Getting Ready To Finally Update That Estate Plan, Will or Trust?

The 8 Essential Questions To Ask When Hiring Your Estate Planning Lawyer

Estate planning involves a number of deeply personal topics such as family relationships, finances, and future goals and aspirations for both your own lifetime, and about your legacy.

It’s technical and often complicated. So having someone to help you who is able to clearly explain the law, your options, and the documents that carry out your plan is essential.

Because it involves so many personal, tax and related issues, it's also therefore crucial that you choose an estate planning lawyer and law firm who are knowledgeable, experienced (in the type of planning that you need), and with whom you feel comfortable discussing these personal details.

Your legacy and protecting all that you’ve worked for as well as those that you love, is just too important to leave in the hands of someone less qualified.

To help you navigate this critical decision, we’ve listed eight essential questions that will guide your selection process and to make it more certain that you’ll get the right help.

attorney with her clients1. What is your personal and firm’s specific experience with estate planning?

When engaging potential lawyers, ask the lawyer or their staff helping to answer your questions, about their experience, how long they've been practicing, and if they work extensively or exclusively in estate and trust planning.

An attorney or law firm with a deep background in estate planning is more likely to stay abreast of the regularly occurring tax and legal changes that could affect your estate plan. The ability to handle complex situations like closely held real estate, business interests, multiple trusts or unique assets is a must-have.

It can also be valuable to ask how experienced the lawyer and the firm are with administering trusts and/or estates like yours. 

We find that we are better at drafting documents that anticipate and solve for common or specific problems in part because of our experience or representing executors and trustees as they work through the estates.  That kind of experience can be extremely helpful in avoiding problems through effective drafting.

Finally, finding a lawyer that has a great team and a “deep bench” of experienced lawyers, paralegals, legal assistants and receptionists can make the experience of completing your estate plan both more efficient and effective. 

And, finding a firm (or any professional practice) that actually answers the phone and is focused on your care can be tough in the modern business world. Attention to little things can really matter.

2. What documents will be used in your foundational or Phase 1 estate plan?

Any well-designed estate plan includes essential or “foundational” documents such as a last will and testament, a possible living and revocable trust, durable power of attorney for finances, and a living will and medical power of attorney.

No plan is complete without a discussion of all of these documents. And those documents should be completed and put into place as soon as possible. 

Depending on your situation, you may also require, or benefit from, additional documents such as Irrevocable Life Insurance Trusts, Irrevocable Grantor Trusts, SLATS, Personal Residence Trusts, or various types of charitable trusts.

A seasoned and experienced estate planning attorney can guide you through the intricate estate planning process and your various options, ensuring a plan that is tailored to your unique needs.

We typically call these more in depth and specific techniques “Phase 2 estate planning.  By breaking the process into its essential and more detailed components it can be less intimidating and the documents get driven to completion rather than trying to do too many things at one time.

3.How long will it take to create my estate plan?

The duration of the estate planning process can range from weeks to months, depending on the complexity of your estate. After meeting with you (either in person or by video conference) a knowledgeable attorney should provide you with a personalized and clear timeline, setting the right expectations from the onset.

At Unruh, Turner, Burke and Frees, our process is designed to complete the foundational estate plan and documents with three well prepared meetings over a three to six week period. 

Additional planning typically requires additional time and/or meetings.

However, even more advanced planning designed to protect your surviving spouse and/or heirs from divorce, lawsuits and other legal and tax risks can be completed quite quickly.

4. What types of estate planning do you offer?

The size of your estate, the types of assets that make up your estate, and your estate planning goals will ultimately dictate the options that are available to you.

But finding a knowledgeable attorney or firm that offers a variety of customized estate planning alternatives should be a goal.

For example, some clients need a will with trusts designed to protect young children or grandchildren while they’re learning and developing financial abilities and knowledge while other clients are seeking trusts that can protect their heirs from losing an inheritance to divorce, a business failure or to litigation/creditors.

For example, not every client has a family business with all the issues that such assets pose.  But if you do have one or more such businesses, then achieving fairness can be tricky and require very specific tools. 

So making sure that the law firm is capable and offers such services is important before you get started.

5. How do you charge for your estate planning services?

Transparency is key. A good estate planning attorney should clarify their pricing model – be it flat fee, hourly rate, or a combination of both – and explain any potential additional costs, such as filing fees and court expenses.

Here, at Unruh, Turner, Burke and Frees’ Wealth Preservation Section, after we meet with a client and clarify what they truly want and need in their estate planning, we can then outline their options and respective costs on a flat fee basis.

Some additional services (that clients often avoid by working with their financial, real estate and CPAs) might include help with beneficiary designations (to align them with the estate planning goals), family meetings to explain the documents and strategies to other beneficiaries and family members, help funding trusts, etc. are charged on an hourly or supplemental flat fee basis.

There is no right or wrong way. Rather, you want to select an attorney that uses a pricing system that works for and is comfortable to you. Most of our clients, throughout the years like the idea of a clearly established fee…right from the start so that they are not worried about hourly fees that are unpredictable.  In that way, the client can determine if the price is more than justified by all of the values and benefits.

6. Does your practice include “probate” and non-probate of wills, and administration of trusts and estates?

As mentioned previously, estate and trust administration or  “probate” and estate planning are two sides of the same coin.

A comprehensive understanding of both is vital to minimize estate taxes and prevent probate from becoming a burden for your loved ones.

And we believe that the vast experience of administering many trusts and estates each year means that we stay current with the law and learn about issues to avoid or how to either avoid and or to mitigate common problems and even to avoid most of the negatives of the probate process itself.

For that reason, getting to know your proposed lawyers’ experience in trust and estate administration and probate is essential.

7. Will your firm be communicating with my other advisors?

Estate planning often and ideally requires a collaborative approach with other advisors like financial consultants and tax professionals.

Your estate planning lawyer should be ready to work in tandem with these experts, ensuring a well-rounded estate plan.

But, because of the attorney client privilege, there may be meetings that you have alone with your legal counsel, and it may be up to you to suggest and to authorize that collaboration.

At this firm, we recognize the importance of “getting everyone on the same page” and in making sure that the advisors all know what is being done.

Whether you do that OR your lawyers handle that interplay of advisors, it’s a great idea.  You should verify with counsel that they understand that you view your estate planning holistically or comprehensively and want the input or knowledge of other advisers such as a financial, insurance, or tax adviser.

8. Will my estate plan be updated if my circumstances change?

Life, estate planning, and tax laws all change, and your estate plan needs to change, adapt and update with them.

For those reasons, it’s important to seek an attorney committed to working with you through time, conducting periodic reviews of your plan, and who is ready to adapt your planning to your evolving needs and goals.

After all, if you want your life’s work to be preserved, protected and passed on in the right way and to the right people, keeping it up to date is essential.

Now be sure to note that you should also instigate a review from time to time based on your changing desires, circumstances, and decisions.  But it can be very helpful to select a lawyer and a firm that has a well done and updated blog, a client newsletter, and regular notices and email/letters regarding changes so that you can assess what changes may apply to you.

At UTBF we are committed to providing you information about new strategies, laws, and changes through blogs, articles, client educational events, our newsletter, notices, and regular emails.

In closing, choosing the right estate planning attorney is one of the first and most essential and vital steps in safeguarding your legacy.

Remember, every individual's needs are different.

A one-size-fits-all approach will not work for everyone. Instead, a tailored plan will ensure that your unique goals, objectives, and requirements are met.

If, from your research, referral or the information above, it seems like we are a good match for your own planning needs, feel free to call us at 610-933-8069 to set up a consultation.

We look forward to helping you navigate this important step in life planning.


David M. Frees, III
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Attorney, Speaker and Author
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