Creating an estate plan is a personal and often emotional undertaking, making the selection of an estate planning attorney an important process. Here are some questions you should always ask when vetting estate planning attorneys to make sure you’re hiring the right person for the job.
1. Why did they pick estate planning as their practice area?
At its core, estate planning is a personal endeavor. Many estate planning attorneys have personal experiences that influenced their decision to specialize in this area. Asking this question can help you get to know your attorney and their reasons for practicing the way they do. Attorneys you interview should be passionate about their work and happy to share their background and the experiences that brought them to choose estate planning as their practice area. If the attorney you are considering has no particular reason for choosing estate planning, then perhaps you should keep looking.
If you ask me this question the answer is that after graduating from the University of Washington I trained as a real estate appraiser and then soon discovered that I wanted to be more directly involved in facilitating real estate transactions and business start-ups, and so I decided to attend law school. Upon graduating from Santa Clara University School of Law – with a focus on real estate and business law – I then began my practice in the aforementioned areas at a law firm in Lake Tahoe on the California/Nevada border. In 2017 I moved back to the Northwest to start a family, and it was having children that prompted me to undertake an in-depth look at how I should be planning for the unknown in order to protect my hard work and family. Inspired by what I learned, I then rounded out my practice with estate planning to assist similarly situated families achieve their goals.
2. What’s their process?
If you’ve new to estate planning, the unknown of the process can be somewhat intimidating, especially given that the estate planning process can vary quite a bit depending on the attorney and their level of planning. For example, some attorneys may meet with a client only once prior to signing documents and then do not have any additional contact with their clients after signing the documents unless the client initiates it. Other attorneys have multiple meetings prior to signing the documents and additional follow-up meetings afterwards. Understanding the attorney’s process will help you determine whether the level of service they provide is consistent with your expectations, how long the process will take, and what to expect along the way.
If you work with me you can expect a process that includes an in-depth dive into your current situation and long-term goals. Over the course of what typically takes place over several conversations and draft reviews, we’ll then craft a custom-tailored estate plan that can pivot and evolve to whatever life throws at you. After the initial plan is set, I’ll strive to review your plan with you every two to three years to ensure timely updates and revisions.
I view my client relationships and the estate planning process as an evolving endeavor, not a one-and-done task. Also, because my clients pay me set fees for estate planning work, they never have to worry about picking up the phone to ask a question in order to keep legal costs down; I’m here as your guide throughout the process and it’s imperative to me that you feel informed and supported given your unique circumstances and needs.
3. What information do they need from you?
Estate planning relies heavily on you providing complete and accurate information. In fact, the failure to disclose certain information, such as all of the accounts and property that you own, debts or other obligations, or the existence of family members, can completely derail an entire estate plan. Some attorneys will rely on the information they glean from conversations with you while other attorneys like me will want to see supporting documentation, such as copies of deeds, account statements, insurance policies, etc. It is important that the attorney communicate what information will be needed and provide you with adequate time to collect the information.
4. Do other people have to be involved?
Because estate planning is such a personal process that requires the disclosure of highly sensitive information, it is good to know whom your attorney plans to involve in the process. Some people are understandably uncomfortable discussing their private affairs with others and want to limit the disclosure of this information to as few people as possible. If you are married, then your spouse will need to be involved in the process. There is really no way of getting around this, as many laws require the disclosure of certain information to one’s spouse.
Beyond your spouse, there are a few other people who have to be involved. You may have trusted advisors, such as a financial planner, a certified public accountant (CPA), or an insurance agent, who have information that can help in the estate planning process and whom you may want to involve in the process to ensure that it goes smoothly.
For example, a successful estate plan requires the proper coordination of the legal documents prepared by your estate planning attorney and the beneficiary designations on your accounts (such as retirement accounts) and insurance policies. Your attorney can work together with your financial and insurance advisors to ensure that your beneficiary designations are correct and make any necessary updates to them. Your CPA can also be invaluable in helping you understand the interplay of income, estate, and gift taxes and working with your attorney to ensure that your tax savings are maximized to the fullest extent possible. Although these advisors can play an important role, your attorney may be able to limit the amount of information that they share if there are specific details about your estate plan that you do not want divulged to your advisors.
Children do not need to be involved, and in some instances, should not be involved. Although it can be helpful to give adult children an overview of what your estate plan looks like and how it will work after your estate plan is completed, it is not necessary that you involve your children in the decision-making process. If your adult children press strong opinions that differ from yours or if siblings do not all get along, then your children should not be involved in the estate planning process, as this will only be an invitation to challenge your estate plan on the grounds of undue influence later on.
Asking these questions when interviewing a potential estate planning attorney will help you understand if you’d be comfortable working with the attorney, their overall process, and the level of service and communication they would provide. Ultimately, the answers to these important questions will help you determine whether the attorney is a good fit for you and your needs.