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How to Choose the Right Estate Attorney for You: 5 Must-Ask Questions for Prospective Estate Planning Attorneys

Hiring an estate planning attorney requires research, understanding, and sometimes some luck to find the right fit. We strongly encourage that the selection process includes a preliminary telephone interview with the prospective firm or attorney. During that interview, we suggest asking questions that really help you understand their process and their services. Below are five questions that we think get you the information you need in making your decision.

(1) How much do you focus your practice on Estate Planning matters? This is an important and often unasked question. The answer to this question may give insight into how experienced the attorney is in estate planning matters. Arguably the best indicator of experience in a practice area is to regularly practice in that area of law. This question gives you a gauge for how often the attorney deals with estate planning. It also gives you a preliminary answer into how well the attorney can deal with more complex issues of estate planning.

Some people would encourage getting quantifiable data from the attorney. For example, asking questions like “What percentage of your cases involves estate planning work?” While it would be nice to receive reliable quantitative data on how often the attorney or firm handles estate planning matters, the reality is that most people cannot accurately provide that information. Moreover, there are numerous factors attorneys could use to provide that information, which would require you to ask more questions to get a more accurate picture. That makes these types of questions deceptively difficult to analyze and evaluate.

Furthermore, you should also make sure that you can understand their response to your questions you ask. As Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Granted some concepts of estate planning are complex, but an experienced attorney should be able to explain them to you in a way that makes it understandable to you.

The goal of this question is to determine whether it sounds like the practitioner works in estate planning on a regular basis. Having that information is crucial to process because you want someone who will understand your goals and be able to come up with a plan to achieve them.

(2) What experience do you have with situations similar to mine? No one situation is the exact same and it is important to understand your unique goals and objectives. Not all planning issues are "typical." Often, there are differences between plans based on personal information and life situations. My goal is to be able to tell you that I have experience handling situations similar to yours or to see that you get to someone that can. In this way, I anticipate that we are serving you either way, either by doing the work or by referring the work to someone specializing in a highly specialized area that can better assist you. You don’t want to waste time needlessly searching for answers, and we don’t want you to have to do that either. Since I have expertise with many different types of estate planning issues, I also know who else is working in these areas and has expertise as well and I can help shorten your search.

Additionally, some potential clients call in and say, this is what I want to be done. That’s great

(3) How much would estate planning cost? Cost is an important factor; however, it is not always the cost of doing the work that is most important, so long as costs for estate planning seem reasonable for the work performed. Also, the actual cost of estate planning varies based on what options or choices you make, and these choices cannot be made without first exploring and understanding your options. I seldom talk with clients that are already completely informed on their options and needs in estate planning goals when they call.

So, focusing mostly on costs is a mistake, though the cost is an important consideration. However, in every case, you should be apprised of the cost to complete your plan before you have committed to do the work. At the same time, you should know your options too.

My firm generally provides an idea about costs in advance, but I cannot provide complete information about the type of plan before meeting with the client. Unfortunately, a 10-minute telephone call isn’t enough time to provide a definitive answer. But that is also why I offer a free consultation for estate planning clients before entering into a contract, so I better understand the clients’ needs before there is an agreement for service.

Ultimately, most firms will work with you to develop the best solution. Just make sure that you are clear in your expectations on how much it will cost, and communicate your expectations after you know your options and before you enter into an agreement for services. Also, it should be a written agreement.

One final note regarding costs: always remember that most of the time the cost of not doing the work or doing inappropriate work is more expensive than the initial costs of appropriate estate planning.

(4) What services are provided? This is the flip side of the cost question above. You have to know what is included in the service. This, again, requires that you know your options. However, if someone provides a price for a ‘simple will’, and stops there, you can be pretty sure this is not their area of expertise. They are not evaluating your needs, and as such, they are not helping you plan your estate even though they may produce a Will.

I think an alternative way to think about this question is to ask, “What is estate planning?” I believe estate planning includes a discussion that imparts knowledge to you. After you have completed your planning you should understand what your estate planning needs are and what they are not. You also should understand what your role is in your planning and how to make changes or pursue your own protection inside and outside of your estate planning documents. So, an important part of the estate planning process is your conversation with your lawyer. The documents are important too, but these documents do not in themselves constitute your estate plan; much of your plan is based on how you hold property and how you direct transfer of property inside and outside of estate planning documents. Sometimes the most important part of your plan is not financial, but based on your relationships and responsibility for others.

As to the documents provided by us in your estate plan, I believe in a holistic estate plan, and in the typical situation without special needs and without a Trust this includes a Last Will and Testament, possibly a Living Will, a Health Care Directive, HIPAA Waiver, and Financial Power of Attorney. There are common variations that include other documents, such as a pet trust or revocable trust, and sometimes changes in ownership documents to complete your plan.

It is best to understand what you are getting for your investment. We think your investment should include a clear understanding of the estate planning process, your options, and what is reasonable to expect from us and required of you to accomplish your goals.

(5) What can we expect in the future? My goal is to build a relationship with you through life. I don’t just focus on your current estate planning needs; I also pay attention to your future needs. Goals change as life changes and I want to help with those changes.

I strongly recommend you “audit” your estate planning documents every 2 years, in the absence of special circumstances, or even more often if there are special events or life-changing experiences occur.

Every 3-5 years, you should sit down with an attorney and review your documents and your goals. I am implementing a process to help facilitate this review by sending letters and reaching out to remind clients of these targets.

Some firms may view estate planning as transactional deals, as a one-time thing – if you’re interested in updating it, give me a call. While that approach isn’t irresponsible or bad, my experience is that this type of work is often outdated when it is used unless it is disciplined by counsel’s active participation; I am working on developing a plan to provide this as a regular part of our estate planning service because of the challenges of dealing with outdated plans when they are used. End of life events are stressful enough without aggravating them with outdated plans. Further, the plan should be directed to also assist in other times of stress, such as disability and other significant life events.

Summary: There is no magic question or process of choosing an estate planning attorney. However, I advise in general that you look at experience and conduct a short telephone interview to better understand your fit with the prospective law firm. These are five questions I suggest you ask. I work hard to help you now, and to develop a relationship with you so that you are comfortable coming back in 3 years, 5 years, or even 20 years.

The information contained in this entry is general and should not be applied to specific legal problems without first consulting an attorney.