It is not easy to choose an attorney, particularly if you have never had prior experience with one. Many people delay drafting necessary documents, such as Wills, Trusts, and Powers of Attorney, because they simply don’t know where to begin, or they are nervous or intimidated by the thought of meeting with an attorney. Others have too much prior experience with the legal system, having been involved in a lawsuit, divorce or bankruptcy, and want nothing more to do with attorneys. And many are scared of the cost of legal representation. They don’t know if establishing an estate plan will cost hundreds of dollars, thousands of dollars, or somewhere in between. Following are guidelines to help you choose an attorney who will have the experience, knowledge, and personal skills to assist you in establishing an appropriate estate plan, probating an estate, or acting as Trustee of a Trust. In some cases, you will need an attorney who specializes in estate planning for Seniors or individuals with disabilities. Not all estate planning attorney are specialists in these areas. For more information about Elder Law and Special Needs Attorneys, see the article “Elder Law and Special Needs Attorneys”.
The Initial Consultation. The first step is scheduling an initial consultation. When you make the appointment for the first time, make it clear that you are a new client and you want a consultation. Many attorneys do not charge for a 30 or 45 minute meeting with a new client. Don’t be shy about asking if there is a charge for the first meeting. Remember that you are not obligated to retain an attorney after the first meeting. If you do not feel comfortable talking to the attorney during your first meeting, he or she is not the right attorney for you. In the course of establishing an estate plan, probating an estate, or dealing with elder law issues, you may have to provide very personal information about yourself and other family members. If you are intimidated by the attorney, if he or she is not asking lots of questions about you, or if he or she simply doesn’t seem to be listening, the attorney will never have all of the relevant information needed to deal with your legal issues. And beware of the attorney who does nothing but talk about himself or herself. Although you want to find out about the attorney’s qualifications, the first meeting should be about you. You are the one who should be doing most of the talking. Without detailed information about you, your family, and your legal concerns, the attorney cannot make an informed recommendation for dealing with your legal needs.
Do your homework before your first meeting. Find out as much as you can about the attorney, so that the first meeting focuses on you. If you are not happy with the first attorney you meet with, you should move on to another one. Establishing an estate plan is a process. You may be meeting with your attorney two or more times before you finalize your documents. If you are the Personal Representative of an Estate or Trustee of a Trust, you will be meeting with the attorney even more frequently. Probating the estate of a loved one can be very stressful. Your personal interaction with the attorney is just as important as the attorney’s professional qualifications. You need an attorney with both the knowledge and personal skills to help you through the process of establishing and estate plan or probating the estate of a loved one.
After Your Decision. After you have found an attorney with the right credentials and personal skills, ask for a fee agreement or engagement letter. The agreement or letter should describe the scope of work that will be performed, will explain how the attorney bills, and will include an estimate of the legal fee and out of pocket expenses (such as recording fees). In some cases, the attorney may be able to give you a fixed price for your estate plan, particularly if it is a simple one. In other cases, when the estate plan is more complex or the attorney will be probating an estate, he or she will not know at the outset what the legal fee will be. He or she should tell you what his or her hourly rate is, how much time they estimate they need to complete your estate plan or the administration of an estate, and what the usual out of pocket expenses are for the recommended estate plan or the administration of the estate. Most attorneys ask for a retainer before they start drafting documents or undertaking other legal work. Don’t be hesitant if you have questions about the work to be performed or the legal fee that will be charged. If you want a simple estate plan and the attorney proposes something far more complicated, point this out. The attorney may have very good reasons for the documents recommended, but in the end, it is your choice. If you have concerns about paying the legal fee, ask the attorney if you can pay in installments. In this economy, most attorneys are willing to give you time to pay the legal fee.
If you do not receive an engagement letter or fee agreement within one to two weeks, this may be a warning that this attorney is too busy to deal with your case. Unless there is a good reason for a delay, you should not have to wait more than two weeks to receive your engagement letter or fee agreement. After you reach an agreement about the work to be done, and pay the retainer, the attorney should prepare your estate planning documents in draft for your review before they are finalized. For the probate of a Will, the attorney should prepare the necessary paperwork to start the probate process after receiving a retainer. Once again, you should receive the draft documents or be told that the probate documents are ready for your signature within two to three weeks, unless there is a good reason for the delay. Many clients complain (with good reason) that they pay a retainer and then wait weeks to hear from the attorney. If, at any time you feel you are being neglected, you should voice your concerns. Sometimes, the delay can be the result of a misunderstanding. The attorney may have asked for information needed to complete your draft documents and you thought that you could fill in the information after you received the draft documents. The attorney, on the other hand, could be waiting to receive the information from you before completing and sending out the draft documents. In other cases, the attorney simply has not placed a high priority on completing your estate plan or starting the probate of your father’s Will. You can terminate representation after you have paid your retainer. But first, be sure to voice your concerns, and give the attorney a chance to make things right. If you feel that the attorney does not have the time for you, or your case is of little importance to him or her, it’s time to find another attorney. If you have paid a retainer, the attorney will charge you for the time spent on your case. If you have filled out a questionnaire or the attorney has prepared draft documents, ask for these documents. Giving these documents to your new attorney will save time and money.
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