They say that next to a wonderful partner, everyone needs a
great doctor, clergy and an estate planning attorney. This
comparison gets made because in order to be successful in
planning your estate, you need to share intimate details of
your financial life, along with family relationships and
Now that you've made the decision to deal with your own
mortality and are ready to prepare an estate plan or amend your
existing plan, what questions should you ask to find that great
attorney who will become your trusted advisor? Here are a
Getting comfortable with the attorney's
qualifications and expertise.
Some estate plans are simple and others complex. It's
important to understand an attorney's educational and
professional qualifications in order to ensure that you hire
the appropriate professional for your needs. You should ask
how long they have been practicing estate planning law and if
this is their main area of expertise or do they practice
other types of law. If so, how much time is devoted to other
areas? Are they board certified and do they have additional
educational or professional designations? While experience is
not a substitute for competence, you'll want to work with a
professional who can meet your needs.
What type of clients do they usually work
Understanding what type of clients the attorney works with is
important to determine if he/she will be a good fit for you.
Where does your sized net worth fall in the range of clients
they work with? Do you have specific circumstances that
require a certain type of expertise and experience such as
owning property in multiple states or internationally? Do you
have dual citizenship or are married to someone who is not a
U.S. citizen that may require expertise in international law?
Do you have a family member with special needs that may
require an understanding of Medicaid law? Based upon the
complexity of your situation, will they provide client
referrals for you to contact? Making sure the attorney has
the experience dealing with the nuances of your specific
situations will help ensure your estate plan is accurate and
reduce issues later on.
Creating and maintaining your plan.
What approach does the attorney take to understand what you
want to accomplish? Do they have a form or questionnaire that
explains different techniques, inquires about family
relationships and makes sure that you don't forget to
disclose or discuss assets? Do they have a formal approach to
make sure that any trusts that are created get funded and do
they assist in this process? What is their approach to
updating existing documents? Do they completely rewrite them
or handle changes with amendments? How long can you expect
this process to take? Setting expectations up front help to
ensure that you are a satisfied client.
Flat fee or hourly billing? Do you have to pay a retainer fee
up front? When and how often are you sent invoices? Are there
any hidden fees or additional costs for postage, copying,
messenger service, and other charges? Understanding how and
what you are charged for will save you from surprises later
While you may not have the same on-going relationship with
your estate planning attorney as your doctor or clergy, you can
clearly see that sharing the intimate details of your life
requires that you are comfortable with, trust and have a good
relationship with the professional you choose.
FPA member Richard A. Gotterer, CFP
, is Managing Director and Senior Financial Advisor with
Wescott Financial Advisory Group LLC, an SEC-registered,
fee-only investment advisory and wealth management firm with
offices in Philadelphia, PA; Boca Raton and Miami, Florida;
and San Francisco, CA.
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