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. It's thus extremely important to make sure assets are managed prudently and that next generational family members will receive inheritances, without incident.
Although 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.
- It's important to have a solid estate plan in place to ensure that 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 personal matters.
When building an estate plan, you may have a variety of concerns, including the following:
- Maintaining an orderly administration of assets while you are living
- Managing estate assets flexibly while you are living
- Reviewing estates involving tenants in common or community property
- Considering assets in multiple states
- Examining small business assets
- Naming your children’s legal guardian
- Ensuring that your heirs and loved ones receive your assets
- Helping to reduce or avoid conflicts and confusion
- Minimizing legal expenses and taxes
- Assessing wealth preservation
These topics and the questions below are a good place to start when searching for the best attorney for your needs.
Estate Planning Tips
Questions for Your Potential Estate-Planning Lawyer
The following questions will help you to learn about estate planning and to determine if a prospective estate-planning attorney is right for you.
Is Your Primary Focus on Estate Planning?
Proceed with a candidate only if they answer "yes" to this question. An estate specialist will be current with all changes to legal statutes and have the necessary strategic know-how to carefully word your documents in the most effective way possible.
How Long Have You Been Practicing?
Obviously, you should strive to find the most experienced attorney possible—one who has seen prepared documents take effect after a client's death. Such attorneys will have faced challenges from courts or the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and will know how to overcome any hurdles.
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.
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, as adjustments to your plan may be necessary if you experience a life change or a change in your finances. New legislative amendments also could potentially change aspects of your estate planning.
What Is Your Estate Tax Experience? How Can I Best Manage Estate Taxes?
Case in point: The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 raised the estate tax and generation-skipping tax exemptions until 2025.
Can You Help Me Create a Comprehensive Estate Plan that Includes Wills, Trusts, and Life Insurance?
You may have multiple types of wills, trusts, and life insurance plans and comprehensive estate plans can include all of these. So it's important that your estate attorney is knowledgeable in these areas. You might want your estate attorney to help you understand the nuances of each estate-planning tool and discern the ones that might be right for you.
How Do You Charge?
Many estate-planning attorneys charge flat fees, instead of 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.
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.
What Other Issues Do you Address?
As life expectancy increases, 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.
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 may not be a general tax expert or investment advisor. Give yourself enough time to gain a broader, big-picture perspective on your estate plan and the logistical practicalities of implementing it.
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 about what can be changed later, and what is irrevocable.
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 important to know that an associate or paralegal will be available to answer questions in an emergency if your lawyer is not available.
Does Your Firm Typically Name Itself As Trustee/Executor?
The answer to this question should be no, as a "yes" suggests a conflict of interest, among other issues. A spinoff question might be "does a subsidiary of your firm do asset management?" The answer to this question should also be a "no."
Some Questions for You
Here are several questions you should ask yourself:
- When meeting with a potential estate planning lawyer, how comfortable do you feel?
- Does your advisor communicate well and clearly?
- Do you agree with their general values? How does their bedside manner make you feel?
- Do you have a good rapport?
- Can you envision speaking with this individual about very personal matters?
Trust your instinct to determine if a particular estate-planning attorney is right for you. Estate planning can be complex, both emotionally and legally, so it's imperative to choose an attorney who can deftly handle all of its elements.