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All About Hiring an Estate Planning Attorney

As you grow older, it’s important to have a secure estate plan in place so you know your assets and family will be taken care of when you’re gone. This involves drawing up plenty of legal paperwork, which is when hiring an estate planning attorney can be especially beneficial. These lawyers specialize in many areas of estate planning, including federal and state laws regarding wills, taxes, trusts and power of attorney. In addition, you may especially need a lawyer if someone is likely to contest your will or your estate is otherwise complex. That said, if your estate is large, you’ll probably also want to hire a financial advisor who can help you manage all of your assets, investments and other finances.

What Does an Estate Planning Attorney Do?

An estate planning attorney is a lawyer who specializes in handling estate planning matters. In terms of certifications, these lawyers are no different from ones who specialize in mergers and acquisitions or personal injury suits. Regardless of specialty, they still have to pass the bar exam for the state in which they practice.

The difference lies in the specialization that estate planning lawyers acquire through years of experience working on various estate planning issues. An estate planning lawyer’s duties can be wide-ranging, but they all center around one goal: to assist clients in preparing for the end of life and the financial legacy they’ll leave.

This assistance can manifest itself in a number of ways. Most notably, estate planning lawyers can help you write a last will and testament and set up a trust. Your estate planning lawyer can also aid you in minimizing any estate or inheritance taxes. Once you pass away, they can also assist the executor of your will in transferring assets to your beneficiaries. Should probate become necessary, they can help with that as well.

Additionally, an estate planning lawyer can help you ensure that you’re prepared for end-of-life scenarios in which you’re unable to make your own decisions. This will typically involve assigning power of attorney, drawing up a living will or creating any other kind of advance directive. A good estate planning lawyer can serve as a legal guide through all the aspects of preparing for the end of life.

How Much Does an Estate Planning Attorney Cost?

All About Hiring an Estate Planning Attorney

Law firms have a reputation for being expensive, and for good reason. The services of an estate planning attorney are heavily specialized, which means you can’t just replicate what they do without years of schooling and experience. Even if your total costs end up being pricey, you can at least rest easy knowing your family and estate are in good hands.

When you meet with an estate planning attorney, they’ll typically lay out their fees immediately. These can come in different variations and combinations, including initial meeting fees, hourly fees and fixed fees. In most cases, the more time your attorney spends on your estate, the more you’ll pay.

Fee rates will range from attorney to attorney and state to state. Firms will often charge you a starting fee to initially meet with the attorney for an hour or so. This time is for reviewing your estate planning needs and whether or not you’re a good fit for one another. If you can, ask for a quote ahead of time so you can easily compare rates between each attorney.

Depending on how early in life you see an estate planning attorney, there’ll likely be longer-term fees for maintenance. For example, let’s say you and your spouse decide to work with a lawyer at age 68. If your spouse passes away at 75, you’ll probably need to readjust your estate plan significantly. The same will also be true if you, say, gain another grandchild.

How to Find an Estate Planning Attorney

To find an estate planning attorney, you should ask friends and family for recommendations. Their personal experiences will be the best indicator of any attorney’s quality. You can also try getting a referral from your state bar association or from a county or local probate court. Your financial advisor can also recommend one, as they typically have attorneys to whom they regularly refer clients.

A lawyer who specializes in estate planning won’t necessarily have any unique certifications or titles to distinguish them. Rather, they’ll simply refer to themselves as estate planning lawyers or estate planning professionals. Their entire practice may be explicitly focused on this specialty. They may also discuss the areas within estate planning they have experience in.

Of course, you will need to work with an estate planning lawyer who has passed the bar in your state. State-specific expertise is particularly important when it comes to estate planning. That’s because laws and probate procedures differ by state and locale.

On a less technical note, you should look for an estate planning attorney who puts you at ease. After all, this person will be helping you make what can be difficult and emotional decisions. More often than not, you’ll need to disclose a great deal of personal information, including your final wishes. This entire process will be significantly easier if you feel comfortable talking to your attorney.

Estate Planning Attorney Certifications

All About Hiring an Estate Planning Attorney

While an estate planning attorney doesn’t need separate certifications to practice, some choose to attain further credentials. Some of these are available to professionals who aren’t lawyers, such as financial advisors or accountants. Knowing what kinds of designations an attorney has can give you a clue as to what they’re most knowledgeable about. This could be an incredibly important revelation when you’re looking for one to work with.

Here are a few examples of certifications you might see:

  • Accredited Estate Planner (AEP): The National Association of Estate Planners and Councils awards the accredited estate planner designation to licensed attorneys, CPAs, chartered life underwriters and certain other financial advisors. Requirements include a minimum of five years of estate planning experience, the completion of two graduate level courses through the American College of Financial Services and the completion of a minimum of 30 hours of continuing education every 24 months, of which at least half must be in estate planning.
  • Chartered Trust and Estate Planner (CTEP): The American Academy of Financial Management grants this designation. It requires a degree in finance, tax, accounting, financial services or law. Other requirements include the completion of at least five related courses, the completion of a certification training course and annual continuing education.
  • Certified Trust and Financial Advisor (CTFA): The American Bankers Association, along with the Institute of Certified Bankers, awards the certified trust and financial advisor (CTFA) designation to individuals who meet certain criteria. This includes a minimum of three years of experience in wealth management, the completion of at least one approved wealth management training program, a letter of recommendation, a signed ethics statement and the completion of 45 hours of continuing education every three years.

Bottom Line

Planning your estate is a complex endeavor with countless decisions from start to finish. An estate planning attorney can help you determine a plan that makes the most sense for your unique situation. With the help of a qualified professional, you can go into the estate planning process with confidence. This will leave you knowing that your plan is airtight, which will only bring you ease.

Tips for Planning Your Estate

  • To maximize the legacy you leave to your heirs, you’ll need a comprehensive financial plan and investing strategy. A financial advisor can help you with both. Luckily, SmartAsset’s free tool can match you with up to three advisors in your area. Get started now.
  • It’s never pleasant to think about, but there may come a time when you’re unable to make decisions for yourself. For these scenarios, a living will or another form of advance directive can help ensure your family knows your wishes.

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Hunter Kuffel, CEPF® Hunter Kuffel is a personal finance writer with expertise in savings, retirement and investing. Hunter is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® (CEPF®) and a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame and currently lives in New York City.
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