Tuesday, August 2, 2011

5 Things To Consider When Hiring An Estate Planning Attorney

A few weeks ago I met with a new client. During the first meeting she handed me a will that had been prepared for her last year, shortly after her husband had been diagnosed with a terminal disease. One glance at the will and my first question was, "did a lawyer prepare this -- your SSN is included, and that is not standard practice?" Her response, "yes, but I think he is now in jail." Then, I recently came across this LA Times article explaining how a California lawyer was charged with stealing money and guns from the estate of a deceased friend. The lawyer even committed fraud by filing papers with the court stating he was the executor, when in fact, he was not nominated in the will.

Lawyers are not cheap, so keep the following in mind before hiring one to do your estate plan:
  1. Find an attorney who focuses on estate planning and probate - the jack of all traits lawyer is part of the past. One with a focus will have the most knowledge about drafting a will, and more experience;
  2. Ask friends, family, or other service providers you use (accountant, financial planner, insurance person) for a referral. If they know an attorney they'll either love or hate him/her;
  3. Meet with at least 3 attorneys, even via phone, to determine his/her personality and style. You'll have to share details of your financial and family life with this person. To get the best advice you have to feel comfortable sharing with him/her;
  4. Check the prospective lawyer out with the regulatory system. In Wisconsin that would be Office of Lawyer Regulation, and the State Bar of Wisconsin has information on whether the person is a member of the Bar; and
  5. Upon hiring a lawyer, have them put their terms of service in a contract. I call mine a legal services agreement. It spells out my scope of practice, the services I will offer, the fee structure, when payments are due, and terms for alternative dispute resolution.
Of course there are more factors than these, but keep this list in mind as you seek out counsel for your estate planning and probate needs.

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