Our 5 Best Tips for Finding and Choosing an Estate Planning Attorney
Everybody’s got some piece of advice when it comes to wills, trusts, and finding an estate planning attorney, and a lot of it has some measure of truth to it. But if you’re just starting to think about estate planning and you’re not quite ready for your uncle’s story about how his friend was able to save a million dollars in taxes by using this or that trick, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the process.
Take a breath. We took a few hours reading what other people had to say online and we reached out to some of our local estate planning attorneys to see what advice they had. We came up with these 5 easy-to-follow tips that will can serve as a guide for finding and choosing your estate planning attorney.
1. Use Referrals, but Know the Source: Another attorney, financial advisor, or CPA who you already have a relationship is one of the most popular ways to get a referral. This professional has his or her own business reputation to consider, not to mention maintaining a good relationship with you. You can also contact your state bar association, but know they’re prohibited from making recommendations. They’re simply connecting you with an estate planning lawyer in good standing with the bar.
2. Online Pay-For Directories vs. Online Referral Services: This is its own kind of referral source that needs to be vetted before being used. Specifically, you want to avoid sites and directories that aren’t “third-party verified.” In other words, you want to avoid sites in which the attorneys you’re being referred to are based solely on their willingness to pay for the privilege. Instead, you want the site itself to be in control of verifying the attorneys’ credentials and connecting you with the best results based on the information you provide as part of your legal service request form.
3. Do the Research/Read Attorney Bios: This includes things being in good standing with the bar, years of experience, practice and work history, malpractice insurance, published articles, personal bio, law school, and professional organizations. It’s sort of a catch-all for due diligence, but it can also help you find someone that you’re more likely to feel comfortable with and with whom you can freely express your personal priorities for estate planning.
4. Consider, but Don’t Limit, Your Geography: Apart from making sure you’re working with someone whose licensed in your state, the closest option may not be the best option. Bigger law firms tend to have satellite offices. On the other hand, smaller firms tend to know their cities and local families extremely well. More than geography or size, general availability is usually the more important quality and not just at the time of the testator’s death, either. You should review your estate plan every 5 years or so, and if you have to contact your attorney multiple times over a couple weeks’ time, important changes may never end up getting done.
5. Pick Prospective Attorneys to Contact: The conventional wisdom that seemingly nobody ever follows is to talk to at least three estate planning attorneys before making a decision. Here’s what we would do instead: Find at least three viable options and rank them in order of preference. Then, we’d call that top choice and see if that attorney could so impress us that we felt comfortable not going to the next person on the list. If we had any doubt at all, we’d call the next person on the list to see what they said.
What about Estate Planning Attorney Costs?
Attorney fees should always be part of the initial conversation, but will rarely, if ever, involve an exact price quote. Instead, the conversation is more likely to involve fee structure (per hour vs. flat fee vs. percent of the estate’s value) and a general range of total estate planning costs (often somewhere between $750-$7,500+.)
If there’s one silver bullet answer for finding and choosing an estate planning attorney, it’s this: Don’t wait to hire an attorney to start learning about the options for estate planning and the basic things that most everybody needs—a will, durable power of attorney, and health care directives. This will make you a smarter consumer and more comfortable with the attorney and the entire process. You may even be able to negotiate lower costs (even if you don’t realize it!) by demonstrating to the attorney that you’re going to be an easy client to work with.