How do you find out who is a good estate planning attorney in your local area? Choosing an attorney to represent you is obviously an important task. The decision certainly should not be made on the basis of advertising alone. There are certain questions to ask that will lead you to the best estate planning attorney for you and your family. Below is a summary of 11 Tips for Choosing the Right Estate Planning Attorney for You.
1. Don’t Limit Your Search by Geography Alone
First, while your attorney should be licensed in your state, do not limit your search geographically. There are a small handful of attorneys in your area who specialize in estate planning. Find the best attorney in your area for your family and don’t concern yourself with geography. Our firm handles cases throughout San Diego and Orange County. A law firm that specializes in Trusts & Estates may also have a satellite office in your area in which you can meet with a qualified attorney who is the right attorney for you.
2. Get a Referral from an Attorney or Other Advisor
Get a referral from another attorney, financial advisor or CPA whom you know. He or she will probably know someone that is a good estate planning attorney and specializes in this area of the law.
3. Beware of Internet Directories
Beware of internet “directories” promising to get you a qualified lawyer. We get solicited almost daily from companies who offer to place us in their directories for a hefty fee. Most of these “directories of specialists” are a joke because they are simply like a yellow pages ad on the internet. If you are going to vet out an attorney on-line, use sites that are third-party verified. This means that they are not paid to list the attorney and the attorney is ranked based on certain criteria that the attorney directory has set out on its own. One such verification site iswww.avvo.com.
4. Does the Attorney Focus on Estate Planning?
There are many attorneys that say that they do estate planning. And of course there are many that do. The real question to ask however is “do they practice exclusively in this area of the law”? Just as there are doctors that specialize in certain areas of medicine such as general practice, cardiology or oncology, there are attorneys that are generalists and ones that limit their practices to a specific area of the law. The benefit to this is that the attorney is much more likely to be abreast of the current law and issues that surround that practice area. They are also more likely to correctly identify areas that could be problems down the road if the proper planning is not done.
5. Beware of Bar Association Referral Hotlines
The Bar Associations have lawyer referral services (in San Diego County, we have the San Diego County Bar Association Referral Service and North County San Diego County Bar Association Referral Service). Understand that lawyers have signed up and paid a fee to be listed in certain specialties with these referral services. Their names come up on a rotating basis. And also note that the bar association is not making any judgment about who is a good attorney and who is not. They are simply connecting a bar member in good standing with a prospective client.
6. Is the Attorney a Published Author in the Area of Estate Planning?
Ask each attorney if they have a book, have published articles or a web site with relevant information they have written so that you can find out more about his or her qualifications and experience before you walk in the door.
7. Forget Fancy Slogans and Hype
Slogans like “we care for you”, “we help you avoid probate” or “we help you protect your assets” are absolutely meaningless. After all, aren’t these the things that you would expect from your estate planning attorney?
8. Does the Attorney Carry Malpractice Insurance?
Does the attorney hold a legal malpractice insurance policy? This is a sign of accountability. Anyone can make a mistake and you should not make the mistake of hiring an attorney who does not have malpractice insurance. Remember, in many states, an attorney is not required to carry malpractice insurance. Don’t get burned by an attorney who does not think enough about his or her clients to carry malpractice insurance. Also note that attorneys that are incorporated (often signified by the letters P.C. or A.P.C. after their firm name) must maintain malpractice insurance in the state of California as mandated by the California State Bar Association.
9. Ask What Law School the Attorney Attended
Just like any other school, law schools that are harder to get into have higher standards and only accept the best students. There are four (4) tiers in the law school ranking system with the first tier being at the top and hardest to get into. Ask the attorney where he or she went to law school.
10. Does the Attorney Belong to Any Professional Organizations
Membership in an organization such as WealthCounsel indicates that the attorney you are meeting with is committed to staying up on the latest and greatest estate planning developments. These organizations provide extensive education and networking with peers for their members. Just like you would want to make sure that your doctor is staying up to date on the latest medical advancements if he or she was going to operate on you, you will want to make sure your estate planning attorney is likewise current on the most recent law and planning techniques to protect you and your family.
11. Clear Disclosure of Fee Ranges Prior to Your Appointment
Many estate planning attorneys won’t disclose their fee ranges to you prior to your appointment. This may make you uncomfortable. While it is impossible to quote you an exact fee ahead of time without knowing the particulars of your case, they should be willing to give you an estimated fee range. At the other end of the spectrum, be careful of an attorney that quotes a fixed fee without talking to you about your case. They probably charge everyone the same fee because they give everyone the same plan or a form out of their drawer which may not meet your family’s real needs (also known as “trust-mill” law firms). The real value of a skilled estate planning attorney is his or her advice and should be what you focus on.
I hope you found this summary on how to choose the right estate planning attorney for you helpful. If I can answer any other questions on this topic or any other estate planning topic, please feel free to contact me at (760) 448-2220 or email me at [email protected].