Estate planning is far more complex than it might seem at a glance. While any attorney or lawyer can help you draft up and implement a simple will or help you get through the paperwork needed to assign a beneficiary to your 401(k), anything more complex might require the services of an estate planning professional.
The larger and more complex the estate, the larger and more complex the plan. But an intelligent and expertly designed estate plan can help you avoid onerous processes and unnecessary fees, cutting down on the amount of time and money you need to invest in order to protect your assets and pass them onto the next generation.
Picking the right firm and attorney to represent your interests and help you navigate the complex and changing world of estate planning is critical. As is asking the right questions. Below are a few essential questions to help you get a better feel for your potential estate planning lawyer and determine whether they are the right fit for you.
1. Do You Specialize in Estate Planning?
Not all estates strictly require a specialist. However, even if you are only expecting to set up a will and leave it at that, it does pay to hire an expert. They may be able to help you avoid potential costs and worries in the future by implementing other estate planning tools.
A respected and reputable estate planning specialist will care for their clients. To help them identify the most cost-effective path forward without risking a crucial function in their estate plan.
Remember, estate planning is more complex than you might at first consider. Some of the functions of an estate planning professional and the tools they utilize include:
- To minimize costs and taxes.
- Helping you choose and legally implement a guardian for your underage children Coordinating with you and a chosen trustee to manage trusts.
- Pointing you in the right direction to avoid common pitfalls and potential family conflict.
- Preserve wealth.
- Evaluate your assets, helping you manage your assets while you are alive.
2. How Long Have You Been Practicing as an Estate Planning Lawyer?
Experience matters tremendously. It will determine how many different cases an attorney will have faced in their time. It will also help them best determine how to help you deal with the challenges that might lay ahead. Every case is different, but the most prior experience your potential estate planning lawyer can call upon, the better.
Attorneys who have had plenty of experiences navigating various tax problems, complex estates with assets in different parts of the country, and long probate processes. A lawyer will have a better idea of how to help you avoid similar issues or overcome them.
3. Do You Help Clients Fund Their Trusts?
Some estate planning professionals provide their services on a transient basis. They might consider the relationship between a client and their attorney complete once the will or trust is written up and notarized. From there, they will leave the rest in the hands of the client.
But simply writing a trust document is only half of the process. A living trust is an agreement between you (the grantor), a managing party (the trustee), and your beneficiaries. But it is only valid if you properly fund it.
Funding a trust involves going over all the assets and property that you plan to hold within that trust and ensuring that all of it is amended and properly titled to reflect that it is now part of the trust, rather than your own property. If something is not funded properly into a trust, it will pass through the probate process.
Funding assets into a trust can be a lot of work. While not overly complex, many clients would not know where to begin with the process. Some attorneys personally assist in the matter, while others only leave rudimentary instructions. Others yet have an entire department dedicated to helping patients fund their trust.
4. Do You Follow Up or Remind Clients to Adjust Their Estate Plans?
The world of estate planning is constantly changing. Laws regarding inheritance, estate taxes, and property are in flux, and may be altered at any moment. Federal estate taxes are on a constant timer and can change.
Furthermore, life itself changes – people are born, and people pass away, people marry and people file for divorce. Some of the decisions we made today may seem foolish or ill-advised in a year.
All these factors can heavily change the way an estate plan should be structured, and it has important to remind clients that estate planning is not just a one-time process for those facing retirement, but a process that should be revised and revisited every year.
State estate taxes are also subject to change. Which may affect estate plans which are meticulously designed to avoid estate taxes while minimizing costs. Ask your potential estate planning lawyer if they help keep their old clients up to date on law changes. Also ask whether they remind them to keep their estate planning documents updated.
5. Trusts or Wills?
This is a trick question, because the answer will always heavily depend on the estate and the circumstances. Revocable living trusts and other types of trusts can be excellent tools for many reasons, but not always necessary.
The probate process, while potentially lengthy and expensive, can be expedited in California for smaller estates. It is not as painful on the wallet or the family as it is in some other estates.
Nevertheless, some lawyers recommend trusts simply to charge more money. If your estate is small and relatively straightforward, it is likely that your lawyer would not recommend a trust. They also would not give you a concrete answer without having a better overview of your situation.
6. For the Reader: Will You Work With This Lawyer?
The most important question is the one you will have to ask yourself. Do you have interest in working with this lawyer? The process of drafting, finalizing, and notarizing estate planning documents is only the beginning. The relationship between an estate planning lawyer and their client can last decades, as laws and plans change.
Furthermore, your lawyer may be in close contact with your family after you pass away. They will b coordinating with your relatives in administrating your estate plan, and ensuring that everything goes smoothly. While estate planning lawyers have a fiduciary responsibility to their clients, it also helps if they are genuinely trustworthy.