By Michael A. Dolan
A common question I hear as I teach around the state is, “How do we find the best estate planning attorney to help us?”
It’s a tough question to answer. But knowing the questions to ask can help you find the best attorney for your family. Here are some questions to ask about all three phases of planning. What follows, in three phases, are eight key questions to ask.
Phase 1, design
1. “Please tell me about your background and experience in estate planning.” There are many attorneys who focus strictly on estate planning, so why work with a generalist? Many professionals see estate planning as merely probate and tax avoidance. The best attorney will help with that, but will also focus on ensuring that your personal and family goals are achieved, that relationships are preserved, and that wisdom from the elder generation passes to the younger.
2. “How do I prepare for our meeting?” The best attorneys will have detailed checklists and instructions to prepare you for decision-making. Many offer workshops on estate planning issues to educate you, so you can be informed before you sit down with the attorney’s “meter running.”
3. “How will you counsel me in designing my plan?” Many attorneys ask a few simple questions. Then they steer you into their latest one-size-fits-all (which really fits no one well) generic document, developed for a predetermined standard result. The best attorneys will invest the time and effort to educate you, offer a wide variety of options, and work with you until each decision is tailored to your wishes.
4. “How much will you charge?” Remember to ask about all three planning phases; don’t just focus on getting documents. Hourly fees make people hesitant to explore alternatives. The best attorney will commit plenty of time to you, and early in the process can quote a fee for the entire project; then, no one will nervously watch the clock!
Phase 2, updating
5. “How do you ensure that my plan will capture my assets?” Misdirected assets are what prevent most wills and trusts from meeting objectives. Joint ownership and beneficiary designations can make assets bypass your carefully designed instructions. The best attorney will help you align every asset you own now as well as the ones you acquire later.
6. “What will it cost to keep my plan current?” Tax laws alone change about every two years; other laws continually evolve. Updating every five or 10 years just won’t do! The best attorney will systematically update your plan on a predetermined schedule — every two to three years — for a predetermined fee. Just like routine maintenance of equipment, it saves money in the long run.
Phase 3, transfer
7. “How will my family be involved? Do you educate and prepare them for the transfer of my farm?” In order for your family to stay in control of the process and the costs, they will need to be prepared before your death.
8. “How much will you charge my family to help them after my death?” The best attorney will give you a firm estimate, or at least disclose a fee schedule, so your family won’t be surprised later (there are costs to administer both wills and trusts. If they say they charge by the hour, they have told you nothing about the eventual cost).
The best attorney will welcome these questions and won’t hesitate to answer them!
With thanks to Curt Ferguson, who contributed to this column. Dolan, an attorney, helps farm and ranch families achieve comprehensive estate, succession and legacy planning objectives. Dolan is the principal of Dolan & Associates P.C. in Brighton, Colo. Learn more at his website, estateplansthatwork.com.