Estate planning can be difficult to think about. Overall, it forces individuals to contemplate fiscal matters that will occur while they are living and after their own deaths. Therefore, it is extremely important to make sure assets are managed prudently and that next generational family members will receive inheritances, without incident.
While any lawyer can draw up a simple will for straightforward situations, such as naming the beneficiary of one's 401(k), seasoned trust-and-estate lawyers can help navigate more complicated situations involving several trusts and multiple heirs.
Comprehensively, there can be a variety of top concerns you may have when building an estate plan, some of which include the following:
- Maintaining orderly administration of assets while you are living
- Flexibility in managing estate assets while you are living
- Estates involving tenants in common or community property
- Assets in multiple states
- Small business assets
- Ensuring your children’s legal guardian
- Ensuring that heirs and loves ones receive your assets
- Helping to reduce or avoid conflicts and confusions
- Minimizing legal expenses and taxes
- Wealth preservation
All of these topic areas and the questions below can be a good place to start when opening a search process to find the best attorney for helping you with your needs and ensuring lasting peace of mind.
- It's important to have a solid estate plan in place, to make sure your loved ones receive your assets without a hassle or undue delay after your death.
- There are many questions you should ask prospective estate-planning attorneys before hiring one to craft your estate plan.
- Above all, make sure you hire an attorney who demonstrates a high-touch level of service, and with whom you feel comfortable discussing highly personal matters.
Estate Planning Tips
Questions for an Estate-Planning Lawyer
The following questions will help you to learn about estate planning and also help in determining if a prospective estate planning attorney is the right match for you.
1) Is your primary focus on estate planning?
Only proceed with a candidate whose answer to this question is a hard “yes.” An estates specialist will be current with all changes to the legal statutes and will have the strategic know-how needed to carefully word your documents in the most valid and effective manner possible.
2) How long have you been practicing?
Obviously, you should strive for finding the most experienced attorney possible, who has seen his prepared documents take effect after a client's death. Such attorneys will have faced challenges from courts and/or the IRS, and will know how to overcome these hurdles.
3) Do you actually execute the plan?
Some lawyers merely draw up estate planning documents, while others also execute the associated trusts. It's generally more efficient to retain a lawyer in the latter category, who can ensure that the correct assets are transferred into the trust.
4) Do you conduct periodic reviews?
For a small fee, some estate-planning attorneys will semi-annually or annually review your affairs. This can be important, because adjustments to your estate plan may be necessary if you experience a life change, altered finances, or if legislative amendments potentially change aspects of your estate planning.
5) What is your estate tax experience and how can I best manage for estate taxes?
Case in point: the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 raised the estate tax and generation-skipping tax exemptions until 2025. To understand more about how taxes will be charged on your estate see also: Estate Tax and How Does the New Tax Law Affect Your Estate Plan?
6) Can you help me create a comprehensive estate plan that includes wills, trusts, and life insurance?
There can be multiple types of wills, trusts, and life insurance plans. Some complex, comprehensive estate plans may include all of these. Making sure your estate attorney is knowledgeable in these areas is usually very important. You will also likely want to turn to your estate attorney for advice in the nuances of each estate planning tool and which might be right for your individual situation.
7) How do you charge?
Many estate-planning attorneys charge flat fees, rather than billing by the hour. Some do both, where they charge a fixed rate for standard services like establishing a trust, then charge an hourly rate for special research tasks. In any case, it's wise to inquire about compensation models ahead of time, to avoid surprises.
8) How do you feel about a revocable living trust?
Putting assets into a revocable living trust can avoid the costly and onerous probate process (filing a will with the court). But this may not be the best move for everyone, because revocable living trusts don't avoid inheritance, estate, or income taxes. Unfortunately, some lawyers recommend these structures simply so they can charge more money.
9) Which other issues do you address?
As life expectancies increase, so does the probability of long-term physical and mental health issues. Estate attorneys should help clients fiscally prepare for the possibility of disability or dementia by drawing up powers of attorney, healthcare directives, and living wills.
10) How long will it take you to complete my estate-planning project?
While there is generally no extreme rush, bear in mind that you may wish to discuss aspects of your estate plan with other professionals, such as accountants, retirement planners, or money managers. While an estate attorney's expertise may overlap with these fields, they are not usually general tax experts or investment advisors. Give yourself enough time to gain a broader, big-picture perspective on your estate plan, and the logistical practicalities of implementing it.
11) Will you send estate-planning documentation for me to review?
Even if you’re working with an experienced estate-planning attorney, it's essential to review all documents and forms to avoid any miscommunication. Be clear on what can be changed later, and what is irrevocable.
12) Will anyone else in your office be able to discuss my issues in your absence?
While most estate-planning attorneys strive to make themselves available to their clients at any time, it's still important to know that an associate or paralegal will be available to answer questions in an emergency situation.
A Question for Yourself
After all is said and done, rely on your instincts to determine if a particular estate-planning attorney is someone you feel comfortable working closely with. Estate planning can be complex, both on emotional and legal fronts, so it's imperative to choose an attorney who can deftly handle all elements.