How long has the attorney been practicing in the areas of Probate, Trusts, & Estate Planning Law?
Is [s]he experienced enough to have firsthand knowledge of family and business matters of concern to you? There is no law that prevents an attorney from calling himself an estate planner, even if he has no qualifications or experience in estate planning. If you have a very "simple" estate, perhaps two or 3 years of estate planning experience is enough; if you have a large estate or a complicated situation, your attorney should have at least 7 to 10 years of experience in estate planning, probate, and trust law.
What percentage of the attorney's practice is devoted to Probate, Trusts, & Estate Planning Law?
An attorney simply cannot handle divorces, traffic tickets, and other matters and be an estate planning expert, too. Estate planning is a complicated and sophisticated area of legal practice. Your attorney should devote his or her full time to this area of the law.
Is the attorney certified as a specialist in Probate, Trusts, & Estate Planning Law by the California State Bar Board of Legal Specialization?
Although there are many knowledgeable attorneys who have not been certified as specialists, passing the certification exam provides some measure of assurance that the attorney is competent to practice in this field.
Does the attorney carry professional liability (malpractice) insurance?
Mistakes happen. When they happen in the context of estate planning, they can be very costly and difficult - or impossible - to "undo". You might be under the impression that all lawyers are required to carry "errors and omissions" insurance. You would be wrong, at least in California. While some states do require all attorneys to have malpractice insurance, California does not (although the wisdom of this is currently being debated).
Does the attorney offer free (or low-cost) initial consultations?
Make sure you know the answer to this question so you won't be surprised at your first meeting.
How does the attorney decide what to charge?
If an attorney or firm charges by the hour, there is a built-in incentive for more office consultations and multiple drafts of documents. If there is a flat-fee, there is a built-in disincentive for customization and red-carpet service. If you agree to a "flat fee", make sure that what is included in that fee is itemized. If you agree to hourly charges, ask for a range of fees or even a maximum fee if at all possible. In many cases, what you will end up with is a combination of a flat fee and hourly charges. For example, it is common in our office to charge a "base fee" for the estate planning documents (trust, wills, etc.) and to use hourly charges for assistance with asset transfers.
What services are included in the fee?
The more office consultations and legal services that are included, the higher the fee will be. Some attorneys who offer a living trust for $500 do not include wills, health care powers of attorney, and other documents, but rather charge for those documents "a la carte", sometimes resulting in a higher overall fee. The attorneys and firms who include assistance with transferring asset titles into the name of the trust may charge more, since they are providing more services.
How much should you pay for your estate plan?
You need to be careful about the too-good-to-be-true bargains. This decision is too important to look for the cheapest plan you can get. Your estate plan may have a profound effect on your loved ones' lives and well-being. If you spend more time and effort buying a new car than you do searching for the right estate planning attorney, perhaps you need to adjust your perspective a bit. Some of the factors you should consider are: * Experience - More experienced attorneys usually charge more, but that is not always the case. * Customization - The attorneys and firms that spend more time crafting the document for your specific needs will charge more than those who use standardized documents. The cheapest documents here in California come from non-attorneys who use a "one-size-fits-all" approach to document preparation. Other factors that will affect the cost of your estate plan include: * Complexity of Tax Planning Required. * Unique Family Relationships * Unique Assets.
Will the attorney provide a written fee agreement?
The written fee agreement should spell out exactly what you should - and should not - expect from your lawyer.
Does the attorney require a retainer?
If the lawyer requires a retainer, you should make sure the written fee agreement specifies how much of the retainer the lawyer must return to you if you decide not to finish your estate plan.
Does the attorney appear knowledgeable and interested in your situation?
Will the attorney approach your planning in a reflective and effective way that builds a strategy based on your persona! values and goals? Make sure that your attorney knows what you wish to accomplish with your assets and is prepared to assist you in implementing a plan that provides not only for your financial goals, but for your values-based objectives as well. Otherwise, it will be much like buying an airplane ticket before you know your destination: you're going to get somewhere, but not necessarily where you really want to be.
Who will actually handle your case (a senior attorney who's been in practice for 10 years or a junior associate who just passed the bar last week)?
You need to make sure that the person doing the work has sufficient experience to handle it correctly.
Is the attorney friendly and easy to talk to? Does his/her manner put you at ease or does it make you uncomfortable?
Do you think you can trust this lawyer with your case? The attorney you choose will be asking very personal questions about your relationships with family members, so you should be able to discuss these matters openly. Follow your "gut". There are a lot of competent estate planning attorneys in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you do not feel good "chemistry" with one attorney, find another.
Is the attorney understandable and able to explain the law clearly?
Some very gifted lawyers are not skilled at explaining the complex probate, estate tax, and other laws to clients. You'll be paying good money for your estate plan, so you should be able to understand the documents you'll need to sign. This will help avoid surprises and disagreements among family members at critical times.