What is The Lawyer's Role?
It is easy to be lured by advertisements claiming you can save time and money by drafting your own will or trust using do-it-yourself websites, retail software, or fill-in-the-blank will or trust kits from the bookstore. It is unlikely that these alternatives will generate a suitable plan that accomplishes all of your objectives. Only a qualified trusts and estates lawyer can interpret the myriad laws bearing on property rights, taxes, wills, probate, and trusts. More important, canned programs and forms cannot provide the wide range of legal advice to assure that the form is correct, that assets passing outside of your will or trust are properly handled, that state law nuances are taken into account, or that relevant tax, legal and personal issues are properly addressed.
On the other hand, you can save time and money by preparing for a meeting with your estate planning lawyer. You can organize your information regarding your assets, liabilities, and title arrangements and think about your feelings regarding providing for various family members. Most lawyers practicing in this area have questionnaires that will help you with this process. You should take with you copies of important documents such as previous wills or trusts, powers of attorney, life insurance policies, employment benefits, and prenuptial agreements and divorce decrees.
Not every state requires or allows attorneys to designate a specialty area of practice, which like the medical field is generally known as board certification. The ABA Committee on Specialization maintains information on board certification programs, including links to programs offered by state bar associations and programs approved by the ABA. You should always inquire about the level of experience and qualifications in estate planning when selecting an attorney. Membership in certain bar associations or estate planning organizations often indicates a level of dedication to the estate planning field and a commitment to keeping abreast of the law. For example and again like physicians, becoming a fellow of a professional college such as the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC) generally indicates extensive experience in estate planning as well as substantial service to the profession. Most important, you should choose an attorney in whom you have confidence, either through recommendations from friends or your other professional advisors.
Be sure to ask your attorney about legal fees and see that they are dealt with to your satisfaction in the written agreement between you and your attorney (often referred to as the engagement letter). Most states do not require such a written agreement, but you probably should. As part of its services to the bar and the public, the ACTEC website includes model engagement letters for a wide range of estate planning and related legal matters.
If you are like most people, you have spent most of your lifetime to achieve your personal goals. The advice and direction of your attorney will be essential to implementing an estate plan that both disposes of your assets according to your wishes and meets your other personal objectives. Putting all of that at risk to do your own estate planning might accomplish nothing more than years of estate or trust litigation, costing far more time and money than some of the most elaborate estate plans imaginable.