You may have some idea of how an Estate Planning Attorney can help you (Wills, Powers of Attorney, Health Care Proxies, Trusts), but may not know how to choose one. In addition to the questions you would ask any service professional, here are some thoughts and questions you may want to consider prior to signing a Retainer Agreement with the attorney, who will help you establish your estate plan:
EXPERTISE: Does the attorney primarily practice New York estate planning, or are they a general practitioner licensed in multiple states? If your estate planning needs are relatively simple (minimal assets, you are married in a first marriage without kids, no disabled relatives) a general practitioner may suffice. However, I have also seen some horrible Wills drafted by generalists. Estate planning in New York is a dynamic and ever-changing field that few general practitioners can competently keep up with. My suggestion is to stick with an attorney who specializes in the matter at hand.
SERVICES: If you have read my past posts, you are aware that a Will does not transfer jointly owned property, retirement plans and life insurance (just to name a few assets). Does the attorney correct beneficiary designation forms? Do they file Deeds for real estate held in Trust? I cannot emphasize enough how often I see estate plans that are almost completely ineffective because they only contain provisions for assets that pass by a Will. Make sure your estate planning attorney provides comprehensive estate planning!
PROCEDURES: Does the attorney review your legal documents with you in depth, or do they merely say “No need to review, I know what you need, sign your Will here”? Will he or she discuss your options? All too often I meet with clients who have inadequate documents, and inevitably hear the statement “I didn’t know what I was signing.” My experience is that a well-informed consumer can make suitable decisions with the right guidance. Confirm with your prospective attorney that you would like to be as informed as possible.
DEMEANOR: Can you have an honest discussion with the estate planning attorney? Does he or she listen? Are you treated like a customer, or being belittled? An estate planning client is a customer who deserves the same type of service and respect as a customer of any other goods or services. Let your choice of attorney know this.
AGE: Is the attorney young enough that he or she may outlive you? I’m not suggesting that you run out and find a 25 year old newbie straight out of law school, but do suggest you find an estate planner whom you can both (1) trust in both competency and follow-up, and (2) be around to make sure your wishes are fulfilled when you reach your advanced years.
COST: Flat fee, or hourly? There is no standard “going rate” in Westchester, Rockland, Putnam or New York County estate plan. Hourly legal fees range from $150 to $400 per hour; anywhere above $400 per hour is only for clients with substantial wealth (eight figures and above). Flat fees also vary based on the novelty of your estate plan. Do you have children from a prior marriage? Is your estate taxable under the Federal or New York Estate Tax? Are any of your beneficiaries disabled? Do any of them have a spendthrift or substance abuse issue? More issues equal higher fees.
Lastly, remember that if you are unsatisfied with an attorney you met, you can choose someone else. The Greater Hudson Valley has hundreds of estate planning attorneys, so do not feel compelled to work with an attorney you were referred to by your friend if you are unsatisfied with him or her.