionals you know, like CPAs and financial advisors, may be willing to recommend an attorney. When they recommend an attorney, it’s a strong sign of this attorney’s expertise and reliability. Their reputation gives you a glimpse into their professionalism and ability to handle complex estate matters.
The best attorneys will work alongside your existing trusted advisors. For instance, by coordinating with your CPA, an attorney ensures your estate plan also makes sense from a tax perspective. Further, collaborations with financial advisors and insurance specialists ensure your estate plan is holistic and in your best interest.
Embracing Technology and Networking
Modern estate planning can leverage technological tools for better efficiency and security. If an attorney uses advanced software and tools, it showcases their commitment to efficient service. Also, active membership in professional estate planning associations means they stay updated with the latest industry trends and laws.
Behind every great attorney is a team of efficient paralegals, assistants, and administrative staff. They ensure operations run smoothly and that you, as a client, receive timely and accurate service. Support staff with certifications or other professional designations relating to estate planning (such as a Certified Trust and Fiduciary Advisor) mean professional expertise lies not just with the attorney but embraced by the firm as a whole.
The complexity of your estate and your legacy wishes should drive the decision-making process for choosing the right attorney or law firm. If you have a straightforward asset structure—perhaps a primary residence, a retirement account, and a few bank accounts—an estate planning attorney without any specialized degrees or experience may be just fine to put together a will or revocable living trust-based estate plan.
However, for individuals with diverse assets such as multiple real estate properties, business holdings, significant investments, or ties to multiple jurisdictions, a more complex strategy involving various kinds of irrevocable trusts, limited liability companies, specialized tax planning, or a private trust company might be necessary. Be ready to ask your attorney as to whether they regularly handle such complex estates with tailored strategies.
Moreover, if you have unique family considerations, such as providing for a loved one with special needs, ensuring the continuity of a family business, or managing blended family dynamics, your estate plan should cater to these nuanced interpersonal situations.
It’s essential to match the sophistication of your estate plan to your asset landscape and personal wishes. Oversimplifying could leave gaps or unforeseen tax consequences, while overcomplicating might result in unnecessary costs and confusion for your heirs. An experienced estate planning attorney can guide you in striking the right balance, ensuring your assets are managed, distributed, and protected according to your vision.
The benefit of estate planning is that there usually is an opportunity to move deliberately. If you’re proactive, you can do your research and make an informed decision from a variety of choices. However, if you wait until poor health or other concerns are pushing a decision, you may not be in the best position to select an attorney.
Transparent Fee Structure
As with any good or service, clients or customers look for value. Value represents the best service for the cost, which may not necessarily be the cheapest option. In the domain of estate planning, a transparent fee structure is important to determine value. Clients should be clear on what the cost of their estate plan will be, and what they will receive in return. Attorneys often bill either hourly or a fixed or flat rate. Clients often find the predictability of a fixed or flat-fee arrangement advantageous, as there are no hidden expenses. Simplified billing means clients do not need to dissect itemized hours and tasks, focusing instead on the delivered value. A fixed fee also provides the opportunity for a better collaborative relationship, since picking up the phone to call about a question on the estate plan will not result in an additional bill.
Does the attorney offer a free consultation? An initial consultation is an effective way for you to see if an attorney is a good fit for you. Use this opportunity to ask questions about their experience, methods, and fee structure. During a free consultation, take the time to ask any questions you may have about the estate planning process. Even if you have taken the time to research on your own, it is helpful to get an overview of what happens and why. It is a good sign if your attorney is willing to take the time to walk you through how an estate plan works—whether you need a revocable living trust or a private family trust company!
An estate planning attorney will ask you to fill out an intake form. To fill out this form, you may need to reference several documents (described below). Additionally, if you and the attorney agree to work together, they may request these documents to complete your estate plan.
Documents You May Be Asked to Provide
Wills and Trusts: Any previous versions or drafts you might have.
Financial Statements: This includes bank accounts, investment portfolios, retirement accounts, and other assets.
Real Estate Documents: Deeds for properties you own.
Insurance Policies: Life, health, disability, auto, home, and any other insurance policies.
Business Agreements: If you are a business owner or have a stake in a business.
Previous Tax Returns: The last three years are helpful.
Debts and Liabilities: Mortgages, loans, credit card debts, and other financial obligations.
Personal Documents: Birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce decrees, or prenuptial agreements.
List of Beneficiaries: Names and contact details of those you want to inherit your assets.
Healthcare Directives: Any living wills, medical power of attorney, or do-not-resuscitate orders.
Durable Power of Attorney: Document specifying who can make financial decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated.
Funeral Arrangements: Any pre-made plans or wishes you would like to be known.
Remember, every attorney might not require all of these documents, and this isn’t an exhaustive list. It is a starting point, and the attorney will let you know exactly what they need to craft a comprehensive estate plan tailored to your situation.
Funding the Trust
The process of estate planning is not complete as soon as you sign the trust documents. Your assets now need to be titled to the trust. This is a crucial step, otherwise none of the benefits of the trust will be realized, and the whole estate plan has been a waste of time and money! An estate planning attorney should be willing to assist with this process. Select one who is proactive in helping clients retitle their assets. For example, ask if their office will provide letters of instruction, work with financial institutions, draft real property deeds (or coordinate with out-of-state attorneys for properties in other jurisdictions), etc. This will save you and your beneficiaries unnecessary hassle and potential legal complications in the future.
Choosing the right estate planning attorney goes beyond just legal expertise. You want someone with the right education, a client-focused approach, a solid reputation, collaborative spirit, technological know-how, and a clear fee structure. As you embark on this journey, look for a partner who understands and prioritizes your unique needs and aspirations.