10 Questions to Ask Before Hiring an Estate Planning Lawyer
Before hiring an estate planning lawyer to guide you and your family, ask these 10 questions to ensure that you don’t end up paying a whole lot of money for services that are not what you need, expect or want. Hiring an attorney does not have to be a fearful experience. Instead, it can be the most empowering decision you ever make for yourself.
1. Do you prepare a comprehensive plan for my kids’ care if something happens to me, like the Kids Protection Plan™ that names short and long‐term guardians and gives specific instructions to all of the guardians and my caregivers? What about an ID card for my wallet listing the short‐term guardians with their contact information?
Most estate planning attorneys will tell you that a will is sufficient to name your children’s guardianship nominations. This is not true. What if you become incapacitated? A will would be insufficient. Secondly, a will is designed only to name your children’s long-term legal guardians but does not address any short-term guardians, which can be absolutely critical. Equally important is a confidential exclusion of guardians – to ensure those you don’t want to be your children’s guardians cannot serve. Instructions to caregivers including babysitters on things never to do in case of an emergency is also vital. This alone can prevent your children from being transferred to Child Protective Services.
The sad reality is most attorneys don’t offer a comprehensive approach like a Kids Protection Plan™ so it’s important to find out why they don’t.
2. Are all of your fees flat fees? What about for ongoing work after the initial completion of my estate plan documents?
There is no need to be afraid to talk with your lawyer about how he/she bills for the work they will do on your behalf. In fact, when you first call a lawyer’s office, this is one of the very first questions you should ask. No one wants surprises!
If when you call the attorney’s office, they will not give you any information about how they charge for their services or any expectation of what things will cost, beware you could be in for some big surprises about what things cost down the road.
Look for a lawyer who bills all of their services on a flat-fee, project basis and never on an hourly basis, unless required to by the Court for limited purposes. In every event, be sure the lawyer you choose promises to never send you an unexpected bill in the mail for quick phone calls or emails.
3. What happens when I call with legal questions two years after my planning documents were completed? What if the questions are about something other than my estate plan?
In today’s complex world, most lawyers have specialized training in one or more specific practice areas, such as divorce, bankruptcy, wills & trusts, estates, personal injury, business, criminal matters or employment. You definitely do NOT want to be working with a lawyer who professes to be an expert in anything that walks through the door. However, you will want your lawyer to have a broad enough expertise that you can consult with them on all sorts of legal or financial issues that come up in your life.
Look for a lawyer who has an ongoing service program or membership program in place so that you can pay a low monthly fee and be able to call with all of your legal and financial questions without being charged hourly for the consultation. And be sure that when you call, you’ll get to schedule time to talk with your own personal lawyer who you know and trust and not get passed off to one of any number of lawyers who happen to work in the office and may not know who you are or what’s important to you.
4. Do you have a whole team in place or is it just you? What happens if something happens to you or you retire?
This is a critically important question to ask any service professional when beginning a relationship and it’s a question that is far too often overlooked. Sure, it may feel uncomfortable to ask, but a truly excellent, client-centered service provider will have in place a plan to ensure their clients are taken care of no matter what happens to the lawyer in the future.
Answers you want to look for here are that your lawyer has a clear plan in place for someone warm and caring to take over your matter without providing any interruption of service to you. If your lawyer prepared a Will, Trust and other estate planning documents for you, or you are in the middle of a divorce or lawsuit, you want to ensure your lawyer has a plan in place so you won’t need to start everything over from scratch. And, if you are on a membership program with your lawyer, you’ll want to make sure he or she has a relationship with a lawyer or network of lawyers who can continue to serve you under that program.
5. Do you make sure my assets are titled in the right way? How?
You can have the best business structured and the best legal plan set up for your family, but if your assets are not structured properly and if your business does not stay in compliance, it’s all a false sense of security because when push comes to shove and the crisis happens, those legal documents won’t work.
Make absolutely sure that the lawyer you are working with is not only going to put legal documents in place for you but also is going to finish the job, by ensuring your assets are structured properly and your business stays in full compliance.
6. What happens when things change in my life? Do you notify me about changes in the law? How often do you communicate with me?
Unfortunately, most lawyers do a horrible job of proactively communicating with their clients on an ongoing basis. The general thinking in the legal industry is that legal work is transactional in nature and clients will call when something changes. But, this is faulty thinking and in our opinion is just pure laziness on the part of lawyers.
You want to look for a lawyer who will proactively communicate with you at least quarterly by mail via an informative, easy to read the newsletter and monthly by email. I prefer to hear from the professionals I work with monthly by mail and weekly by email, but progress can only happen so fast.
If you are considering hiring a lawyer who does not proactively communicate with his or her clients, think again. This lawyer might be stuck in an old, outdated mindset that won’t serve your needs in the best possible way.
7. Does my planning fee include a regular review of my plan? What if I want to make changes to my plan?
Far too often today, families put in place legal documents and think “Great, that’s done. Now I don’t have to think about that anymore!” Then, the end of their life comes or a crisis pops up and their family finds out that the documents are out of date and the assets aren’t owned properly anyway. Then, the plan fails. Or, business owners set up an entity to shield their personal assets from their business, but then fail to operate the business properly and keep their entity in compliance. Then, the business plan fails.
We blame these failures on lawyers who don’t set the right expectations for their clients.
The truth of the matter is legal documents are not “set it and forget it.” Your wills and trusts are living documents that need to be reviewed and updated throughout your personal life. And you want to find a lawyer who will keep everything up to date for you, review your documents regularly, and offer a program to provide you with continuing guidance on an ongoing basis without hourly fees.
Look for a lawyer who has a membership program or ongoing service program so you can reach out to your lawyer on an ongoing basis for legal, financial and business consultation without worrying about being nickled and dimed. Oh, and be sure your lawyer isn’t going to charge you for photocopies and faxes!
8. Do you have a process for helping me capture and pass on my intangible wealth, such as my intellectual, spiritual and human assets or who I am and what’s important to me?
There’s a movement happening in the world in which we are finally beginning to realize that our wealth is far greater than the sum total of the dollars in our bank, brokerage and retirement accounts. In fact, many of us are becoming aware that our intangible assets are much more valuable.
When you are working with a personal lawyer, be sure to find a lawyer who will help you to capture, document and pass on not just your financial assets, but ALL of your assets, including the most often overlooked intangible assets, like who you are and what’s important to you.
Your lawyer should have in place an actual process so that when your planning is complete, you have created either written or recorded messages to your loved ones that pass on your values, stories, insights, and experience.
9. Can you structure my estate plan so that whatever I leave to my kids will be protected from a lawsuit against them or if they are divorced in the future? How often do you build that kind of planning into client’s plans?
Today, there are new technologies in legal planning that allow you to have the maximum assurance that your children will never be left in the care of anyone you wouldn’t want, even in the short term while the authorities are figuring out what to do. Be sure that your lawyer provides a comprehensive Kids Protection Plan® for the care of minor children, including ID cards for your wallet and instructions for your caregivers, listing out the names and numbers of local people who have the legal authority to care for your kids, if you can’t.
In addition, be sure your lawyer talks with you about cutting edge technologies that allow you to pass on your assets to your children in such a way that when they do get control over their inheritance, it cannot be lost to a divorce or even a lawsuit filed against your child. They get to control it, without risking it. Not all lawyers know how to put these strategies into place the right way, so be sure to ask before you move forward with planning not only if your lawyer does, but how often he or she has in the past. These strategies have many traps for the unwary, so you don’t want a lawyer who isn’t well-versed in these strategies testing them out on you.
10. Can you help me make smart choices about things like buying insurance, saving for college, and retirement planning?
Your personal lawyer can and should help you make decisions not only about things like legal documents but also about things like buying insurance, saving for college, planning for retirement and all the other challenging decisions that will come up along the way of your life and your business.
Your lawyer stands in a fiduciary relationship to you and you should never sign another legal document again (even a loan document or simple agreement) without having your lawyer take a look and make sure it’s in your best interest. If your lawyer says he or she can’t guide you on these things, look for one who can. This doesn’t mean your lawyer needs to be licensed to sell insurance or financial products or practice employment law or intellectual property, just that they have a big enough breadth of experience and knowledge that they can be a trusted advisor to you on these issues helping you avoid expensive mistakes.
When you ask these 10 questions before hiring a lawyer for any type of legal matter, you will know you are engaging a trusted advisor who will help you to make the very best decisions for you and your family.