What to Look for in an Estate Planning Attorney

Take the time to find and hire a professional and respected estate planning attorney in your area. In the long run, you and your family will be glad you did. Learn about these specialized attorneys can help you.

Estate planning affairs could be considered some of the least pressing for most Americans – we generally do not think much about our own deaths. As a result, we tend to procrastinate simple proactive measures like drafting a will or setting up a healthcare directive. Yet, the importance of these measures should not be understated, especially in a time such as this, where we are constantly reminded of the unpredictability and fragility of life.

Estate planning is not just a way to exert one’s will onto the family after death – it’s a way of providing for those we care about by preparing them for the worst and preempting the inevitable. But, of course, estate plans are not one-and-done and should be revisited and amended every few years.

While we statistically do not care much to deal with the idea of our own passing, doing so through a comprehensive estate plan can also prepare our loved ones for otherwise hefty and unexpected legal, medical, and tax consequences – and the significant financial burden therein. But before you begin thinking about the minute details of your own ideal estate plan, you need to ask yourself: whom will you trust to help draft these documents with you?

The Role of an Estate Planning Attorney

Estate planning attorneys specialize in helping a client draft plans that best match their circumstances and intentions. Unfortunately, this does not always translate into large-scale trust funds, tax avoidance plans, or living wills excluding specific medical procedures.

The world of estate planning provides plenty of room for flexibility and customization – both of which are necessary, but not to the extent that every client should take advantage of every feature of the law. Some people are best served through simple estate plans.

There are significant differences between wills and trusts and between different trust mechanisms – such as revocable and irrevocable trusts, blind trusts, testamentary trusts, and living trusts. Furthermore, living wills and healthcare proxies serve distinct purposes, and neither necessarily plays the role of the financial proxy.

An estate planning attorney’s role is to help you, the client, navigate the waters and make an informed decision as to how you want to handle the financial implications of your death, as well as whom you would want to involve in your end-of-life care and decision-making.

What Makes a Good Estate Planning Attorney?

Estate planning attorneys should ideally be local, experienced, and reputable. Other qualities to look for include (but is not limited to):

  • Their firm or practice is dedicated to estate planning and trusts. Is the firm or practice they are working at dedicated to estate plans, trusts, and other related matters? Or is a general law practice providing estate planning services among many others?
  • Working with them is pleasant, and they’re highly reputable. While working with an estate planning attorney is a professional relationship, there needs to be at least some personal connection. Trust, in the relationship sense, is important when drafting an estate plan. You need to confide in your attorney to the point that they have a clearer picture of how to draft your plan, so it matches your needs and expectations.
  • They stay up to date on both state and federal laws. This may be a no-brainer but bears mentioning. Estate planning laws, particularly local ones, can change and be amended. A plan written up in one state may not be relevant in the next, and one created 20 years ago may not be completely valid today. Be sure your attorney is up to date with your local probate and estate planning laws.

Asking the Right Questions

Beyond knowing what to look for, you need to know what to ask. Here are some suggestions to help get you started.

How long have you been in the business of estate planning?

— Experience is just as important as reputation, if not more so.

Who drafts and executes the relevant documents?

— It is in your best interest to speak and work with the same person who will actively create and execute your documents. You do not want details to get lost in transit.

Do you do follow-ups?

— Ideally, estate plans should be revisited once every few years or after every major life-changing event.

Do you have a tax specialist?

— One of the more important factors behind crafting an estate plan is avoiding an unnecessarily large tax impact upon your death.

Do you create comprehensive estate plans?

— Some firms specialize in trusts and wills. Others provide more comprehensive estate planning services, including drafting an estate plan at nearly every stage of life. As we grow older, our priorities and circumstances change, and our plans should reflect this.

Would you recommend a trust for my circumstances?

— Trusts can be the most important tool in an estate plan, given their flexibility. Yet, they aren’t always necessary, especially in cases without extraordinary circumstances, large or complicated assets, lengthy and costly probate, or hefty tax considerations. Nevertheless, some lawyers try to “upsell” their clients on trust because it’s a money-maker. Instead, make sure you are convinced that your estate needs one.

How heavily will you incorporate me into the planning process?

— While it is tempting to leave everything in the hands of a professional, these are ultimately documents that are supposed to reflect your final wishes accurately. Therefore, it is important to review them to avoid miscommunication and confusion personally.

How do you charge clients?

Lastly, you should know how your estate planning attorney plans to charge you. Some ask for a percentage of the estate, while others charge a flat fee or an hourly rate.

More Than Just Death Planning

Contrary to what you might think, the services of an estate planning attorney are not solely for the benefit of your loved ones. Instead, you can benefit immediately from working with an estate planning professional beyond the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you have your personal and financial affairs sorted should the worst come to pass.

Some estate plans affect not just what will happen after you die but what happens during your final years. Estate plans allow you to plan for mental incapacity and severe illness, stress one type of treatment over the other, argue for or against life support, and more. An estate plan also forces you to organize your finances and consider how an IRA, life insurance policy or investment may affect your estate’s and your beneficiaries’ taxes, both in life and in death.

Many estate planning professionals also double as specialists in trust law and can advise you on the benefits of setting up or buying into a trust for investment purposes, asset protection, or as a means to separate yourself from a potential conflict of interest if you wish to pursue a political or humanitarian career. An estate plan may not be the most exciting thing to work on, but it is often a necessary part of leaving behind a lasting and constructive financial and personal legacy.

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