In this age of standard products for a standard audience at a discount, a common question to an estate planning attorney is "How much do you charge for a will?" It turns out this is not the right question.
The question you need to ask first is not about a document, it's about your family: "What do I really need to have in place to ensure me, my family, and money are cared for the way I want?"
Far too many people make their estate planning decisions based on what it's going to cost. Sometimes, that may be the right criteria. Most of the time it's not. The problem is that many people don't know what they don't know. When you search the internet to download a cheap will or fill out canned documents from a book or DIY kit, you don't know what you are actually putting into place or setting in motion. A fill-in-the-blank document isn't going to ask you how your home is titled—and it turns out this question (how are your assets titled?), not whether you have a will, determines the size of the mess left behind for your loved ones to clean up.
When tragedy strikes, it's your family who is left holding the bag. With a poorly designed plan, your family has to interrupt the grieving process to deal with unnecessary, expensive, and totally public probate; possibly multiple probates in different states; loss of sovereignty over your estate; legal fees for guardianships and conservatorships; and being at the mercy of the judicial system.
When you choose to hire an estate planning attorney, the goal should not be to merely pay for documents. You should hire your estate planning attorney for their guidance throughout your lifetime and to be there for your loved ones when you can't be. If there is any area of law where you should want to have a lifetime relationship with your attorney, it's with your estate planning attorney.
When you hire the right estate planning attorney, you aren't renting their time or their printer, but their brain and their heart. You are hiring an ally who will help you get your affairs in order, and keep them in order across time and as the law, tax policies, and your life change. The will should be free.
How do you know, then, that you are hiring the right attorney?
Start with what to avoid. Avoid the attorney you can't see—the one who drafted that fill-in-the-blank document or created the auto-populated software.
Pass on the lawyer who charges hourly; it should be flat fee instead. There should be no surprises about the fee and the attorney you want is the one who has done estate planning long enough to spend much less time drafting a will or trust today than five years ago anyway. You want your lawyer who has done this before, just like you want a brain surgeon to have performed 1,000 brain surgeries before yours.
Stay away from an attorney looking only for a transactional relationship; this is the one who is looking to get you in, get you out, and get paid. Your estate planning attorney should be a trusted advisor alongside your financial planner and CPA. Your life will change, your assets will change, and the law will change. So should your estate plan, and your lawyer should be nurturing a trusted relationship with you to be on call just when you need an update to the design of your plan.
And challenge the status quo—are financial assets really all that matter? If you have to choose between leaving your child a million dollars or leaving your child the values, insights, stories, and experiences that are most important to you, which do you choose? Your attorney should help you capture these intangible, spiritual, and human assets too.
So back to the question at hand: How do you know you're hiring the right attorney?
Get referrals from your friends and family. When you call an attorney's office, ask how they charge and what makes their office different than others.
See who stands out in your area. Is there a lawyer who is frequently seen around your community? That lawyer means business and is putting their reputation on the line every day. Give them a try.
Get connected. When you find the right lawyer, he or she will be a member of your team for the long term, not for just this one transaction. Your lawyer should be approachable and not only want to be in a long-term relationship with you, but have systems and team in place to support you and your family.
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Note from the author: When I receive a call and someone asks how much I charge for a will, I can't give them an answer because I don't even know if that's what they need. Maybe a will would suffice for that family, but maybe it won't. And if I tell them how much a will costs and then they come into my office and they need so much more, they'll be angry with me. So I won't answer the question, because I don't charge for wills. I charge for advice, guidance, counsel, and support. The will? It's free.