8 Questions to Ask Before Hiring an Estate Planning Lawyer

by Jackie Bedard on September 23, 2009

in Estate Planning,General,Trusts,Wills

Before hiring a wills & trusts lawyer to guide you, your family or your business, ask these questions to ensure that you don’t end up paying a whole lot of money for services that are not what you need, expect or want. Hiring an attorney does not have to be a fearful experience. Instead, it can be the most empowered decision you ever make for yourself.

1.  What will happen during an initial meeting with your office and how much will it cost?

When you begin to consider getting your legal and financial affairs in order, the first thing to do is call the offices of lawyers who you will meet with to handle your planning.

This is a great opportunity for a first level screening to find the right lawyer for you, your family and your business. Pay attention to how the phones are answered by the office team. You want to find a lawyer who has a live person answering the phones who can answer quick questions for you when you are a client.

When you do talk with someone on the phone, be sure to ask what will happen at the initial meeting and whether there will be a charge for the meeting.

Look for an educational initial meeting. Ideally, the purpose of the first meeting with your lawyer is not just to get to know him or her, but to provide you with specific guidance and information that will benefit you, your family and your business.

You want to leave this meeting with a clear action plan for what your next steps are to ensure your financial and legal affairs and business are set up the best possible way for your family.

Now, it may be that you have to pay for this guidance so don’t be afraid to do that because it can be a hugely valuable education. The key is, you want to know what the cost is going to be upfront so there are no surprises.

Don’t expect to get valuable information that will help your family during a free initial consultation. When a lawyer routinely gives away their time for a free initial consultation it’s not to give you an education, it’s so you can meet the lawyer and decide whether you want to work with him or her. Don’t expect free legal guidance.

2.  Are all of your fees flat fees? What is included in the flat fee? What is NOT included in the flat fee.

You want to be sure that you avoid a nasty surprise down the road. Some attorneys will indicate that they use flat fees, but then may tack on additional charges such a photocopying, telephone, courier, postage, recording fees and other expenses.  While it may be reasonable in some instances to add on such fees, you want to make sure that you set the proper expectations up front so you don’t end up with a surprise bill in the mail.

3.  Does my planning fee include a regular review of my legal documents? What if I want to make changes later? What about on-going work after completion of my initial plan?

Far too often today, families put in place legal documents and think “great, that’s done”, now I don’t have to think about that anymore. Then, the end of their life comes or a crisis pops up and their family finds out that the documents are out of date and the assets aren’t owned properly anyway. Then, the plan fails. Or, business owners set up an entity to shield their personal assets from their business, but then fail to operate the business properly and keep their entity in compliance. Then, the business plan fails.

I blame these failures on lawyers who don’t set the right expectations for their clients.

The truth of the matter is, with estate planning, you can’t set it and forget it. Your wills and trusts and your business documents are living documents that need to be reviewed and updated throughout your personal or business life. And you want to find a lawyer who will keep everything up to date for you, review your documents regularly, and offer a program to provide you with continuing guidance on an ongoing basis without hourly fees.

Look for a lawyer who has a membership program or ongoing service program so you can reach out to your lawyer on an ongoing basis for legal, financial and business consultation without worrying about being nickled and dimed. Oh, and be sure your lawyer isn’t going to charge you for photocopies and faxes!

4.  Do you make sure my assets are titled in the right way and my business stays in compliance?

You can have the best business structure and the best legal plan set up for your family, but if your assets are not titled and structured properly and if your business does not stay in compliance, it’s all a false sense of security because when push comes to shove and a crisis happens, those legal documents won’t work.

Make absolutely sure that the lawyer you are working with is not only going to put legal documents in place for you, but is also going to finish the job by ensuring your assets are structured properly and your business stays in full compliance.

5.  Can you help me make smart choices about things like buying insurance, saving for college, and retirement planning?

Your personal lawyer can and should help you make decisions not only about things like legal documents, but also about things like buying insurance, saving for college, planning for retirement and all the other challenging decisions that will come up along the way of your life and your business. Your business lawyer should be keeping you informed about things like hiring and firing, trademarking and copyrighting, and growing your business.

This doesn’t mean your lawyer needs to be licensed to sell insurance or financial products or practice employment law or intellectual property, just that they have a big enough breadth of experience and knowledge and access to the appropriate resources that they can be a trusted advisor to you on these issues helping you avoid expensive mistakes.

6.  Do you have a process for helping me capture and pass on my intangible wealth, such as my intellectual, spiritual and human assets or who I am and what’s important to me or do you primarily focus on financial assets?

There’s a movement happening in the world in which we are finally beginning to realize that our wealth is far greater than the sum total of the dollars in our bank, brokerage and retirement accounts. In fact, many of us are becoming aware that our intangible assets are much more valuable.

When you are working with a personal lawyer, be sure to find a lawyer who will help you to capture, document and pass on not just your financial assets, but ALL of your assets, including the most often overlooked intangible assets, like who you are and what’s important to you.

Your lawyer should have in place an actual process so that when your planning is complete, you have created either written or recorded messages to your loved ones that pass on your values, stories, insights and experience.

7.  How are you able to be responsive to my needs on an ongoing basis?

One of the biggest complaints people have about working with a lawyer is that lawyers are notorious for not being responsive. In fact, I’ve heard of situations in which clients have gone weeks without getting a call back from their lawyer.

This generally happens when a lawyer does not have enough administrative support in his or her office. Far too many lawyers believe they can take care of everything in and around their office themselves, from paperwork to client meetings to calendaring to returning phone calls to connecting with their clients other advisors, the list goes on and on. Truth is, a lawyer who is a true solo practitioner without administrative support or in a firm without adequate support will become overwhelmed and non-responsive to your needs.

You can and should ask your lawyer how he or she will respond to your ongoing needs, how quickly calls are returned in the office, if there is someone on hand to answer quick questions and if you should expect to get right through to your lawyer when you call the office.

A great way to test this is to call your prospective lawyer’s office and ask for him or her. If you get put right through or even worse sent to a voicemail, think twice about hiring this lawyer because it means they do not have effective systems in place for managing and responding to calls or answering your quick questions. Instead, what you want is for the person answering the phone or another team member to offer to help you and if he or she cannot then to schedule a call for you to talk with your lawyer at a future date and time when he or she will be ready to focus on your matter.

Your lawyer cannot be effective and efficient if he or she is taking every call that comes through to him or her – all calls should be pre-scheduled when you are both ready and your lawyer can focus on your specific needs.

8.  How will you proactively communicate with me on an ongoing basis?

Unfortunately, most lawyers do a horrible job of proactively communicating with their clients on an ongoing basis. The general thinking in the legal industry is that legal work is transactional in nature and clients will call when something changes. But, this is faulty thinking and in my opinion just pure laziness on the part of lawyers.

You want to look for a lawyer who will proactively communicate with you at least quarterly by mail via an informative, easy to read newsletter and monthly by email. I prefer to hear from the professionals I work with monthly by mail and weekly by email, but progress can only happen so fast.

If you are considering hiring a lawyer who does not proactively communicate with his or her clients, think again. This lawyer might be stuck in an old, outdated mindset that won’t serve your needs in the best possible way.

Don’t be afraid to ask these questions for you hire a lawyer to work with your family on your personal and business legal planning. You need to be satisfied by the answers you receive to these questions, as they often sneak up on families after-the-fact, and can be a major drain on your family’s cashflow.

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