My favorite read is "17 Reasons to Update your Will" - thank you San Francisco Symphony!
If this wasn't the exact area of law I'd spent my entire career in, I'd find myself confused and overwhelmed with all the steps and decisions necessary to make regarding my estate.
So, I thought I would break it down, and just give ONE (1) step to write your will, update your trust, and preserve your assets. So here it is - hire a Trusted, Experienced Estate Planning Attorney. This may seem like an obvious first step, but to many it's not. A significant part of my practice is in trust and estate litigation, in which many of the cases exist because of inadequate or poor estate planning. Every day I see trust and estate litigators get paid dozens of thousands of dollars to fight over issues that in many cases, could have been prevented with more careful estate planning - and counsel.
Now, before I define just what defines a trusted and experienced estate planning attorney, let me just say that I won't be giving out any reasons to do your estate plan - the internet is full of those, and it's up to you to decide if those reasons are good enough for you.
So, Why is hiring a great estate planning attorney the only step you need to take when it comes to your estate plan?
Because an experienced, reputable Trust and Estate lawyer who's truly worth his or her salt will seamlessly guide you through each and every step leading to a secure, solid estate plan. They will be there every step of the way to assist in each decision, and ensure you make solid planning choices.
What are the characteristics of an A+ Trust and Estate Attorney?
1. The attorney has a system in place that will facilitate forward motion.
One of the hardest parts of doing your estate plan is making the decisions necessary to complete it. It's common for clients to feel overwhelmed by all the questions and potential decisions that an estate plan entails. Just thinking about the possibility that you one day will die is enough to stop many in their tracks.
Experienced estate planning attorneys are aware of the barriers to completing an estate plan and have a system in place to remove those barriers.
I've seen a number of great examples of how skilled estate planners remove barriers for clients and move the process forward smoothly and effectively. These include:
- Well designed Questionnaires
- Unlimited Access to the attorney and staff
- Follow up appointments
- Email correspondence
- Friendly Reminders and Progress Check-Ins
- Quick Client Response Time
2. Experience and Training
If you've ever looked at a Revocable Trust, you know that they are complex documents. A few wrong lines or vague sentences can land a family in litigation for years - costing time, money, and heartache to remedy. It therefore follows that you'll want someone who's highly skilled in trust law to do your estate plan.
What kind of training or background makes an attorney highly skilled in drafting revocable trusts and other estate planning documents like the power of attorney?
There's no one right answer to this question. I've met a number of attorneys who have different backgrounds and law practices that draft solid estate plans. The answer also depends on the particular family at hand - and how complicated their situation is. Here are some factors to consider when looking for a top estate planning lawyer:
3. A Trust and Estate Litigation Practice
Why do you want your estate planner to also have a practice in trust and estate litigation?
-Exposure. A Trust and Estate Litigator is likely to: see a wider variety of trusts and estate planning documents through his or her exposure to contested trust and probate matters. Exposure = Education.
-Foresee Complications. A Trust and Estate Litigator is likely to: be better situated to address potential complications - and foresee them before they arise. A trust attorney who frequently goes to court and works to resolve issues that arise during trust administration knows what issues to flag when drafting a trust.
Most estate planning attorneys are not trust and estate litigators. And they don't necessarily have to be. What is important, however, is significant exposure to and familiarity with the litigation field.
4. A Practice in Elder Law - specifically Conservatorship
Why do you want your estate attorney to have a specialization in Conservatorship and Elder Law?
c. TRAINING: I like the term "apprenticeship" here, and I think it's important when it comes to learning how to be an estate planner. Consider if the attorney opened shop as an estate planner using a drafting program, or if he or she "apprenticed" with another reputable, experienced estate planning attorney prior to opening up their own practice. This ties into the idea presented under Litigation (above) - that your estate planner's breadth and depth of knowledge be as wide and deep as possible. A great estate planning attorney will have been exposed to a variety of trust documents and situations - including trust administrations, contested powers of attorney, litigated trusts, conservatorships, and probates.
5. A Plan for your Future
Where will your Estate Planner be in 5 years? 10 years? Generally, clients feel more comfortable working with one estate planning attorney they trust, as opposed to finding a new one each time they need to make a change to their estate plan. An A+ Estate Planning attorney is someone who is either: relatively young and plans to remain in the area and field of law for the foreseeable future, or is older but has a solid plan in place for who will assist their clients when they retire.
The Bottom Line
Decide if an Estate Plan will benefit you or your family. Books, friends, family, professionals and many other resources exist to help you make an informed choice. I'll even throw in our Estate Planning Guide for the SF East Bay.
Once you decide to move forward, set a goal for yourself. I spoke to a client today who made completing her family's estate plan her "Summer Goal."
Find a great estate planning attorney. Online reviews, friends, family, and your network of professionals can all provide recommendations. Ask people why they're recommending a particular attorney. Set your standards higher than "personable" or "nice" - demand excellence in experience, service, and work product.