Ask these questions when you interview candidates to be your estate-planning attorney…
* What’s your standard estate plan? This is a trick question—an estate planner should not have a standard estate plan, he or she should create estate plans based on the needs of individual clients. It’s fine if the estate planner says that almost everyone requires certain core documents, such as a will, a power of attorney for financial matters and a health care proxy—as long as he also says that many clients should have additional documents, too. Follow up question: How much will an estate plan cost me? The attorney should say he can’t answer this question until he knows more about you, such as your net worth, your family situation, your health situation and your goals. An estate planner who quotes a figure before he gathers at least basic information might be giving every client nearly the same one-size-fits-all estate plan.
* What’s your philosophy of estate planning? An estate planner should seem pleased to be asked this question, not befuddled by it. Good estate planners tend to care deeply about estate planning and what it can mean for their clients. Beyond just knowing the law, they develop insights and ideas about estate planning and are pleased when someone wants to discuss this. Lesser estate planners often just churn out legal documents without giving the topic any deeper thought. The danger of the latter approach is that it may miss unique circumstances important to you.
* Who are some financial advisers and tax preparers that you work with regularly? A good estate planner should have no trouble coming up with a few names—estate planning is done best when it is done collaboratively with these other financial professionals. Jot down the names the estate planner mentions and later enter them into a search engine—do these pros receive favorable comments online? Are they quoted as experts in the local press? If you know other financial pros in the area, ask them what they think of these advisors and tax preparers. Good people tend to work with good people. Follow up question: “What’s your system for collaborating with financial advisers and CPAs? An estate planner who truly values collaboration should not offer just a vague response, he should be able cite some specifics such as how often he tends to speak with these other pros…under what circumstances he might do so…at what time of year…and how it can be done cost effectively.
* What types of clients do you typically serve? What types of clients do you not serve well? You want to work with an estate planner who has worked with many prior clients with estates and issues similar to your own. The size of your estate is not the only factor that matters here. If you have a family business or extensive real estate holdings in multiple states, look for an estate planner who deals with these regularly.
* Do you use encrypted e-mail? The e-mails your estate planner sends you can include very sensitive information, so encryption is important for your security and privacy. But that’s not the only reason to ask—the fact that an estate planner uses e-mail encryption can signal that he is careful by nature…and that he has remained current with modern technology and trends. Follow up question: Do you use document generation software? This software greatly reduces the time it takes to draft estate planning documents and reduces the odds of making certain mistakes. An estate planning attorney who does not use this software may spend too much time drafting documents…and if he bills by the hour, his clients might be paying more than necessary. If the attorney has another approach he or she feels is just as efficient, he should be able to explain it.
* What do you do for later-life planning? Estate planning is not just about planning for death…it also should include planning for longevity and the possibility of major health issues or diminished capacity. The estate planner’s response to this question certainly should mention setting up a power of attorney for health care, a document that grants someone you select the right to make health decisions on your behalf when you cannot make them for yourself. But it’s a good sign if the attorney goes beyond this and mentions strategies for protecting assets from elder financial abuse and ID theft as well.