Getting an estate plan together can seem daunting and, while necessary, can also be costly. So how do you decide which estate planning attorney will help you set up an estate plan? First, I strongly recommend using a local attorney. There are lots of attorneys who focus their practice on estate planning in the Triad.
I would counsel against using online Will generators. I can’t tell you how many clients have come in for estate administration help and presented a Will that was done online but does not meet the requirements to be admitted to probate. The only thing worse than not having an estate plan is having one that just causes problems. Find a reputable attorney licensed to practice in North Carolina who focuses his or her practice on estate planning.
But now you must decide which one. The first thing I’d do is ask whether the attorney charges a flat fee for an estate plan or charges by the hour. While some people may have extremely complex situations or assets that are well above the federal tax exclusion amount (approximately $12 million per person as of 2022), that justify hourly fees, most people shouldn’t be paying an attorney by the hour to draft a plan.
Attorneys are very good at making simple things sound complex and estate planning can, in itself, be complex. An attorney who is more worried about their bottom line than about their clients can easily present countless options and scenarios, can set up countless meetings to review and discuss, and can spend hours reviewing your bank statements, asset valuations, and family information. Unless you have assets over $5-6 million or some complicated scenario, you simply don’t need to be charged by the hour. Look for an attorney that charges a flat rate upfront.
Next, ask the estate planning attorney what, if any, software he or she uses to draft Wills and Trusts. Most Wills that I draft are over 25 pages. Most Revocable Living Trusts are over 70 pages. The laws surrounding estate taxes, Medicaid eligibility, creditor protection, bankruptcy, etc. all are constantly changing and so are the tactics and strategies that attorneys use to maximize our client’s benefits.
No attorney can possibly keep up with all those changes and also draft language that has been battle-tested in the courts across the country. Moreover, that attorney may not be around when you finally die or when something happens that activates the provisions in your estate plan. It is critical that attorneys use well-recognized and accepted software to generate language to meet your needs with the input of hundreds of expert attorneys across the country each specializing in a particular area of the law or a particular jurisdiction.
Our office uses WealthCounsel and believes it to be the gold standard in estate planning across the country, but there may be other reputable software companies that specialize in estate planning documents. An attorney who does not use software is likely using a couple of form templates and just sticking the client’s name and family information into the blanks.
I used to do that when I was fresh out of law school and working for a general practice firm. With WealthCounsel, our firm pays a monthly rate that allows me to draft and customize plans to meet an infinite number of scenarios without having to charge each of my clients any huge fees. Thankfully there are lots of attorneys in the area that use the same software so it should be easy to find someone you feel comfortable working with to create your plan.
3. Estate Planning Attorney Expertise
The attorney who handled my speeding ticket does Estate Planning. That’s great. Maybe those are the only two areas of law that he or she practices and they are able to keep up with the law in both. But if that attorney also does personal injury, divorce, and evictions, you might want to look elsewhere.
Law school does a great job of teaching future lawyers how to spot issues and find answers to legal questions, but keeping up with the law and strategies in estate planning is a full-time job. I’m sure personal injury, divorce, and real estate litigation are also very time-consuming. I’d recommend sticking with someone whose primary practice is focused on estate planning with other areas taking up no more than 25% of their practice.
Also, is your attorney getting close to retiring? Does he or she have a succession plan in place for a younger attorney to take over his or her clients after retirement? Things change in life. Sometimes we need to change who is serving in a particular role. Other times the laws change that require updates. Making those changes for my clients is easy. I have everything in our system and can often make a host of changes in under an hour, resulting in a minimal fee.
But if I have someone come in who needs changes to an estate plan that I didn’t draft, I often recommend that they ask the original attorney what they would charge to make those changes. If the old attorney is no longer practicing, it is often cheaper to do a new plan than to pay me or another attorney to review the old documents and then draft amendments or codicils to those documents. If your attorney is about the retire and doesn’t have anyone lined up to take his or her place, you might be creating a big headache down the road that other attorneys don’t want to wade into.
But how much should this cost? Click here for our current up-front pricing for Wills and Revocable Living Trusts. Those plans include as many meetings as we need to be sure you are comfortable with the plan we have worked together to create and all your questions are answered. Sometimes that means a quick phone call, the worksheet, and we are ready to review and sign in the first meeting.
Other times, the situation requires more meetings to discuss complicated scenarios and decide between various options. Regardless, our prices won’t change for you. If after you are all done something changes and you need to make amendments to your estate plan, we just charge by the hour, but can usually make substantial changes for $300.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is that the attorney you select is someone you feel confident has your best interests at heart. We hope you chose our office, but if not, please take the time to find a reputable attorney to help you get a plan in place. Trying to fix things after the fact is much more expensive and troublesome than being proactive.