Hiring an Estate Planning Attorney: How Does it Work?

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If you’re looking for an estate planning attorney, you should first understand what they do and how the estate planning process works.

An estate planning attorney, or estate planning lawyer, is an attorney who specializes in helping clients plan for the end of life. This includes planning for events before death (like what to do if you’re alive but unable to act for yourself), and events after death (including funeral arrangements, naming guardians for young children, distributing your property and more).

An engagement with an estate planning attorney has 3 main steps, lasts for about 1 month, and costs $3,000 on average.

Note: These days, many people skip hiring an estate planning attorney and use online DIY tools. For simpler cases, this can produce the same or better results. In certain special situations, however, you should hire an estate planning attorney.

3 Estate Planning Steps

Step 1: About You

Time: 1 to 2 weeks

First, the attorney will want to understand your situation. You’ll schedule a time for a consultation (hopefully a free consultation) with the attorney at his or her law firm. You’ll probably also be asked to fill out a several-page questionnaire about your life and property. The purpose of the consultation and questionnaire are to answer the following core estate planning questions.

Core Estate Planning Questions – About You and Your Wishes:
  • Family and Loved Ones. What is your family situation? Who are your closest family members and other loved ones? Do you have any minor children? Do any of your children have special needs?
  • Personal Estate. What do you own? What is your financial situation, and what kinds of financial assets do you have (e.g., checking accounts, stock brokerage accounts, IRAs, life insurance)? Do you own any real estate?
  • Do you have a high net worth (over $10 million), such that the estate tax may be a concern?
  • Beneficiaries.  To whom would you like to leave all of your property?
  • Health Care. What kind of treatment would you want if you were incapacitated (unable to make decisions for yourself)?
  • Agents. If you are incapacitated, who would you want to make health care and financial decisions on your behalf? Once you pass away, who should be your personal representative — the person in charge of settling your estate?

Step 2: Document Drafting

Time: 2 to 4 weeks

Once the attorney has your information, your estate planning documents will be prepared. Basically, these are what you’re paying for. In many law firms, your documents will not actually be prepared by the attorney; they will be prepared by an assistant based on a template that the law firm uses. And then the attorney may review and tweak the documents.

The following are the core estate planning documents:
  • Last Will and Testament States your wishes for your property and minor children (if any) for after you pass away. Usually referred to simply as a “will”.
  • Living Will Describes your preferences for care in a medical emergency and names someone to carry out your health care wishes. This document is sometimes called an advance directive, health care directive, or medical power of attorney.
  • Durable Power of Attorney Names someone you trust to manage your finances if you can no longer make decisions for yourself. A power of attorney is only valid while you are alive.
  • Revocable Living Trust Determines who should manage and receive your property after you pass away without the cost and hassle of waiting for court approval of your will.

Step 3: Document Signing

Time: 1 to 2 weeks

Finally, your documents must be executed according to state law. Your attorney may oversee the execution of your documents and ask law firm staff to serve as witnesses and notarize them.

Note: There is no central registry for storing estate planning documents. So, it is generally up to you to store them in a place where the right people will have access at the appropriate time. Also, many documents don’t take effect automatically — if they aren’t discovered or followed, it’s as if they didn’t even exist. Most attorneys do not like to store original legal documents for clients, because they do not want to be liable in the event something goes wrong.

The End

That ends the typical engagement. At the end of it all, you will have a packet of documents, and probably some instructions telling you how to finish a few final steps, like adding beneficiaries to bank accounts (a really helpful estate planning attorney will help you complete this part, but many do not).

Total time: 1 to 2 months

Costs

On average, a complete estate plan from an estate planning attorney costs $3,000. Of course, this can vary by city and the complexity of your situation.

If you’re looking to hire an estate planning attorney, ask questions to learn as much as possible about pricing up front. Some attorneys will try to avoid giving you a clear price. This is a red flag.

Do I Need an Estate Planning Attorney?

Just like TurboTax did for tax filing, software has made high quality estate planning easy and affordable for the overwhelming majority of people. A good do-it-yourself tool will deliver the same results as an estate planning attorney — legal documents tailored to your situation. (Recall that most law firms simply reuse the same template and make a few changes to it — software can do this better, and doesn’t make mistakes because it’s too busy, tired, or bored.)

Of course, estate planning attorneys generally do not agree with this idea. Just as accountants were critical of TurboTax in its earliest days, estate planning attorneys view estate planning as too specialized to be done properly by software. It simply isn’t so.

Nevertheless, some people should definitely seek legal advice from a professional.

The following are the key considerations for determining whether you need professional legal advice from an estate planning attorney.

  • Special needs children. If you have a child who has special needs, you should work with an estate planning attorney who can help you create a plan that ensures the child is cared for according to your wishes when you’re gone.
  • High net worth. If you have a high net worth (over $10 million), you may want to seek advice from an attorney who can help you create a plan, probably in collaboration with a financial advisor, that considers estate taxes and other legal matters that affect larger estates.
  • Marital considerations. If you have any financial obligations or concerns relating to a divorce, or you expect that you might, an attorney who knows both estate planning and family law can help you create a plan that meets your needs.
  • Special government benefits. If you’re in your old age and government benefits are a critical part of meeting your health care or financial needs, or if you feel like you need to plan for such a situation, you should seek advice from an estate planning attorney who specializes in elder law. Elder law is a practice area under estate planning that focuses on this type of situation.