The practice of “trusts and estates” is a very broad category that includes estate planning, estate and trust administration, probate, elder law and more. A trusts and estates attorney can help you:
- make a plan for what will happen your property when you die (wills and trusts)
- avoid probate (living trusts, transfer-on-death tools, beneficiary designations)
- reduce estate taxes
- plan for incapacity (powers of attorney and living wills)
- set up trusts for loved ones
- manage ongoing trusts
- help with probating estates
Estates and trusts attorneys usually have more expertise in specific issues. So, if you need a trusts and estates attorney, look for one who specializes in the area of your concern. For example, if your mother just passed away and you want to hire an attorney to settle her estate, look for someone with lots of experience probating estates in the county where your mother lived. (Probate rules vary county to county.) Or, if you want to plan your estate but have a complicated financial situation, look for an attorney with lots of experience drafting trusts, ideally someone with a tax background as well.
You may need to find someone who has knowledge or expertise in multiple areas. For example, if you're going to rewrite your will and your spouse is ill, the estate planner needs to know about how Medicaid will affect your estate plan.
Unfortunately, there are some attorneys who hold themselves out as experts in trusts and estates, but who have little or no experience in this area of practice. If one of these attorneys offers to draw up your will or trust, he or she will probably just plug your information into a software program without really knowing the details about the law or what effects it might have on your estate.
That said, if money is tight and you need to find a lawyer who charges a moderate fee, consider finding a smart, less experienced, attorney to help you. After all experience does not necessarily make a good lawyer, and a newer attorney may very well become a great attorney. However, less experienced attorneys should also know when they are in over their heads, so make sure that any less experienced lawyer you hire has a more experienced attorney to consult, if needed.
Also, you may be able to do some estate planning on your own. Simple wills, trusts, and powers of attorney don’t have to be made by attorneys. And with good self-help products, you can either make your own documents or learn more about the documents that an attorney will make for you.
Research and Compile a List
In any case, you will need to do a little research to find a trusts and estates attorney that is right for you. If you don't already have a list of prospective lawyers, a great place to start your search is right here at lawyers.com where you can search for a lawyer by location (city, state, or zip code) and practice area.
When you have a list of lawyers, use the following guidelines to do some initial screening and narrow your list down to three or four prospective candidates:
- Look at biographical information, including the lawyers’ own websites. Do they appear to have expertise in the area of trusts and estates? Do they have information on their website that is helpful to you?
- Search the internet to learn more about prospective attorneys. Search using the name of the lawyer and his or her law firm. Can you find any articles, FAQs or other informational pieces that resonate with your needs?
- Ask other people if they have heard of the attorneys and what they think about them.
- Contact your state bar association or visit the bar association's Web site to find out if the lawyer is in good standing.
- Is the lawyer certified as a specialist in your state? Not every state certifies specialists in trusts and estates, or estate planning, but if your state does, selecting a lawyer with this certification provides an added assurance that he or she is qualified. (A certified specialist may charge more than someone without a certification.)
- Check the membership directory of local, state or national associations. Is the lawyer listed? One example would be the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel.
- Read any relevant Yelp reviews.
- Consider how lawyer's staff treats you when you call the office because they are a reflection of how the lawyer practices. At a minimum, you should expect to be treated courteously and professionally both by the staff and by the lawyer.
- Unless there are special circumstances, you'll want to hire a lawyer with a local office.
Talk to a Few
After you’ve narrowed your list to just a few attorneys, do some deeper research to figure out which is best for you.
- Talk with several lawyers. Get a sense of their communication skills as well as their expertise. You want to be confident that they know what they’re doing professionally, but also trust your gut about how well you ‘click’ and about how well the attorney will meet your needs.
- Check in with references. Have brief discussions with clients or colleagues who have an opinion about the lawyer's skills and trustworthiness. (You can ask each lawyer for a list of references to call.)
- Ask who will do the work. Anticipate that the lawyer you hire may delegate some work to his or her staff. Ask about how much of the work the attorney will do, and consider whether the answer is in line with your expectations.
- Double check promotional materials. Ask for a copy of a firm brochure and promotional materials. Crosscheck these materials against other sources and references.
- Understand the retainer agreement. Make sure you understand and agree to the lawyer’s retainer agreement.
- Consider any special needs you have. For example, could you benefit from an attorney who speaks a language other than English? Do you need the office to be wheelchair accessible? Do you prefer to communicate by phone, rather than email?
You shouldn't necessarily cross a lawyer off your list just because he or she didn't have the time to meet with you on short notice. Nor should you expect to be able to discuss the details of the matter on the telephone with the lawyer. Good lawyers are busy, so they may not be able to spend as much time as they would like with prospective clients. But if it takes a lawyer too long to meet with you, it may be a sign that he or she is too busy to give your situation sufficient attention.
Be prepared to pay a fee for the initial consultation. Some attorneys may waive this fee or apply it to your first hour of hired work, but most do charge something for the first meeting.
Choose the Right Lawyer for You
Use your common sense and instincts to evaluate the remaining lawyers on your list. Eliminate those that don’t feel like a good fit, as well as those that are not confident that they can help you. Trust your gut and choose the lawyer that feels right to you.
Questions for Your Lawyer
- How long does it usually take for you to return phone calls?
- How much of the work do you yourself?
- Can you give me an example of what a bill from you will look like?