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How Do I Select An Estate Planning Attorney

Lawyers are advising clients about real estate law.
  1. If a person has an estate that will not be subject to estate tax at death, his or her attorney needs are different than that of a person’s whose estate will be subject to estate tax. If the estate is not going to be taxed, what a person needs is a reasonably priced attorney who has some experience in estate planning, is a clear and concise draftsperson, is trustworthy, and a person that the client enjoys working with.
  2. If a person has a taxable estate, on the other hand, a tax specialist is required. An attorney with an LLM in Taxation, or who teaches estate tax at a law school, or who publishes articles on sophisticated tax matters would be a wise choice.  An attorney at a national (or regional) law firm is more likely to have the ability to focus on that tax law and develop an expertise than an attorney at a smaller firm that has to do a little bit of everything. 
  3. Though an attorney’s hourly rate is important, the real question one should ask is “how much will it cost to complete my estate plan?” In general, more senior experienced attorneys with higher hourly rates are involved in developing tax planning strategy and reviewing documents for final quality control check before client execution, while drafting is typically delegated to younger attorneys billing at lower rates.  This creates a more cost effective structure overall without compromising access to attorney sophistication level – and a few hours of a high hourly rate tax specialist can pay for itself many times over.
  4. In addition, ask “what will you accomplish for that fee?” In other words, what is the value I am getting in return if I pay your fee. Any attorney can draft a Will and trust at a low fee, but if the attorney does not: (a) fund the living trust; (b) check beneficiary designations for life insurance and retirement plan assets; (c) coordinate title to assets so that they pass as one desires; and (d) include health care powers as part of the job – then a person can end up with estate planning documents but without an effective estate plan.  If a fee quote is significantly less than others, it’s more likely than not it’s because the attorney has not included the extra work necessary to produce a complete plan for that fee.
  5. If the goal is for the estate planning attorney to assist the family in the administration of the estate, a lawyer who is 10 years younger than the client may be a good fit. If that attorney works at a firm with others in the estate planning practice (rather than as a sole practitioner), if the attorney retires there are others who can assist.
  6. The estate planning attorney will become the repository of your family’s deepest secrets – so be sure the attorney has a reputation for keeping confidences.
  7. Make sure the attorney has a reputation for responsiveness, follow-through, and is someone you feel comfortable with. An ability to explain difficult concepts in “plain English” is important.  For clients with large estates, creativity can make all the difference between a good of enough plan and a knock it out of the park plan. 
  8. Checking three references for the attorney before making the hiring decision is a best practice.
  9. “Ratings” services can give some direction to the hiring decision. A member of ACTEC is almost certain to be skilled.  Some who is certified by their State bar association as an estate planning “specialist” is also likely to be effective.  A “Super Lawyer” or “Best Lawyer” designation is not as certain, but is suggestive that the attorney will be knowledgeable.

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