Once you've located a prospective estate planning attorney, you'll need to ask the attorney the following list of questions in order to determine if they're truly qualified to help you:
- Is the attorney's primary focus on estate planning?
This question may or may not be important to you from the standpoint that if all you need is a simple will, power of attorney and health care documents, then a seasoned and sophisticated attorney may not be right for you. An attorney whose practice is broad but includes simple estate planning and probate matters will work just fine in this situation. On the other hand, if you have a complicated family or financial situation or a taxable estate, then you'll need to work with someone whose primary focus is on estate planning and estate tax reduction.
- How many years of experience does the attorney have?
The more years of experience the attorney has - whether the attorney is a generalist or primarily focuses on estate planning - the more the attorney will have had the opportunity to see their essential estate planning documents in action when a client becomes disabled or dies. The wills, trusts, powers of attorney and health care documents used by attorneys who have been in business for a while have been revised and tweaked to deal with the everyday situations that their clients encounter. This will give you the peace of mind to know that the documents they prepare for you will work when they're needed.
- Does the attorney assist clients with properly funding their assets into a revocable living trust?
Many attorneys create beautiful estate plans for their clients but then fail to assist them with the next important step: funding the revocable living trust. A well-drafted trust will be virtually useless immediately after you die if your assets aren't titled in the name of the trust while you're still alive. Some firms have full time funding assistants or even entire funding departments, while others will give you comprehensive written instructions. Still others will merely mention the importance of funding but fail to give you any guidance whatsoever. I strongly recommend that you work with an attorney who will oversee the funding process and even pay the attorney an extra fee to do so, because chances are you won't complete all of the necessary funding on your own.
- Does the attorney have a formal updating and maintenance program?
Many estate planning attorneys view their work as a one-time transaction - they simply draft the documents requested by their clients and then send them on their way. On the other hand, there are many estate planning attorneys who, for typically a nominal fee, will contact all of their clients on an annual or semi-annual basis to inform them of changes in the law, explain new estate planning techniques, ask about life changes that will require modifications in the client's documents, and to check up on the progress of the client's funding. I strongly recommend working with an attorney who has a formal updating and maintenance program because this will insure that your plan will remain up to date and work when it's needed.
- Does the attorney charge a flat fee or an hourly rate for providing estate planning services?
This is an important question to ask so that you won't be surprised by hidden fees and costs. These days the majority of estate planning attorneys charge a fixed fee for most, if not all, of their services. This will give you the peace of mind to know that the flat fee is all that you'll be required to pay. You'll need to understand, however, what the flat fee does and doesn't cover and when the attorney will charge an additional flat fee or start billing you on an hourly basis.
- Ask yourself: "Can I see myself working closely with this attorney?"
Once your prospective attorney has answered the above questions to your satisfaction, there's still one big question you need to ask yourself: "Can I see myself working closely with this attorney?" Even if the attorney has all of the right answers, keep in mind that you'll be sharing all of the intimate details of your life with this person. If you don't feel comfortable with the attorney, then chances are you'll end up holding certain things back. This will be doing you and the attorney a disservice since the attorney can't plan for, or around, things that the attorney doesn't know. Don't be alarmed if you realize that it simply won't be a good fit with you and the prospective attorney - it's better to find this out in the very beginning instead of after you've already spent valuable time and money. If this happens to you, simply move on until you find someone who you can work with and trust.