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Four Questions To Ask Before Hiring Your Estate Planning Attorney (And One to Ask Yourself!)

Posted by attorney Andrew Singer

When you decide to get your legal and financial life in order, the first thing you should do is call the attorney who you want to meet with to handle your planning and ask the following four questions:

  1. What will happen during an initial meeting with your office and how much will it cost me? Make sure to ask what will happen at your initial meeting and how much that meeting will cost.

Ideally, you want an educational first meeting, not just a "meet and greet." You want to do more than just get to know your attorney. You want to gain some information and guidance. And, you want to leave with your plan designed in the best possible way to protect your family and achieve your family's goals.

This kind of education and guidance can be invaluable, so you may have to pay for it, but don't be concerned about doing so, the cost will be worth the education. What's important is to know before going into the meeting what you are getting and what it will cost you. Many attorneys offer free initial consultations, but these are usually the "meet and greet" type, where you'll have the chance to meet the attorney and decide whether you want to work with him or her. You most likely won't get the education or guidance you need. Don't expect an attorney to give free legal advice.

  1. How will I be charged--On an Hourly or Flat Fee Basis? If it is a flat fee--what is included in the flat fee? What is NOT included in the flat fee? You want to ensure that you don't get any surprises. If the fee is hourly, get an estimate of how many hours and what the hourly fee is for your type of plan. If it is a flat fee, find out what is included in that flat fee and what isn't. Some attorneys say that your plan will cost a flat fee, but then charge you additional fees for things like the time they took to speak with you by phone or answer an email from you, the courier service they used, postage, photocopy fees, and other expenses. You want to make sure that you know exactly what you are getting for your fee and what they may nickel-and-dime you for in addition before you are surprised with a bill in the mail.

  2. Does my fee include a regular review of my planning documents? What happens if I want to make changes later? Too often families create their estate plans then put them in a drawer, check estate planning off of their list, and never think about it again. Then years later something happens and their family needs the plan to work for them, but they find that the plan is outdated--their guardianship choices aren't who they would have chosen now, they haven't made sure that assets they acquired since planning were titled properly, or the law has changed and their plan wasn't updated to work with the changes. Now their family is in the same place they would have been had no planning been done.

When this happens, I blame the attorney who created their plan and not the client. You want to hire an attorney that will have a continuing relationship with you for your lifetime. You want someone who will keep your plan up-to-date by reviewing it on a regular basis free of charge. Ideally, you should find an attorney who has a specific plan maintenance program so that they will keep in touch with you and you can feel free to contact them for advice on an ongoing basis without being charged for every phone call.

  1. What can you do to ensure my kids and their inheritance are protected? You should be sure to hire an attorney that knows how to plan from a parent's perspective. You want to know that they will draft documents that provide for both short-term and long-term guardianship of your kids to ensure that they never spend a minute in Child Protective Services. You also want to be sure that your plan will include an emergency plan for your kids with ID cards for your wallet and instructions for your caregivers listing the names and numbers of your short-term guardians with legal authority to take care of your kids.

You also want to know that your attorney offers planning techniques to protect your children's inheritance both from their own financial immaturity, by providing that they don't receive it outright at 18, as well as from loss of it through a divorce or lawsuit. A good attorney will know how to plan to protect that inheritance so that it will be there for your kids when they need it.

Lastly, ask yourself, "Can I see myself working closely with this attorney?"

Once you've spoken with the attorney and got the answers to all of the questions above, you still need to know one thing--Is this the right attorney for me? Even if the attorney has all the right answers, you want to be sure that you feel comfortable with them. You will be sharing very personal information with them and hopefully creating a lifelong relationship with them. You want to be sure that you like and trust them. You don't want to find yourself keeping certain things from them or not feeling comfortable coming back to see them on a regular basis to review your plan. This could prevent the attorney from creating the right plan for you or ensuring that your plan is always up to date. If you find that you don't like or trust this attorney, take the time to research another attorney until you find one that you do!

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