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Tips for Choosing the Right Estate Attorney – Know who you are Hiring by Asking the Right Questions

By: Priscilla A. Madrid, Estate Attorney, MADRID LAW GROUP, Anaheim Hills, CA

What Areas of Law do you Practice in?

There is no law that prevents an attorney from calling himself an estate attorney, even if he has no special training, education, expertise or experience in handling estate related matters.  While some attorneys advertise expertise in a a considerably broad range of practice areas, the attorney best suited for your particular legal needs should specialize in a relevant area that of law.

When searching for a lawyer on the Internet or by a referral, make sure to visit the law firm’s website to confirm their areas of practice. If the firm advertises itself as a “general practice law firm” and then when you look at their attorney profiles and see “former district attorney”, “criminal law attorney”, “family law

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Choose your Estate Attorney Wisely

attorney”, “personal injury attorney” or see that they have a non-attorney paralegal or other “professional” who supposedly specializes in preparation of “estate planning documents”, chances are the attorney you will be dealing with only knows basic concepts when it comes to estate planning and you would probably do just as well having your estate plan handled by a trust mill or another attorney with no significant experience or education in any relevant practice area. If you need a simple Will drafted, or someone to stumble through a probate, trust or estate administration matter with you, then that lawyer should suffice. Although there may be exceptions, keep in mind that a “Jack of all trades, is most often a “master of nothing”.

What Percentage of Your Practice is Devoted to Estate practice?

It is not possible for an estate attorney to handle the defense of accused criminals, divorces, traffic tickets, personal injury and other matters completely unrelated to estate practice and be an estate expert as well. Estate planning is a complicated and sophisticated area of legal practice as are many other components of an estate practice. Your estate attorney should devote the majority of their time to matters involving estate law, including but not limited to estate planning, trust and estate administration and litigation, probate and elder law.

What Advanced Degrees or Certification Does the Estate Attorney Have that shows you they have Competence to Practice in that Field?

Does the estate attorney have significant experience in their practice area or hold a masters degree relevant to their practices areas?  Many law schools offer legal masters degrees (LLM) in Estate Planning, Elder Law and/or Taxation, all of which play a large and significant role in an estate related practice.  This is not to be confused with continuing education classes that every attorney has to take to maintain their license to practice law.  If the attorney does not have a masters degree in estate planning, is the attorney certified as a specialist in Probate, Trusts, & Estate Planning Law by the California State Bar Board of Legal Specialization?
  Although there are many knowledgeable attorneys who do not have masters degrees and are not certified as specialists, the advanced training provided by a masters degree and study required to pass the certification exam provides some measure of assurance that the attorney is competent to practice as an estate attorney.

Does the Attorney Carry Malpractice Insurance?

Does the attorney carry professional liability (malpractice) insurance?
 Mistakes happen. When they happen in the context of estate planning including planning of persons with special needs and elders, they can be very costly and difficult  or even  impossible to “undo”.

Not all lawyers are required to have “errors and omissions” insurance in California. While some states do require all attorneys to have malpractice insurance, California does not (although the wisdom of this is debatable).

Does the Attorney Offer Complimentary Or Low-cost Initial Consultations?

Make sure you know the answer to this question so you won’t be surprised at your first meeting.

If you are in need of an Estate Plan, How Does the Attorney Decide What to Charge You?

If an estate attorney charges by the hour, there is a built-in incentive for additional office consultations and multiple drafts of documents.  There is little incentive for efficient time management of tasks.  If there is a flat-fee, there can be a built-in disincentive for customization and first-class service, although more experienced attorneys who use a flat fee just charge a higher flat fee when customization with sub-trusts and special provisions are required.  Flat fees tend to be an incentive to manage time efficiently. With that said often the most economical approach to handling large and complicated estates is through an hourly fee based plan.

If you agree to a “flat fee”, make sure that the services being provided are itemized. If you agree to hourly fee billing, ask for a range of fees or even a maximum fee if at all possible. Many times what you will end up with is a combination of a flat fee for some services and hourly billing for others. For example, it is common in in my practice to charge a flat fee for the estate planning documents (trusts, wills, powers of attorney, etc.) and charge hourly for assistance transferring assets into the trust.

How Much is my Estate Plan Going to Cost?

It depends.  On average a basic estate plan for a married couple with children and a non-taxable estate starts at about $3000.  If your estate is taxable and you want minimize your estate, gift and other taxes, or have other more complicated planning needs you will obviously pay more.

Other factors that will affect the cost of your estate plan include:

  • Complexity of Tax Planning Required
  • Complicated Family Relationships
  • Unique assets including Antiques, Original Paintings, Coin and Gun Collections
  •  Children from a prior marriage
  • Trusts that need to last beyond your death to provide for spouses, children, charitable gifts and any other estate planning goals you may have

Be wary of trust mills and other scammers advertising trusts online or in retirement communities for $750.  These trusts are not prepared by attorneys but by non-attorneys who merely punch your information into a program that spits out your estate plan.  It is unlikely you will ever meet the “supervising” attorney unless they happen to be speaking at a marketing meeting.  The non-attorney you meet cannot give you legal advice or advise you on the legal effect of the documents they are preparing for you.

Factors to Consider When Choosing an Estate Attorney

Experience – More experienced attorneys usually charge more, but that is not always the case.
Customization – The attorneys and firms that spend more time customizing documents to meet your specific needs and goals are generally more qualified and will charge more than those who use only standardized documents.

Will the attorney provide a written fee agreement?

You should beware if your estate planning attorney does not provide you with a written fee agreement.  The written fee agreement should spell out exactly what you should – and should not – expect from your lawyer.

Does the Attorney Require a Retainer?

If the attorney requires a retainer, you should make sure the written fee agreement specifies how much of the retainer the attorney must return to you if you decide you no longer need their services

Does the Attorney Appear Knowledgeable and Interested in Your Situation?

Whatever you are hiring your estate attorney to do for you, your attorney should approach your needs and goals in a reflective and effective way and build a successful strategy to meet those goals and achieve the desired outcome.

Do You Know Who will Actually Handle your Case?

Will you have the senior attorney who’s been in practice for more than 15 years or a junior associate who just passed the bar last week?
 You need to make sure that the person doing the work has sufficient experience to handle it correctly.

Is Your Attorney Friendly and Easy for you to Talk to?

Can you call your estate attorney to ask questions?   Does your attorney make you feel like they are genuinely interested answering your questions and have the ability to answer them in non legalese so you feel comfortable with their answers and explanations?   Does his or her manner put you at ease or does it make you uncomfortable?
 Do you think you can trust this lawyer with your case?  If you do not feel good “chemistry” with one attorney, find another.

You are paying good money for your attorney’s services.  Make sure they are willing to spend the time you need to understand the “how, what and why” of what is going on.

Can You Estimate the Time Frame of the Process?

Time frames vary depending on the type of matter and documents that need to be prepared.  Make sure you understand what the time frame for the relevant process is so you are not surprised or disappointed later.

Is your Attorney Accessible?

When deciding which estate attorney to hire, it is important that they are accessible to you,   When you first made contact, were you able to speak to that attorney right away? How soon did they call you back? How soon were they available to see you? You want an attorney who makes you a priority, even if they have twenty new clients that month. You need to know that they can be easily reached in case you have additional questions or need to make changes.

Ask your attorney what is the  best way to reach him or her, whether it be by phone, email, or the website contact form. An attorney that truly cares about their clients will make them self available to you with a system that allows them respond quickly to your questions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Priscilla A. Madrid  is an estate attorney specializing in estate planning, elder law including financial elder abuse, probate, trust and estate litigation matters.   She may be reached at Madrid Law Group in Anaheim Hills, CA. (714) 769-9129.


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