How do I pick an Estate Planning Attorney?
Things to consider in your selection
That brings us to how you select a good estate planning attorney. Maybe you don’t live near my office or want to shop around a little before making a decision. I would encourage you to call a couple attorney and get a feel for them. No attorney is the best fit for everyone. As you make those calls though, here are some things to consider and inquire about.
First, how does the attorney set the price? Do they give an estimate, but ultimately charge by the hour? Hourly billing makes sense in litigation and areas of the law where it is impossible to determine how much time a matter will take. In all but the most complex estate planning matters, it doesn’t make sense. The legislature is made up of lawyers. The laws seem to be complex and confusing meaning that only lawyers can navigate them. As a group, we are also very capable of taking something simple and making it sound complex or running through endless options and choices even when those options and choices aren’t fully applicable to the situation. Like doctors or mechanics, there are good and ethical attorneys and there are not so great attorneys. Using an hourly billing structure makes is a lot easier for the not so great attorney to charge completely ridiculous fees. I also don’t ask for any money upfront. If an attorney you are considering wants a deposit, I’d recommend offering him or her half up front. Just like dealing with contractors and mechanics, leaving an incentive for them to do the work and be responsive to you is just good business.
Second, how much should I pay for an estate plan? I use flat fee billing. A basic estate plan consists of a Last Will and Testament, Personal Property Memorandum, Durable Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney, Living Will / Advanced Directive for Natural Death, Advanced Mental Health Instruction, HIPPPA Release, and the forms to register some of that with the Secretary of State. As of 2023, I charge a flat rate of $750 for an individual or $1,300 for a married couple. If you decide to utilize a trust, the price for the entire estate plan increases to $1,500 for an individual or $2,500 for a married couple. The only added cost to that is deed work. If we decide to change the ownership of real property, we need to draft and record a deed. Most of the time those deeds are $131 including the recording costs from the register of deeds. All that said, cost is only one factor. If you find an attorney you really like who checks the other boxes we’ll discuss but charges a bit more, maybe that’s the move. But if the attorney is charging double or triple that, maybe ask whether you are really getting value for that.
Third, the bar does not require that an attorney prove he or she understands estate planning. In NC, like most states, if you pass the bar, you can practice just about any kind of law. There are plenty of attorneys that will do whatever walks in the door, whether that’s representing a criminal defendant, suing a company, or handling a messy divorce. Not many attorneys can be good at more than a couple areas of law. Make sure that whatever attorney you select focuses at least a third of their practice on estate planning. And that they have experience. Knowing the law very well is important, but experiencing how it can impact real life and the kinds of things that can disrupt a plan is critical. My time at DSS taught me things I would have never contemplated before. In the 14+ years I’ve been practicing law, I never stop learning and tweaking my approach to situations. If you decide to go with an attorney who has less than 7-8 years of practicing any law or less than 2 years of estate planning, be careful if you have anything that isn’t completely cookie cutter simple. I know an attorney who has never drafted a single estate plan who is now handling complex trusts based on templates he knows nothing about, charging the same prices I do.
Fourth, what software or templates is the attorney using. Most of my trusts are over 70 pages long. Needless to say, I’m not sitting down and typing that from scratch with each client. I use Wealthcounsel for my estate planning. I believe that Wealthcounsel is the gold standard for estate planning software in the US. In addition to an encompassing technical software, it also includes a huge network of attorney who litigate and test the language in courts around the country. NC is a common law state. The courts interpret documents and those interpretations become binding on other courts. A courts issue new rulings, the language we use in the documents needs to change. No single attorney could possibly keep up with all the different courts and laws in estate planning. In addition to inheritance laws, the laws around taxation at the state and federal level, the laws around Medicaid eligibility, and the laws around fiduciary duty are all constantly changing. Wealthcounsel also holds constant seminars, training events, and updated guidance. If the attorney you select does not use software that is constantly being updated, you may end up with a template that was developed years ago that is now obsolete and causes more harm than good.
Do your due diligence and if you know people who have gone through the process, ask for recommendations and referrals. Or if you’re unlucky enough to have attorney friends, ask them. We know which attorneys are good and which aren’t.