A good trust and estate planning lawyer will be able to provide you with solid advice on:
* What types of documents you’ll need to carry out your wishes
* The costs, benefits, pros and cons of each type of plan
* How to avoid will or trust contests and protect your planning, and
* How to structure your assets to make the plan work properly
But to do the best job, they should also be asking you certain important questions.
By: David M Frees III, JD
Preparing for your first sit-down with a new trust and estate lawyer or estate planner can be more than a little intimidating-even for a sophisticated executive, business owner or single parent of adult children.
After all, a good planner covers a lot of terrain, from analyzing the assets that make up your estate to helping you figure out who should be the executor, whether or not you need living trusts, irrevocable trusts, or trusts under a will.
And, for those and other reasons, our savviest and most sophisticated clients agree that finding the right fit between you and your estate planning lawyer is the key to making the relationship worth your while.
To that end, most of us concentrate on what we should ask a potential adviser during the initial consultation. We rely on our web research, the reputation of the lawyer, his or her experience, and the referral of trusted advisors and friends and family.
But many people don’t realize that a good estate planning lawyer should also be asking you at least seven very important questions at the first meeting where you are deciding whether or not to trust and to hire that lawyer.
1. What is it you hope to accomplish in your estate plan?
A good estate planning lawyer needs to know exactly what you want from the relationship, and what your personal and specific goals include.
Do you have a child or grandchild with special needs?
Do you want to protect heirs from losing an inheritance in divorce?
Do your heirs have different needs such that you’re thinking about a division of your assets that’s other than equal?
How important are tax issues?
Are you concerned about the effect of the inherited wealth on your heirs?
Other goals may also have an impact on what is recommended.
Are you trying to provide for your kids’ or grandchildren’s college and/or a house?
Are you here because you’re worried about your retirement?
Do you need guidance with respect to life insurance issue or protecting assets from creditors, lawsuits and marital discord?
I often tell clients that effective estate planning is a lot like a cooking recipe.
You start with your goals and what you hope to achieve (imagine trying to bake something without really knowing what you’re trying to make in the first place).
Then, a good planner will also consider taxes, lifestyle issues — whatever else you want help with — and how that impacts the planning.
2. Do you expect to remain in your current state of residence and do you have any real estate or second homes in another state?
You might be surprised by some of the personal questions that are asked by a good estate planning lawyer. But, they are very relevant to your planning.
And, if you’re preparing to relocate for work or other reasons, or if your primary residence is in another state, then the effective estate planning counsel might advise you to get local counsel in your new state, or might choose to use a will or trust depending on the laws of your state of primary residence.
If you are ever wondering why an estate planning attorney is asking a particular question, just stop and inquire.
Even good counsel sometimes get so used to asking these questions, that they forget to tell you the very good reasons that they ask.
3. Who should fill the roles of executor, trustees for each type of trust, guardian for minor children, and who will act as an agent under both a financial and medical Power of Attorney?
In any estate plan, selection of the fiduciaries, the people or institutions that will fill each role are vital. And, an estate planning lawyer will carefully define each job for you and tell you how to select the various people, banks, or trust companies to fill each role.
In fact, we provide clients with several great reports on Enhanced Estate Planning and The 10 Most Common Mistakes Executors Make to help clients to be sure that they have picked the right people for each job.
4. Who should be involved in the process and what’s best for you?
When I teach lawyers about the estate planning process, I strongly encourage them to ask their clients:
When is the best time, how often should we contact you, and what’s the best way to contact you?
You see, estate planning lawyers have a history of losing contact with clients after their first appointment.
These lawyers feel that when you’re ready, you’ll be back in touch to sign your documents or to update them.
But my experience over 27 years has taught me that clients value a clear process.
With the clients’ permission, we set up an appointment to review and sign the documents right at the first meeting.
We also clarify if you prefer to receive the documents in draft by mail, or by email.
Finally, if one spouse will be taking the lead and they want all communications through that person, then we will honor that wish.
When it comes to updating, we would like to stay in touch.
We want to remind you as time passes that it’s important to change or update your documents.
So, we offer our clients a news alert by mail and/or email and a two year phone call at no charge to them just to review any changes and to determine if revisions are needed.
5. Have you completed the estate planning questionnaire and accurately recorded the types, values, owners, and beneficiaries of each type of asset?
Again, this is a complicated process. But, if you want your goals to be carried out, it’s necessary to fill out a questionnaire before you go to see an estate planning attorney.
And the attorney should be reviewing that document with you to verify that it’s complete and accurate.
Imagine, if your will provides for one division of assets but your life insurance and/or IRAs have different beneficiary designations.
That can be a serious problem and can mean that your estate plan does not work as intended.
So, a skilled and effective estate planning lawyer will be asking you to complete this type of document and to review it with them.
Take the time. It matters.
6. Do you have any special needs, drug or alcohol, or spending problems with any of the heirs?
This one is often overlooked by clients and lawyers alike. But, in today’s world drug and alcohol dependency, special needs and disabilities all matter very much and special trust provisions may be needed.
Without them, devastating consequences can occur. Be sure that your lawyer asks these questions.
7. Do you understand and feel comfortable with the fees you will pay for the services?
Trust and Estate planning lawyers can have different fee structures.
Some advisers get paid by the hour.
Others (including our lawyers) may bill on a flat fee basis so that you know up front exactly what the planning will cost.
Some may charge an hourly rate for the initial consultation.
In other cases (like ours) the initial consult may be free of charge.
But when it comes to fees, there is one golden rule: transparency and disclosure.
Make sure that the lawyer asks if the fee is acceptable to you and offers to put the fee agreement in writing.
BONUS QUESTION: I always ask my clients if I have “done a great job.”
I tell them that if someone asks what it is like to work with David Frees or one of my attorneys and paralegals, I want them to say it was “excellent!”
I want our clients to be raving fans. And while we cannot always achieve that result for every client we always try.
If the answer is that we’re not doing a great job, then I want to know what else we have to do.
Make sure to hire an estate planning lawyer that’s skilled, experienced, and who wants you to know, to like, and to trust them.
Make sure that they’re trying to make you a raving fan.
You should get better service.