Mistake #1 - Going At It Alone With "Cheap" Online Options
Think about this. If you could get your hands on a physician's prescription pad, would that make you a doctor? Of course not. The idea is absurd. It's the doctor's professional training, his experience, his diagnostic ability, his knowledge of various remedies and courses of action that are so valuable. It's the same thing with those legal forms you can download online. Are they legal? Sure. But that doesn't make you a lawyer. It doesn't mean you know what to do, or when to do it, or if you should do it, or how to do it. It just means you've got your hands on a prescription pad. From there you might do the right thing. Or you might kill yourself. Using online legal forms probably won't kill you. Of course, you won't be around to see the mistakes you made -- which makes the problem that much more dangerous. A good maxim is "simple and inexpensive" now means "complicated and expensive" later.
MISTAKE #2-- Choosing a lawyer who will charge you outrageously high hourly rates for simple services.
We've all had the experience. We're quoted an attractive price for something - say, a car. Then we find out that the floor mats are extra, the rust-proofing is extra, the "dealer prep" is extra. I'm afraid some professional service providers are not above using such methods. Some lawyers will lure you in with "cheap" basic services - and then proceed to rack up hourly fees as they execute planning services that really should have been covered by a single "flat" fee - a fee that encompasses everything the lawyer will do with no surprises. Not too many clients are interested in writing blank check for estate planning services. If the estate planner is any good at what he or she does, then that attorney should be able to quote you a fixed fee for services.
MISTAKE #3-- Not ensuring there is a plan in place for regular communication as the laws, tax code and your personal situation change.
Here's a news flash -- Life = Change. People get married, get divorced, have kids, die. The best friend who was your trustee is no longer your best friend. The neighbor you were so close to moves away. Children who were once dependent are now independent. Parents who were once independent, now need help caring for themselves. If your lawyer doesn't have a plan in place for regular updating, you are likely going to have your plan go stale. Chances are you won't think about updating your plan on your own. So, you benefit only when your lawyer has a system in place for regular, and affordable, updates and reviews. Lawyers who work without the benefit of a team are so focused on bringing in the next new client that they can't take the time to communicate with their existing clients. The problem is that plans that are done as a single transaction between lawyer and clients do not take into account the constant changes in the law and your life -- your plan needs to be updated regularly.
MISTAKE #4-- Choosing a lawyer who only focuses on your financial assets, to the exclusion of your non-financial assets, such as your values.
The truth is that planning for your financial assets is only part of what estate planning is all about. Most people don't worry as much about what happens to their money, as they do what will happen to their loved ones and how they will get on without them. You want a lawyer who has considered all of these issues and uses a process meant to link your values to your money. Nearly every one of our clients believes that a family's most valuable wealth goes far deeper than a bank account and if given the choice, almost every person would choose to leave behind other core assets if, for example, they were forced to choose between leaving money or values. However, very few lawyers ever even mention these intangible assets -- let alone have a process for capturing them and passing them on from one generation to the next.
MISTAKE #5-- Choosing a lawyer who is not considering the total costs of your estate plan.
Most people are surprised to learn that the majority of the cost of an estate plan is not in the upfront costs of creating an estate plan. In fact, the bulk of the iceberg is under the water in the way of estate administration costs -- after you pass away. Here's a little secret about the estate planning industry. Planners typically make some of their money in high planning costs. Then, they make the bulk of their money helping your loved ones with probate or estate administration costs. However, anytime I've ever asked someone with an estate plan how they were going to be charged at death -- no one was able say that their estate planner had told them that little bit of information. You want a planner who helps you control all of the costs of estate planning, not just the first step. Almost all of our clients have chosen to plan with us because of our approach to a comprehensive estate plan. You need that too.
MISTAKE #6-- Not choosing a lawyer who focuses his or her practice on estate planning.
When a lawyer passes the bar and is admitted to practice, that pretty much entitles him or her to practice any kind of law. A lot of lawyers have what is called a "door" practice - that is, her or she takes anything, and anyone, who comes in the door. You need a lawyer who doesn't add "Trusts and Estates" to his or her website like a side order of fries. Estate planning shouldn't be an afterthought for you or your lawyer. Your family deserves an estate plan created by an attorney who focuses their practice in this area. Beyond that, you want a lawyer who makes you comfortable. Most of the time, walking into a lawyer's office is like going to the dentist. You expect to be better when you walk out, but you're not looking forward to the stuff that happens while you're there. It doesn't have to be that way. Estate planning involves discussions of sensitive and emotion-filled topics. You deserve an estate planning attorney who is warm, and will make you feel like family.