I know discussing topics like death, incapacity, and other potentially frightening life events, with someone like me, an estate planning lawyer, may feel intimidating or even morbid. Take a deep breath and relax… it doesn’t have to and shouldn’t be that way.
Hiring a lawyer to help you make wise decisions for life and death can be the most empowering choice you ever make for yourself and your loved ones. The way I explain it to my friends and family is, “estate planning isnt about planning for your death, it’s about planning for your life.” So, with that frame in mind, let’s talk about how to choose an estate planning attorney, because we aren’t all cut from the same cloth. The right lawyer will be there for your family when you can’t be, so you want to understand who the lawyer is as a person, not just an attorney. Of course, you’ll also want to discover the services your lawyer offers and how they run their business.
Here are five questions to ensure you don’t end up paying for legal services you don’t need, expect, or want. Once you know exactly what you should be looking for when choosing an estate planning lawyer, you’ll be much better positioned to hire an attorney that will provide the kind of love, attention, care, and trust your family deserves.
01 | How Do They Bill For Their Services?
Your first question to a lawyer may be, “how much does it cost?” But that’s typically only because you aren’t clear on what else to ask. So we’re going to give you an upgrade here.
The first question to ask isn’t “how much does it cost,” but rather, “how do you bill for your services and how do you determine what to bill for your services?”
The right lawyer for you will have a clear answer that helps you understand how they determine how much to charge you and how you’ll be charged. They’ll set clear boundaries and expectations around fees - so there are no surprises.
When working with an estate planning lawyer, find a lawyer who bills for all their services on a flat fee, no surprises, basis —and never hourly—unless a court requires it for limited “court-related” services.
Your lawyer should determine the fees they charge you only after guiding you through a process of discovery in which they learn about your family dynamics and your assets and educate you about what would happen for your family and assets if and when something happens to you. Through that process, they will help you choose the right plan that meets your budget and desired outcomes.
At my firm, all of our fees for estate planning are a flat fee, agreed to in advance, and you choose your fee through our Wealth Planning Session™ process, during which we educate you about the law, and you educate us about your family dynamics and assets. Then, you choose the right plan, at the right price, for the people you love.
02 | How Will Your Lawyer Respond To Your Needs On An Ongoing Basis?
One of people's biggest complaints about working with lawyers is a lack of responsiveness. We’ve even heard of situations in which clients went weeks without getting a call back from their lawyer. It’s unfortunate, and yet it makes sense when a lawyer doesn’t have systems in place to ensure they can serve their existing clients and respond to the needs of past clients.
So, to ensure your lawyer can be responsive to your needs, ask them how quickly calls are typically returned in their office and if someone will be on-hand to answer quick questions when and as needed.
Ideally, all calls to your lawyer should be pre-scheduled with a clear agenda, so you both can be ready to focus on your specific needs.
03 | How Will Your Lawyer Proactively Communicate With You On An Ongoing Basis?
Sadly, most lawyers fail to communicate regularly with their clients. As a result, if you’ve created an estate plan in the past, you may have had a “checked off the list and done” kind of experience and not even realized that estate planning means a lifetime of wise legal and financial decisions, not a one-and-done kind of thing.
Unfortunately, most lawyers don’t have their business systems set up for ongoing, proactive communication. They don’t have the time to get to know you or your family and then keep your plan up to date throughout your life.
Work with a lawyer who has systems to keep your plan updated to ensure your assets are protected (throughout your life) and who will communicate with you regularly.
Additionally, ask them how they will proactively support you in keeping your plan up to date on an ongoing basis and be there for your loved one’s when you can’t be.
Think of it this way: Your estate plan includes a set of documents, but your plan is far more than those documents. Your plan is an inventory of your assets, which changes throughout your life. It’s a structure and container for who and what your family will turn to when something happens to you.
You want to work with a lawyer with systems to keep your documents up to date and ensure your assets are owned correctly throughout your lifetime. Ideally, the lawyer should get to know you and your family over time so that when something happens, your lawyer can be there for the people you love. There will already be an underlying relationship and trust.
04 | Can You Call About Any Legal Problem Or Just About Matters Within Their Specialty?
Given the complexity of today’s legal world, lawyers must have specialized training in one or more specific practice areas, such as divorce, bankruptcy, Wills and Trusts, personal injury, business, criminal matters, or employment law. You do NOT want to work with a “door law” attorney - a lawyer who professes to be an expert in whatever random legal issue walks through the door.
That said, you do want your personal lawyer to have broad enough expertise to consult with him or her about all sorts of legal and financial issues that may come up in your life—and trust he or she will be able to offer you sound guidance about whether you have a legal issue, or not. And while your lawyer will not be able to advise you on all legal matters, he or she should be able to refer you to other trusted professionals who can help you.
Trust me, you wouldn’t want the lawyer who designed your estate plan also to handle your personal injury claim, settle a dispute with your landlord, and advise you on your divorce. But you do want him or her to be there to hear your story, refer you to a highly qualified lawyer who specializes in that area, and overall, serve as your go-to legal consultant.
In this capacity, you can consult your personal lawyer before you sign any legal documents, any time you have a legal or financial issue arise, or whenever anything that might adversely affect your family or business comes up, and know that you’ll get excellent guidance.
05 | What Happens When They Die Or Retire?
We all die, including your lawyer. And they may retire before they die. So be sure to ask what the plan is for your plan and your family when they do.
This is a critically important—and often overlooked—question to ask your lawyer and any service professional before beginning a relationship. Sure, it may be uncomfortable to ask. A client-centered professional will have a succession plan to ensure their clients are cared for no matter what happens to the lawyer managing your plan.
Look for a lawyer with a detailed plan that will ensure that someone warm and caring will take over your planning without any interruption of service.
Here at our law firm, we work with a community of lawyers just like us who serve clients as a Personal Lawyer® with Life & Legacy Planning. We have a network of successor attorneys who practice with the same morals and model as we do, so if anything happens to us you will be treated with the same level of care and relationship that we provide.
A Lasting Relationship
Although hiring the right estate planning lawyer may not seem that important, it’s one of the most critical choices you can make for yourself and your family. After all, this is the individual you trust to serve on your behalf to protect and provide for your loved ones during one of life’s most emotionally challenging experiences.
Should you choose the wrong person for the job, your family could face unnecessary conflicts, expenses, and legal entanglements when they are most vulnerable. Ultimately, estate planning is far more than having a lawyer create a set of documents for you and then never seeing you again or only seeing you when something goes wrong.
With us as your Personal Lawyer®, we develop a relationship with you and your family that lasts a lifetime. Our unique, family-centered legal services are specifically tailored to provide our clients with the kind of love, attention, and trust we’d want for our loved ones. To learn more about our one-of-a-kind systems and services, schedule a Wealth Planning Session™ today.
This article is a service of Casey D. Conklin. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That's why we offer a Wealth Planning Session, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office or visiting my online calendar to schedule a 20 minute consultation with me.