Since my practice is based in California (yes, I'm a licensed attorney and Your Wealth Bestfriend™️), I've been helping people around the nation find estate planning attorneys in their area. One thing that stood out to me was, people didn't know what questions they should be asking when they received a referral or wandered across an estate planner's website they liked.
You should interview ANYONE you plan to hire. Once you have scheduled an initial consultation with an estate planning attorney here are a few questions to ask them:
1. How long have you been practicing law?
This question is important to determine an attorney’s work history and credibility. There is a major difference between someone who has practiced for 10 or 20 years versus someone who is fresh out of law school. You can also double-check their answer by going to the state bar website. You also need someone who is up-to-date on the laws so more time practicing doesn’t always mean better. Those who may have a deeper understanding are those attorneys who have spent time as a trustee, private fiduciary, or executor.
2. What percentage of your practice is devoted to Estate Planning and why did you choose this area of the law?
Estate planning isn’t usually the only area of law attorney’s practice mostly because it is transactional, they draft documents, and then they may not see those clients again for a few years. So, you should ask this question to see if estate planning is a primary part of their business. Additionally, after Covid-19, many attorneys decided to learn about estate planning so it would be good to know how long they have been drafting estate plans and why they started. Depending on your need, you want to be sure that the attorney can handle a case-specific to yours. If you want to create a Trust but the majority of the Attorney’s practice centers around Wills and litigating probate matters you know you might be in the wrong place. Proceed with the attorney only if they answer the majority of their practice is dedicated to estate planning because you want to make sure they will be current with all changes to legal statutes and have the necessary strategic know-how to carefully word your documents in the most effective way possible.
3. Who is your typical client?
You might want to ask this question because often millennials who are seeking an attorney end up with an attorney raised in a different generation. Therefore, the attorney might not be as tech-savvy as you may like or doesn’t understand alternative assets you might have. This question will help you figure out if the firm will be able to handle a client like you. Attorneys are sworn to zealously defend their client’s interest therefore you want to be sure the attorney understands your situation and your needs in order to effectively represent you.
4. Other than a law degree, do you have any special certifications, training, or knowledge that will benefit me during this process?
Being able to work with someone who has a diverse professional background can increase your chances of hiring the best attorney for you. In California, estate planners can take a certification test that will designate them as a specialist. They can also decide to become Certified Financial Advisors or Certified Financial Planners. Having additional knowledge of financial matters while helping you estate plan could mean you get the best of both worlds. Just make sure they are going to help you create a comprehensive plan that projects you and your assets.
5. What are your fees and what is your billing process? Also, will paralegals or legal assistants handle any portion of my case?
Not only do you need to find someone you feel comfortable with, but you need someone you can afford. Knowing upfront what the fees and retainers are, is crucial. You want the firm to communicate with you regarding their billing practices as well as if they offer any types of payment plan options. Plus, you also want to know how much work the Attorney will be doing and how much may be done by administrative assistants.
6. Are there alternatives to handling my estate?
Good attorneys are those who are honest and transparent about alternative methods that can save you time and money down the road. In estate planning cases, your attorney may suggest a short-term strategy of using your beneficiary designations and writing your will to save on the expenses of creating a trust. Offering multiple strategies, even ones that mean the attorney could make less money working with you could mean they are actually looking out for your best interests, and not just trying to figure out how to make more money.
7. How will you communicate with me while you create my estate plan?
Depending on how an attorney bills you, this question gets even more important. Attorneys who charge by the hour (“billables”) will actually charge you to communicate with them. Writing letters, e-mails, phone calls, in person meetings (all billable). Other attorneys like me charge a flat rate for the case/ plan so that clients can communicate with us without fear of receiving a surprise bill. Ask the attorney the process used to create an estate plan and to clarify how often he/she will be communicating with you about your case. Communication is key for any attorney-client relationship and having peace of mind is priceless.
8. How long should I expect the entire process to last?
Miracles do not happen overnight…but you do want to get an idea of how long the entire process might be. This helps you plan for time you might spend gathering information or taking off of work to meet with the attorney. You do not want to be told that it will only take a few weeks and it ends up taking months. The communication factor applies again where the attorney should give you reasonable timeframes so you know what to expect and can plan accordingly. Estate planning is largely based on you and the information you give so it is going to take some work on your part.
Best Wishes on your search for an estate planning attorney!
Your Wealth Bestfriend!
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If you are looking for a CA estate planning lawyer feel free to schedule a free consultation with the Law Office of J. Eaton.
You can definitely practice asking these questions and are guaranteed to walk away from the meeting with an estate planning educational resource!