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People put off making an estate plan for a variety of reasons: busy day-to-day lives with more pressing commitments; discomfort thinking about mortality; the belief that they don’t need an estate plan—at least not yet. But another reason people hesitate to sit down with an estate planning attorney is that they think they need to have all the answers, including what kind of estate planning tools and documents they need.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to know exactly what you need until you talk to an attorney, and the information you get from other places can be overwhelming, conflicting, or just plain wrong. The good news is that an estate planning attorney doesn’t expect you to know everything when you walk in the door, and they view an important part of their job as working with you to design the estate plan that’s right for you and your family. You bring to the table your knowledge of what you want to achieve for yourself and your family; your attorney helps you choose and implement the tools to achieve those goals.
In fact, your estate planning attorney hopes and expects that you will ask questions to make sure that they are the right person to help meet your needs. Here are six questions you should ask an estate planning lawyer before hiring them.
One of the most important estate planning questions involves how long an attorney has been working in this practice area. While it’s not necessary to have an attorney who has been practicing estate planning law for decades, you want to make sure your attorney isn’t learning the practice area on the job, either. Unlike with mistakes in some other areas of law, an error in an estate plan may not be discovered for many years, until after a death. At that point, it’s far too late to do anything to correct a costly mistake.
While this sounds similar to the question above, it’s somewhat different. An attorney may have prepared his first estate plan forty years ago, but if he only prepares a will every couple of years, he probably doesn’t have significant estate planning experience, and he’s probably not current with developments in this area of the law, which often change. Many attorneys who focus on other practice areas occasionally prepare a simple will as a favor for an existing client, but a lawyer who focuses a significant part of their practice on estate planning law is more likely to be up-to-date with important changes in the law.
Estate planning work is unlikely to be “one and done.” Your assets, beneficiaries, and needs may change. You may have questions that you want to ask your attorney, and you don’t want to have to worry that fifteen minutes on the phone is going to cost you a hundred dollars or more. An important question for an estate planning attorney is about their fee structure.
Good estate planning attorneys want their clients to be able to contact them with questions and updates so that the plan they created will continue to meet the client’s needs. For this reason, many estate planning attorneys charge a flat fee for most services, allowing you to reach out with questions or minor changes to your plan without running up a big legal bill. You should also ask about the charge for periodic reviews and updates to your estate plan over the years.
Living trusts have become an increasingly popular estate planning tool in recent decades, and they do have many advantages, such as avoiding probate and protecting a minor child’s inheritance. Depending on how they are set up, trusts can serve a variety of needs. But as useful as they are, not everybody needs a trust, and creating a trust is usually more expensive than drafting a will.
One of the questions to ask an estate planning lawyer after you explain your circumstances is whether they think a trust is best for your needs, and for what reasons. Whether the answer is yes or no, it should be clear, understandable, and backed with reasons that make sense to you. If a trust is the right choice to you, ask the attorney if their services include helping you fund the trust (put assets in the name of the trust). Funding a trust can be confusing, and an attorney’s help is invaluable.
Creating an estate plan is only one part of the equation. At some point in the future, that estate plan is going to need to be carried out, either through the probate process if you have a will, trust administration if you have a trust, or perhaps both.
If you are comfortable with your estate planning attorney and hope that they will be able to help your family through the process of dealing with your estate, make sure that the attorney you choose does not just prepare estate plans, but helps to administer them as well. Most, but not all, estate planning attorneys also help families with probate and trust administration.
If your attorney does offer these services, be sure your family knows not only where you keep your estate planning documents but your attorney’s contact information. When the time comes, they will be grateful to be able to reach out to an attorney you knew and trusted, rather than an unfamiliar stranger.
To learn more about choosing an estate planning attorney, or more questions to ask an estate planning lawyer, contact Mundahl Law at 763-575-7930 to schedule a consultation.