I know discussing topics like death, incapacity, and other potentially frightening life events, with an estate planning lawyer may feel intimidating or even morbid. Take a deep breath and relax… it doesn’t have to and shouldn’t be that way.
Hiring a lawyer to help you make wise decisions for life and death can be the most empowering choice you ever make for yourself and your loved ones. The way I explain it to my friends and family is, “estate planning isn't about planning for your death, it’s about planning for your life.” So, with that frame in mind, let’s talk about how to choose an estate planning attorney because we aren’t all cut from the same cloth. The right lawyer will be there for your family when you can’t be, so you want to understand who the lawyer is as a person, not just an attorney. Of course, you’ll also want to discover the services your lawyer offers and how they run their business.
Here are five questions to ensure you don’t end up paying for legal services you don’t need, expect, or want. Once you know exactly what you should be looking for when choosing an estate planning lawyer, you’ll be much better positioned to hire an attorney that will provide the kind of love, attention, care, and trust your family deserves.
01 | How Do They Bill For Their Services?
Your first question to a lawyer may be, “how much does it cost?” But that’s typically only because you aren’t clear on what else to ask. So we’re going to give you an upgrade here.
The first question to ask isn’t “how much does it cost,” but rather, “how do you bill for your services and how do you determine what to bill for your services?”
The right lawyer for you will have a clear answer that helps you understand how they determine how much to charge you and how you’ll be charged. They’ll set clear boundaries and expectations around fees so there are no surprises.
When working with an estate planning lawyer, find a lawyer who bills for all their services on a flat fee, no surprises, basis—and never hourly—unless a court requires it for limited “court-related” services.
Your lawyer should determine the fees they charge you only after guiding you through a process of discovery in which they learn about your family dynamics and your assets and educate you about what would happen to your family and assets if and when something happens to you. Through that process, they will help you choose the right plan that meets your budget and desired outcomes.
At our firm, all of our fees are a flat fee, agreed to in advance, and you choose your fee through our Family Wealth Planning Session process, during which we educate you about the law, and you educate us about your family dynamics and assets. Then, you choose the right plan, at the right price, for the people you love.
02 | How Will Your Lawyer Respond To Your Needs On An Ongoing Basis?
One of the biggest complaints about working with lawyers is a lack of responsiveness. We’ve even heard of situations in which clients went weeks without getting a response from their lawyer. It’s unfortunate, and yet it makes sense when a lawyer doesn’t have systems in place to ensure they can serve their existing clients and respond to the needs of past clients.
So, to ensure your lawyer can be responsive to your needs, ask them how quickly you should expect to receive a response. Ideally, all meetings or calls with your lawyer should be pre-scheduled with a clear agenda, so you both can be ready to focus on your specific needs.
03 | How Will Your Lawyer Proactively Communicate With You On An Ongoing Basis?
Sadly, most lawyers fail to communicate regularly with their clients. As a result, if you’ve created an estate plan in the past, you may have had a “checked off the list and done” kind of experience and not even realized that estate planning means a lifetime of wise legal and financial decisions, not a one-and-done kind of thing.
Unfortunately, most lawyers don’t have their business systems set up for ongoing, proactive communication. They don’t have the time to get to know you or your family and then keep your plan up to date throughout your life.
Work with a lawyer who has systems to keep your plan updated to ensure your assets are protected (throughout your life) and who will communicate with you regularly. Additionally, ask them how they will proactively support you in keeping your plan up to date on an ongoing basis and be there for your loved one’s when you can’t be.
Think of it this way: Your estate plan includes a set of documents, but your plan is far more than those documents. Your plan is an inventory of your assets, which changes throughout your life. It’s a structure and container for who and what your family will turn to when something happens to you.
You want to work with a lawyer with systems to keep your documents up to date and ensure your assets are owned correctly throughout your lifetime. Ideally, the lawyer should get to know you and your family over time so that when something happens, your lawyer can be there for the people you love. There will already be an underlying relationship and trust.
04 | What About Matters Outside Of Their Specialty?
Given the complexity of today’s legal world, lawyers must have specialized training in one or more specific practice areas, such as divorce, bankruptcy, Wills and Trusts, personal injury, business, criminal matters, or employment law. You do NOT want to work with a “door law” attorney - a lawyer who professes to be an expert in whatever random legal issue walks through the door.
Trust me, you wouldn’t want the lawyer who designed your estate plan to also handle your personal injury claim, settle a dispute with your landlord, and advise you on your divorce. But you do want him or her to be there to hear your story and give you some guidance, even if it's a referral.
05 | What Happens When They Die Or Retire?
We all die, including your lawyer. And they may retire before they die. So be sure to ask what the plan is for your plan and your family when they do.
This is a critically important—and often overlooked—question to ask your lawyer and any service professional before beginning a relationship. Sure, it may be uncomfortable to ask. A client-centered professional will have a succession plan to ensure their clients are cared for no matter what happens to the lawyer managing your plan.
Here at our firm, we work with a community of lawyers. We have a network of attorneys who practice with the same morals, so if anything happens to us, you will be treated with the same level of care and relationship that we provide.
A Lasting Relationship
Although hiring the right estate planning lawyer may not seem that important, it’s one of the most critical choices you can make for yourself and your family. After all, this is the individual you trust to serve on your behalf to protect and provide for your loved ones during one of life’s most emotionally challenging experiences.
Should you choose the wrong person for the job, your family could face unnecessary conflicts, expenses, and legal entanglements when they are most vulnerable. Ultimately, estate planning is far more than having a lawyer create a set of documents for you and then never seeing you again or only seeing you when something goes wrong.
With us, we develop a relationship with you and your family that lasts a lifetime. Our unique, family-centered legal services are specifically tailored to provide our clients with the kind of love, attention, and trust we’d want for our loved ones. To learn more about our one-of-a-kind systems and services, schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session today.
This article is a service of the Law Office of Keoni Souza, LLC, an estate planning law firm in Honolulu, Hawaii. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That is why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, during which you will get more financially organized than you have ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by contacting our office today to schedule a planning session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.
Disclaimer: All information on this website is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. You should contact an attorney trained to work with families on estate planning matters regarding your specific situation. Use of and access to this website or any of the email links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between the Law Office of Keoni Souza, LLC, and any users or any other party.