By FPA member, Richard A. Gotterer, CFP®
Last Updated: March 11, 2013
They say that next to a wonderful partner, everyone needs a great doctor, clergy and an estate planning attorney. This comparison gets made because in order to be successful in planning your estate, you need to share intimate details of your financial life, along with family relationships and dynamics.
Now that you’ve made the decision to deal with your own mortality and are ready to prepare an estate plan or amend your existing plan, what questions should you ask to find that great attorney who will become your trusted advisor? Here are a few:
- Getting comfortable with the attorney’s qualifications and expertise. Some estate plans are simple and others complex. It’s important to understand an attorney’s educational and professional qualifications in order to ensure that you hire the appropriate professional for your needs. You should ask how long they have been practicing estate planning law and if this is their main area of expertise or do they practice other types of law. If so, how much time is devoted to other areas? Are they board certified and do they have additional educational or professional designations? While experience is not a substitute for competence, you’ll want to work with a professional who can meet your needs.
- What type of clients do they usually work with? Understanding what type of clients the attorney works with is important to determine if he/she will be a good fit for you. Where does your sized net worth fall in the range of clients they work with? Do you have specific circumstances that require a certain type of expertise and experience such as owning property in multiple states or internationally? Do you have dual citizenship or are married to someone who is not a U.S. citizen that may require expertise in international law? Do you have a family member with special needs that may require an understanding of Medicaid law? Based upon the complexity of your situation, will they provide client referrals for you to contact? Making sure the attorney has the experience dealing with the nuances of your specific situations will help ensure your estate plan is accurate and reduce issues later on.
- Creating and maintaining your plan. What approach does the attorney take to understand what you want to accomplish? Do they have a form or questionnaire that explains different techniques, inquires about family relationships and makes sure that you don’t forget to disclose or discuss assets? Do they have a formal approach to make sure that any trusts that are created get funded and do they assist in this process? What is their approach to updating existing documents? Do they completely rewrite them or handle changes with amendments? How long can you expect this process to take? Setting expectations up front help to ensure that you are a satisfied client.
- Cost. Flat fee or hourly billing? Do you have to pay a retainer fee up front? When and how often are you sent invoices? Are there any hidden fees or additional costs for postage, copying, messenger service, and other charges? Understanding how and what you are charged for will save you from surprises later on.
While you may not have the same on-going relationship with your estate planning attorney as your doctor or clergy, you can clearly see that sharing the intimate details of your life requires that you are comfortable with, trust and have a good relationship with the professional you choose.
FPA member Richard A. Gotterer, CFP®, is Managing Director and Senior Financial Advisor with Wescott Financial Advisory Group LLC, an SEC-registered, fee-only investment advisory and wealth management firm with offices in Philadelphia, PA; Boca Raton and Miami, Florida; and San Francisco, CA.