5 Questions To Ask Before Hiring An Estate Planning Lawyer

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

Whether you are looking for your own lawyer or one for your parents, it can be a daunting process. Often adult children are asked to help their parents find a lawyer who’d be a good fit. At SJN Law, we really enjoy bringing the whole family closer together through estate planning, so this article is focused on hiring an estate planning attorney for your parents, but the same ideas apply when searching for yourself.

Since they’ll be discussing topics like death, incapacity, and other frightening life events, hiring an estate planning lawyer may feel intimidating or morbid. But it definitely doesn’t have to be that way.

Instead, it can be the most empowering decision you ever help your parents to make for themselves and their loved ones. The key to transforming the experience of hiring a lawyer from one that you dread into one that empowers you and your parents is to educate yourself first. This is the person who is going to be there for you and your family when your parents can’t be, so you want to really understand who the lawyer is as a human, not just an attorney. Of course, you’ll also want to find out the kind of services your potential lawyer offers and how they run their business.

To this end, here are five questions to ask to ensure your parents don’t end up paying for legal services that they don’t need, expect, or want. Once you know exactly what you should be looking for when choosing a planning professional, you’ll be much better positioned to help your parents hire an attorney who will provide the kind of love, attention, care, and trust your family deserves.

1. How do they bill for their services?

There’s no reason you should be afraid to ask a lawyer how he or she bills for the work they do on your behalf. If you call a lawyer’s office and they are reluctant or refuse to give you clear answers to questions about how they charge for their services, determine your fees, or what they expect certain services will cost, this is a big red flag. No one wants surprises, especially when it comes to the bill.

Our process for your parents’ planning begins with a Life & Legacy Planning Session™, in which we educate you, your adult siblings and your parents about the law and you all educate us about your family dynamics and assets, and then your parents choose the right plan, at the right cost, for the people they love. We commit to always communicating any fees in advance so that there are no surprises.

2. How will the attorney respond to your parents’ needs?

One of the biggest complaints people have about working with lawyers is that they are notoriously unresponsive. This is all too common, but totally unacceptable. In most cases, these lawyers aren’t blowing you off—they simply don’t have enough support or the systems in place to be able to be responsive and it can happen whether they are a solo practitioner or work for a huge firm.

Given this, it’s vital that you to find out how they will respond to your parent’s needs. To test this try contacting the lawyer’s office by phone, email, or text to see what happens. What you want is for the person who answers to offer to help you. And if that individual cannot help you right away, they should schedule a time for you to talk with the lawyer or let you know when they can help you.

A lawyer simply can’t be effective or efficient if he or she is taking every call that comes through. Ideally, all calls to your parent’s lawyer should be pre-scheduled with a clear agenda, so they can be ready to focus on your parents’ specific needs.

3. Will they proactively communicate with your parents on an ongoing basis?

Unfortunately, most lawyers don’t have their business systems set up for ongoing, proactive communication, and they don’t have the time to really get to know your parents or your family.

If your parents work with a lawyer who doesn’t have systems in place to keep their plan updated, ensure their assets are owned in the right way (throughout their lives), and communicate with them regularly, their estate plan will be worth little more than one you could create with them yourself online—and it’s likely to fail when your family needs it most.

Think of it this way: Yes, your parents’ estate plan is a set of documents. But more importantly, it’s who and what your family will turn to when something happens to them. Ideally, the lawyer should proactively communicate to educate get to know your parents and your family over time. That way when something happens, their lawyer can be there for you and the people your parents love, and there will already be an underlying relationship and trust.

If your parents are considering hiring a lawyer who doesn’t take the time to proactively communicate with his or her clients, this should be a red flag. That’s a sign that the lawyer may be stuck in an old, outdated mindset that won’t address your ongoing needs in the way your patents and your family deserve.

4. Can I call about any legal problem I have, or just about matters within practice areas?

Given the complexity of today’s legal world, lawyers need training in one or more specific practice areas, such as divorce, bankruptcy, wills and trusts, or employment law. You definitely do NOT want to work with a lawyer who professes to be an expert in whatever random legal issue walks through the door.

That said, you do want your parents’ lawyer to have broad enough expertise that they can consult with him or her about all sorts of different legal and financial issues that may come up in their lives—and trust he or she will be able to offer sound guidance, whether that’s legal advice or a referral to another trusted professional who can help.

Trust me, you wouldn’t want the lawyer who designed your parents’ estate plan to also handle your every single legal issue they might face. But, you do want him or her to be there to hear their story, refer them to a highly qualified lawyer who specializes in that area, and overall, serve as their go-to legal consultant.

With this in mind, look for a lawyer who has an ongoing service program or membership program, in which you can pay a low monthly fee and be able to call with all of your legal and financial questions, without being charged hourly for the consultation. And be sure that when you call, you get to schedule time to talk with your own lawyer, who you know and trust. We love the idea of legal insurance plans, but we don’t love that you don’t get your own personal lawyer with them. You need to know your lawyer, and know that your lawyer has your back.

5. What happens if the attorney dies or retires?

This is a critically important—and often overlooked—question to ask not only a lawyer, but any service professional before beginning a relationship. Sure, it may be uncomfortable to ask, but a truly excellent, client-centered professional will have a plan in place to ensure their clients are taken care of no matter what happens to the individual lawyer managing your plan.

Look for a lawyer who has their own detailed plan in place that will ensure that someone warm and caring will take over your parent’s planning without any interruption of service. If their lawyer prepared a will, trust, and other estate planning documents, you want to make certain their lawyer has such a contingency plan in place, so they won’t be forced to start over from scratch should your lawyer die, retire, or become otherwise unavailable.

A Lasting Relationship

Although hiring the right estate planning lawyer may not seem like a super important decision, it’s actually one of the most critical choices you and your parents can make for both yourselves and your family. After all, this is the individual you are trusting to serve on your behalf to protect and provide for your loved ones in the event of life’s most traumatic experiences.

If the wrong person is picked for the job, your family could potentially face all manner of unnecessary conflicts, expenses, and legal entanglements during a time when you and they are at their most vulnerable. In the end, estate planning is about far more than having a lawyer create a set of documents for your parents, and then never seeing them again, or only seeing them when something goes wrong.

With us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we develop a relationship with your parents and with your family that lasts not only for their lifetime, but for the lifetime of you and your children and their children, if that’s your wish. Our unique, multigenerational family-centered legal services are specifically tailored to provide our clients with the kind of love, attention, and trust we’d want for our own loved ones.

To learn more about our one-of-a-kind systems and services, contact our office to schedule a free personal Whole Family Life & Legacy Class or a Life & Legacy Planning Session™ today. This article is a service of Sarah J. Nowels, Personal Family Lawyer®. At SJN Law, 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's why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office at (714)692-1738, texting Sarah at (949) 498-2203 emailing Sarah at sarah@sjn-law.com today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge and have your $750 deposit refunded or credited to your plan.

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