Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Thrifty Thinking: How to Find a Good Trusts and Estates Lawyer

Creating an estate plan is something most people know they should do for themselves and their families, but getting around to actually doing it is another story! That's no big surprise, says attorney Liza Hanks. Sometimes it takes a person years to get motivated to start planning. And once they finally begin, they often get stuck, because they don't know how to find a good lawyer to help them.
          "Finding a good lawyer to put together your estate plan isn't really that different from finding a contractor, dentist, doctor, or any other qualified professional," says Hanks, author of Every Californian's Guide to Estate Planning: Wills, Trusts, and Everything Else (Nolo, 2018, ISBN: 978-1-413-32468-6, $19.99). "The key to finding a good one is knowing what you need, asking good questions, and then listening carefully to the answers you are getting as well as the answers you're not getting."
          Hanks says a great way to find an estate planning lawyer is to ask your friends, work colleagues, alumni network, other parents at your children's school, or members of your church, synagogue, or mosque. Just be sure to look for people like you: people with a similar amount of money who are in a similar place in life. Maybe they're also new parents, or their kids are also leaving for college. Or maybe, like you, they're retirement age.
          "When you're asking around for lawyer recommendations, you might discover that many people haven't yet done an estate plan either," says Hanks. "That might make you feel a bit better for waiting so long yourself! But once you find those who have already done an estate plan, be sure to ask whether they liked the person they worked with. If they did like them, ask them why they liked to work with them. You might start hearing the same name more than once, which is always a good sign."
          After you've collected three or four names, the next step is to do a little research. Start by checking out their websites, which can give you a lot of useful information. Here are three things to look for in a lawyer's website:
1. What kind of information about estate planning does the website provide?Is there useful information on the website to help you understand what an estate plan is and what you need to bring to an appointment to get started? How does the information make you feel?
"If the content on any lawyer's website makes you feel afraid or stupid, keep looking," says Hanks. "And if there's no information other than a lawyer's name and address, know that that's not necessarily a bad thing. But it may indicate that they're not very interested in making the process easy for you."
2. What does the website tell you about an attorney's services and their cost?Does the attorney tell you exactly how much he or she charges for an estate plan? Do they charge by the hour or on a flat-fee basis?
"Either of these methods can be fair and transparent," says Hanks. "However, some attorneys don't tell you anything unless you come in for a 'free' appointment—which I think is a bait-and-switch tactic. By the time you've made the effort to come and meet, you are already making an investment in time and energy. You shouldn't have to work to get the basic information about the engagement up front."
3. How much does the website tell you about the attorney's training and experience? Can you tell how many years of experience an attorney has? Does the website reveal where they went to law school or whether they have any additional credentials? Do they offer any specialized expertise or specialize in estate planning?
"There are great estate planners who didn't go to fancy law schools and awful estate planners who did," says Hanks. "Being a certified specialist in estate planning is a meaningful credential in California, because you have to pass a difficult exam to get it and be recommended by your peers. But many older estate planners (who are very good) don't have this credential. If someone has already been recommended to you, that's as important as their credentials (if not more so). But you should be able to determine how long someone has been practicing and whether they specialize in estate planning, instead of offering planning along with a whole bunch of other things; you want to work with a person who specializes in planning, not a neighborhood lawyer who dabbles in it."
          After you've done your initial research, the next step is to make contact with the lawyer and ask questions.
          "Trust your gut instincts here," says Hanks. "If you don't like the way the lawyer answers the phone (or doesn't answer the phone), or if they don't return your messages, you probably won't like working with them either."
          Once you've made contact, ask questions. Don't be shy about this, advises Hanks. "After all, the entire estate planning process is about asking important questions and getting clear answers that you understand and that make sense," she says. "If you can't get your initial questions answered to your satisfaction, you probably won't enjoy the planning process either."
          Hanks says there are two great reasons to ask lots of questions. The first is to pay attention to how your questions are answered: Do you feel listened to? Are the answers clear? Do you feel respected?
          "My clients tell me that the biggest reason they don't want to work with a former attorney is that they felt condescended to, disrespected, or stupid when they asked questions," says Hanks. "Don't let this happen—there's no excuse for it. Clients should understand their estate plans. Period. If a client doesn't understand what a lawyer is saying, it's the lawyer's fault, not the client's."
          The second reason to ask questions is, of course, to get substantive answers to things you need to know to get started. Keep reading for three excellent questions to ask an estate planner you are thinking about hiring:
1. How much will it cost to create an estate plan? Costs vary in California, but, generally, an estate plan that uses a living trust costs about 10 hours of a lawyer's time; a will costs about half of that. So, if lawyers charge $300/hour where you live, expect a living trust plan to cost about $3,000, and expect a will-based plan to cost about $1,500. If a lawyer tells you that they can't predict what your plan might cost, be skeptical. Most simple plans fall within that 10-12 hour scope, and most lawyers know that. Beware of people who charge by the hour and aren't willing to provide you with an estimate of total time unless you have a large estate or a very complicated set of issues to deal with.
2. What does an estate plan include? A plan should include a will, a durable power of attorney, and an advance health care directive. If you want to do a living trust, it should include that too. If you are doing a trust, ask if the cost includes the transfer of your house to the trust. (It should.) Be wary of lawyers who charge for each document separately—that could be a bait-and-switch practice that ends up costing you too much.
3. What's the process for creating a plan? You want to find out how many meetings to expect, what you would need to bring to the meetings, and how long the process usually takes. There's no right answer here, but you do want to get a sense for how it would be to work with that attorney.
          "Finding the best lawyer to help you create your estate plan comes down to finding the right fit," concludes Hanks. "There are lots of qualified estate planners out there. But the right one for you is someone you feel comfortable with and trust."
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About the Author: 
Liza W. Hanks is the author of Every Californian's Guide to Estate Planning: Wills, Trusts, and Everything Else (Nolo, 2018, ISBN: 978-1-413-32468-6, $19.99). She is a certified specialist in Estate Planning, Trust and Probate Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization, a graduate of Stanford Law School, and coauthor of The Trustee's Legal Companion (Nolo). Liza is a partner at GCA Law Partners LLP, in Mountain View, California. She is also the author of the blog and podcast Life/Death/Law,, and Ask Liza: Nolo's Estate Planning Blog,
For more information, please visit

About Nolo:
Every Californian's Guide to Estate Planning: Wills, Trusts, and Everything Else is the latest in a successful line of estate planning titles published by Nolo (, which has been publishing plain-English consumer legal and business guides since 1971. Nolo's current estate planning titles include WillMaker software, The Executor's Guide, and The Trustee's Legal CompanionNolo books are widely available at bookstores and libraries, as well as online at,, and other online sites.
A subsidiary of Internet Brands, Nolo focuses most of its efforts on its award-winning websites, which feature extensive free content, online tools, and a consumer-friendly lawyer directory. Nolo also develops market-leading software, online legal forms, as well as print and e-books.
Nolo was founded in 1971 by two legal aid attorneys who set out to demystify the law for people who couldn't afford lawyers. Since then Nolo has produced more than 20 million plain-English legal guides across all areas of the law.

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