Trusts and Estates is a rapidly growing area of practice in the law that includes estate planning, managing your estate during life and disposing of your estate at your death through the use of trusts, wills and other planning documents.
You'll want to hire an attorney who regularly handles matters in the areas of concern in your particular situation, and who will know enough about the other fields to question whether the action being taken might be affected by laws in other areas of law. For example, if you're going to rewrite your will and your spouse is ill, the estate planner needs to know enough about Medicaid to advise you about whether it's an issue with regard to your spouse's inheritance.
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. They recognize that the aging of America represents a business opportunity for them and they hope to "cash in." So you'll want to be particularly careful in narrowing down your selection of a trust and estate planning attorney.
If you don't already have a list of prospective lawyers, a great place to start your search is right here at lawyers.com. You can do a free search to come up with a list of lawyers by using the Find A Lawyer search box that can be accessed from anywhere on lawyers.com. (You should see a search box on the right side of your computer screen.)
Once 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 whatever you can find on Web sites for the lawyers and their law firms. Do they appear to have expertise in the area of trusts and estates, or estate planning? Do they have any information on their Web sites that is helpful to you?
- Use search engines to surf the Web. Do searches under the name of the lawyer and his or her law firm. Can you find any articles, FAQs or other informational pieces that the lawyer has done that that give you a level of comfort?
- 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, your lawyer should be certified as a specialist in the estate planning area.
- 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.
- Check out the yellow pages of your telephone directory. Does the lawyer advertise? If so, do you find it compelling? Helpful? Tasteful?
- You should anticipate that whomever you hire might have to delegate a lot of responsibility to his or her staff. In turn, an important consideration should be to assess the way the lawyer's staff treats you since 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.
- You will probably want to hire a lawyer with at least a few years of experience. However, experience does not a good lawyer make. Every practicing attorney knows other lawyers that he or she would not hire.
- Unless there are special circumstances, you'll want to hire a lawyer with a local office.
Before you hire a lawyer:
- Ask for references. You want to talk to people who could comment on the lawyer's skills and trustworthiness. Ask if it's okay to talk to some of the lawyer's representative clients.
- Ask for a copy of a firm brochure and promotional materials. Crosscheck these materials against other sources and references.
- Ask to be provided with a copy of the lawyer's retainer agreement and have it explained to you before decide on retaining the lawyer or the lawyer's law firm. You may end up paying a lot of money to the lawyer you hire, so make sure you understand what you are signing up for.
Consider any special needs you have. For example, could you benefit from an attorney who speaks a language other than English?
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 your 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.
You should be prepared to pay a fee to meet the lawyer. Trust and Estate lawyers seldom take cases on contingency fee or do not charge for the first meeting. When you make the appointment, you should ask what the fee for the first meeting would be.
Use your common sense and gut instincts to evaluate the remaining lawyers on your list. You'll want to be comfortable with the lawyer you hire. You want to choose the best lawyer who you think will do the best job for you.