Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013
Creating an estate plan does not require working with a professional who wears a pin striped suit and sits behind a mahogany desk with an expensive view of the city skyscape. Yes, a visit to a lawyers office may be needed, or maybe not, but keep in mind there are attorneys who shun the suits and fancy trappings as much as you do. My tips for finding a quality yet down-to-earth attorney include:
- Ask friends and family if they had an attorneys help with a will or powers of attorney. If so, they either love them or hate them, and will gladly tell you about the experience.
- Get a referral from your CPA, financial planner, insurance agent or banker. If you like that person's style, they may know of an attorney who operates the same way.
- Interview three to four attorneys. Yes, interview them. They will be working for you, so take the time to get to know them first. If they are unwilling to talk briefly or are not forthcoming, move on. Keep in mind that to get gold-star legal advice you must be willing to disclose information related to family structure and finances. You have to open up to this person, so make sure your personalities align. In the course of my practice I have had clients share very private aspects of their life, including giving up children for adoption in high school. Planning can be emotional. Make sure you are comfortable enough to trust this person with information about your finances, family structure, and legacy aspirations. If not you cannot share the intimate details of your life with your attorney, the legal advice will be limited at best.
- Find an attorney who focuses on estate planning and probate. Sure your cousin may have a bankruptcy practice and be willing to give you a family discount. But first ask yourself, would you have your allergist perform your c-section? Most likely not. Focus areas mean the attorney should have precise and in-depth knowledge of wills, powers of attorneys, and probate. Generalists run the risk of spreading their knowledge too thin.
- Opt for a flat-fee attorney instead of one with an hourly rate. This means you will be less likely to keep looking at your watch, wondering how much will this cost, allowing you to thoroughly interact with your attorney.
- Check out the attorney with the regulatory agency. This will be state specific. Some regulatory or professional associations merely collect dues and require attorneys to sit through continuing legal education. You want to check out the attorney with the licensing entity to find out if other clients have filed complaints. Sadly, it is not unheard of for attorneys to steal from client funds or show up drunk to court. Investigate if you can.
- Get it in writing. Request that the attorney put the terms of service in writing – how to they charge (flat-fee, hourly, etc.), what do they charge, what services are offered, what services are not offered (I, for example do not complete tax returns for clients because I am not a CPA). Some states may require this information, called an engagement letter or legal services agreement, and others may not. Either way, getteing the terms on paper is smart before hiring an attorney.