- Make a list of attorneys who specialize in your specific needs.
- Narrow your list and interview candidates with a prepared set of questions.
- Ask about and understand each attorney's fees.
The prospect of finding an attorney to help you craft your estate plan may seem daunting. But with a clear plan, the process can be simpler than you may think. "Getting organized and having a system is half the battle in estate planning, and that extends to finding an attorney," says Jim Buza, Fidelity's vice president of wealth planning product management. "In fact, more than half of Americans age 55 to 64 don't have a will in place today."1
Streamlining the process of finding an estate attorney
- Search for qualified candidates.
- Interview your prospects.
- Understand each attorney's fees.
These 3 steps can help you streamline the process of finding an attorney that is right for you.
1. Search for candidates
Start by identifying what you need to accomplish with your estate plan. That information will help you determine the type of attorney that you'll need.
Most people need a generalist who can help draft a will, powers of attorney, and basic trusts. But some situations call for attorneys with certain specializations. For example, you may have reason to be especially concerned about maximizing benefits programs like Medicaid, or addressing long-term care, in which case you may need a specialist in elder law. If you have financial interests overseas, you may require the skills of an attorney who specializes in international estate planning. Likewise, if your case requires legal work in more than one jurisdiction or state, be sure to consider attorneys who are licensed to practice in all those places.
Once you know the kind of attorney you need, you can begin to build a list of potential candidates. Start by asking trusted friends and family members for referrals. "Word of mouth is always one of the best approaches," says Buza. "If people have had a bad experience, they're sure to tell you." Also consult with financial professionals with whom you work, such as financial advisors, accountants, insurance agents, and bankers; they may be able to refer you to attorneys they know and trust.
When you have a working list of candidates and referrals, look into each attorney's background. Check their websites for information about firm size, experience, and specializations. Take a look at the social media sites that each attorney uses. The way an attorney is represented on social media sites may give you a sense of what it will be like to work with them.
Tip: You may also want to look at sites that offer peer review ratings and background information for attorneys, such as Martindale.com.
2. Interview your prospects
After you've narrowed your list down to your top few candidates, confirm their state bar registration status, and then interview them. Come prepared for your first meeting with all the information that you will need, including your estate planning summary from the Fidelity Estate Planner (see below) and any supporting documents. Also prepare a list of questions that you would like to ask prospective attorneys, including the following:
- How long have you been practicing?
- Where were you educated?
- How will you communicate with me?
- What are the best ways to contact you?
- Will you be my point of contact, or will it be someone else, such as a paralegal?
- Will you send me updates about the status of my plan, or should I expect to take the initiative?
- How will you charge, and what is your rate (hourly vs. fixed rate)?
- Are any charges not included in that rate?
Remember, this interview is your chance to find an attorney that is the best fit for you. Trust your instincts and find a lawyer you are comfortable with. "Don't be afraid to shop around," says Buza. "You've got to have a good rapport. If the attorney you're interviewing makes you uncomfortable during your initial interactions, you may never develop the type of open communication that is the foundation of a good working relationship."
Tip: A first impression is a lasting impression. Trust your gut.
3. Understand each attorney's fees
Price is a key consideration in choosing an attorney. Keep in mind how much you can pay and find a lawyer whose fees you can afford.
Some attorneys offer a free consultation, others don't. Some offer a free consultation for a set amount of time, such as the first hour, and begin charging after that. Find out what each attorney’s policy is before the first meeting.
Fee structures for drafting an estate plan can vary as well. Some attorneys charge a flat fee, while others bill by the hour. Flat fees typically include everything that it takes to prepare the estate planning documents. In general, simple estate plans, including a will, power of attorney, and medical directives, can cost from $300 to $1,200. More complex plans—for example, those that include trust documents—could cost up to $5,000 or more. Individual rates may vary by jurisdictions and states, as well as other factors.
Hourly rates commonly run between $150 and $200 an hour; again, individual rates may vary by jurisdictions and states, as well as other factors, such as the size of the firm. Note that it's normal for attorneys who bill hourly to bill in increments of no less than 6 minutes, or a tenth of an hour.
An attorney also may pass along other fees for specific tasks, such as online research, court filings, copying documents, or courier fees. Ask about these potential charges up front before making a selection.
After you've interviewed your prospects, choose the one that fits best with your needs, personality, and budget. At this point, the attorney may provide you with an engagement or retainer letter, a contract that defines the nature of your legal engagement with them and the terms of the agreement you have reached. These terms include the expenses you will be responsible for and how your attorney will charge for their time. From there, your attorney will help you craft an estate plan, and you can work together to make sure that it covers all of your needs.
Tip: If an attorney offers a free consultation, get the details up front and be clear about—and stick to—the time limits.
Once you've established a working relationship with an estate planning attorney, consider revisiting your estate plan every 2 to 3 years. If you've recently experienced a major life event such as remarriage, death of a family member, divorce, long-term disability, or inheritance, it may be time to take a fresh look at your estate plan as well.