An estate plan attorney can help you ensures that your family will inherit what you leave behind. And if you can’t manage your affairs for some reason, an estate plan can appoint someone to manage things for you.
Here are 10 things to consider when choosing an estate plan attorney.
1. Does the Attorney Focus on Estate Planning?
Estate planning is a complicated area of the law. Not only does it involve tax planning and knowing what happens to different assets if you die. The attorney is also thinking about how to help you and your family avoid a myriad of problems.
Think of it like this. Some doctors are general practitioners. Other doctors specialize in certain areas of medicine such as cardiology, allergy and immunology, and Anesthesiology.
It’s the same with attorneys. Some are generalists, and there are some who limit their practices to a specific area of the law.
The benefit of going to an estate plan attorney (rather than a general practitioner) is this. An attorney who focuses on estate planning is more likely to be up to date on the current law. They will be more familiar with issues surrounding that practice area. As a result, the solution they suggest will be more thought through, compared to the solution suggested by a generalist.
2. Don’t Trust Internet Directories
Internet directories are businesses. They make their money by charging attorneys to be included in the directory. The attorneys at the top of the list … the ones who the directory promotes … are the ones who pay more money.
Do you remember the Yellow Pages? That’s essentially what internet directories are.
If you are going to choose an attorney on the internet, use a site that is third-party verified. That means that the attorney is not paying the directory to be listed. Rather the directory lists and ranks the attorney based on objective criteria.
One such verification site is Martindale-Hubbell. Becoming AV-rated on Martindale-Hubbell requires that a significant number of other lawyers vouch for the lawyer’s reputation, capability and professionalism.
3. Beware of Bar Association Referral Hotlines
Local County bar associations are businesses. They make money from charging lawyers to sign up for their referral services. Here in the Phoenix, Arizona area we have the Maricopa County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service. When you call them, they will ask you to pay a small fee. The bar association keeps that money. Then they give you the name of an attorney who has requested to get your type of case.
Notice what is missing. The bar association has not vetted the lawyer. You don’t know how much experience the lawyer has. The lawyer could be a general practitioner and may not have a lot of experience working on your type of case. You are simply getting the name of a lawyer who is in good standing with the bar association and has paid the annual dues.
4. Has the Attorney Published Anything Related to Estate Planning?
An attorney who is dedicated to an area of law will usually write something. Find out if the attorney has had any books published. Do they actively write on a blog? Have they been published in any professional journals. Reading something the attorney has written will help you judge his or her qualifications and experience.
5. Be Skeptical of Fancy Slogans and Marketing
Words like “we are problem solvers,” “we care for our clients,” or “we protect your assets” are meaningless. That’s what all estate plan attorneys would say. The real issue is how well they protect your assets. Think of it like a car … some cars protect you better than others. But all car companies will say they protect you and that they care for you.
That being said, if the website mentions “Estate Plan” or “Estate Planning,” at least you know it’s an area of practice for the law firm.
Also, a lot of the words on a website are they for purposes of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). That means the words are there to help you (the potential client) find the website.
6. Find Out If the Estate Plan Attorney Has Malpractice Insurance
Malpractice insurance is a type of insurance that can pay you in the event the attorney makes a mistake. Here’s an example that really happened. In 2021, our law firm sued another law firm for malpractice. The attorney had failed to help the client transfer assets to a trust. The client died soon after. Because of the attorney’s failure, the trust assets went to a relative that the client did not intend. We couldn’t go after the beneficiary of the trust, because he had done nothing wrong. Thankfully, the attorney had malpractice insurance that paid the intended beneficiaries.
A lawyer who does not care enough about his or her clients to carry insurance is probably not someone you want working on your case. Attorneys are not required to have malpractice. However, they will report whether they have malpractice insurance or not on the state bar association website.
7. Ask What Law School the Attorney Attended
Some law schools are harder to get into than others and only accept the best students. Law schools in the U.S. are divided into four tiers. The top 14 schools are in the first tier. There are 35 schools in the second tier.
To get into law school, a person needs to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). That grades a person’s analytical and reading ability in a timed test. Generally speaking, the higher a person’s LSAT score, the better the law school they will get into. Ask the attorney where he or she went to law school.
8. Find Out If the Attorney Belongs to Relevant Professional Organizations
A serious estate plan attorney will belong to at least one professional organization such as WealthCounsel. It is an expense for the attorney, and it shows their dedication to having the best legal documents and staying current on legal issues. Such a professional organization will meet regularly, and the attorneys will ask each for advice on how to handle different situations.
9. Don’t Just Pick the Closest Estate Plan Attorney
The best attorney for you may not be the closest geographically. On average, you only need to see the estate plan attorney once or twice every five years. So it’s worth the commute to see someone who you feel will be best. Also, since the Covid-19 outbreak, many attorneys can provide their services by video or phone.
There is probably just a handful of estate plan attorneys near you. Find the best one in your area for you and your family, and don’t worry about finding the absolute closest one.
10. Interview your prospects
After you’ve narrowed your list to your top few candidates, ask them for an initial consultation. (Sometimes they call this a strategy session or something else). An estate plan attorney may or may not charge you for an initial consultation.
Come prepared for your first meeting by having a list of question to ask. Here are some suggestions:
- How long have you been practicing?
- Where did you get your education?
- How many other clients with my situation have you helped?
- How will you communicate with me?
- What are the best ways to contact you?
- Will you be my point of contact, or will it be someone else, such as a paralegal?
- Will you send me updates about the status of my plan, or should I expect to take the initiative?
- How will you charge, and what is your rate (hourly vs. fixed rate)?
- Are any charges not included in that rate?
Remember, this initial consultation is your chance to find an attorney who is the best fit for you. Trust your instincts and find an attorney you’re comfortable with.
What We Did Not Include In The List (And Why).
Getting a Referral from an Attorney or Other Advisor
This is sometimes good advice. But it really depends on “why” the advisor is referring the attorney to you. For example, professional advisors (including attorneys) typically belong to networking groups. The group expects its members to make referrals to each other (regardless of how good the member is). And the group may not require its members to be committed to excellence or have experience. Often the group is simply formed around the people liking each other and hoping to get referrals from each other.
Frankly, a better way to find an estate plan attorney is by following the 10 tips listed above.
Look at their website.
You should definitely look at the attorney’s website. However, we considered this part of seeing what the attorney has published. Also, many attorneys hire a company to create their website. They often don’t write the content on the site themselves.
A competent estate plan attorney will feature “estate planning” (or language to that effect) prominently in the language of the website. They will have blog posts about things such as living trusts, preparing for incapacity, probate, and so forth. A general practitioner will also have information about unrelated topics such as criminal law, divorce, or personal injury. (Remember the tip above about not choosing a general practitioner to do your estate plan.) Estate planning is a complex area of the law. And it is unlikely that someone who does criminal law or family law can also prepare a well thought through, comprehensive estate plan.
To summarize this point about the attorney’s website, definitely check it out to see how much information they provide about their practice area. Do they specialize in wills and trusts? What other areas does their firm cover? Is there any information about their background?
Reviews from other clients.
It is a good idea to look at the attorney’s online reviews. However, just become one attorney has more reviews than another one does not necessarily mean anything. It could simply mean that they have implemented an internal system for collecting online reviews. Also, it is possible to pay for online reviews, so they do not necessarily mean anything.
Finding out who they work with.
This would be a great idea if you were hiring any other professional. However, the ethics rules applicable to attorneys prohibit them from disclosing the identity of his clients. The identify of an attorney’s client is confidential. Thus, there is no way to verify whatever the attorney says.
That being said, you can ask how many other similar clients the estate plan attorney has helped.
A Note About The Name Of Our Law Firm
Don’t be scared off by the name of our firm. The name of our law firm is Sudden Wealth Protection Law because we help prevent the next generation from squandering their inheritance. We want a smooth transition of your money, property, values and legacy to your heirs. You spent a lifetime accumulating what you have. Do you want it getting spent within six months after you pass away? Or do you want it to mean something and be more helpful to the next generation(s)?
Ready to Start Your Estate Plan?
We’re hoping that this checklist of 10 things to consider when choosing an estate plan attorney has been helpful. We would love to be your estate plan law firm. At SWPL, we work tirelessly to help our clients plan for and enjoy their retirement years. Call us at 602-443-4888 or use our convenient Contact Form. We’re here to help.