November 7, 2018

A Guide to Finding an Estate Planning Attorney Who Is Right for You

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When looking for an estate planning attorney, many individuals feel more comfortable with getting a personal referral than by embarking on an internet search. Asking for a referral from friends and other professionals can be a helpful start to finding an experienced attorney. However, a referral to a competent attorney may not be enough to cultivate a successful working relationship.

Finding an Estate Planning Attorney Who Is Right for You

So, how do you go about finding an estate planning attorney that is right for you?

1. First, identify the type of estate planning attorney needed. Narrowing the field can help determine appropriate candidates. Many people can use the services of a general estate planning attorney to draft wills, powers of attorney, and basic trusts. But some situations call for attorneys with certain specializations. For example, clients who are interested in sophisticated wealth transfer techniques or charitable giving or who have assets in more than one state or in a foreign country will want an attorney who is a specialist in those types of issues. Alternatively, clients who are concerned about maximizing benefits for beneficiaries with special needs or who are interested in programs like Medicaid or addressing long-term care may want a specialist in elder law.

2. Once the search has been narrowed to a few candidates, it is a good idea to interview each of them on the telephone or in person. Ask about any fees for a “meet and greet” before your meeting. Some attorneys may charge for an initial conference while others may offer an introductory phone conference or office meeting at no charge.

3. An attorney’s educational credentials should be available online so there is generally no need to spend too much time on this matter. Most attorneys will be leery of answering specific questions without a formal engagement letter in place, so it’s a good idea that at the introductory meeting you ask procedural questions rather than asking for specific legal advice. Instead, you may wish to address the following topics:

  • Conflicts: Determine whether any conflicts exist that prevent the attorney from working on your matters.
  • Relevant Experience: Clarify the experience the attorney has in the relevant areas.
  • Adequate Capacity: Confirm that the attorney has adequate capacity to work on your matters. You can ask how long the process will take from start to finish if timely responses to requests for information are made. It may also be beneficial to find out how quickly the attorney usually responds to emails or phone calls.
  • Points of Contact: Establish who will be your point of contact. Will it be the attorney or will it be someone else, like an associate, paralegal, or secretary?
  • Communication: Find out the preferred methods of communication: phone, email, text, or letters.
  • Billing Practice: Understand how you will be charged for services rendered. What are the hourly rates? Or does the attorney use fixed fees? Or a combination of both? When are bills sent (monthly or at completion of a matter)? What additional charges could there be (copying, postage, etc.)?
  • Transition Issues: If the attorney is older, you may ask about retirement plans and how he or she intends to transition clients if he or she retires.
  • Approach: If you have unique issues of which you have made the attorney aware, ask how the attorney would approach the issue and whether he or she foresees any problems.

4. After the interview, assess how the meeting went. Even without being given specific legal advice, you may be surprised at how much you have learned about the attorney and whether you believe you have found a good fit. For example:

  • Did the attorney respond in a timely manner?
  • Did you understand the answers you were given?
  • Did you feel comfortable asking follow-up questions?

If you were not comfortable with a basic interaction, you may never develop the type of open conversation that is important to have with your estate planning attorney.

5. If you felt comfortable with the answers to your questions and liked the attorney’s approach and style and thought you would be comfortable sharing family matters, trust your gut and move forward. While there are benefits to staying with the same attorney for years, if the relationship does not work out in the future, you can always change advisors. Even if you pick the attorney that you think is right for you, sometimes things happen that are out of your control. The attorney may retire (even if not planned), move away, or pass away. While you may need to find a new attorney, that new attorney can interpret and administer a well-drafted estate plan.

6. Finally, minimize surprises about fees. Attorneys generally prepare fee engagement letters outlining the scope of services and billing practices. If your attorney does not provide such a letter for you to review and sign, ask him or her to put the fee agreement in writing. Be sure to understand the matters addressed therein and if you have questions, get your answers before beginning the process.

If you would like to discuss referrals for estate planning attorneys or the issues to address before meeting with your estate planning attorney, please contact one of your B|O|S service team professionals. We can provide you with additional resource material, including vocabulary lists and summaries of many estate planning techniques, to help you become better informed.

Filed under: Estate Planning

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