Hiring Estate-Planning Experts
Last updated December 2021
Unless your situation is very straightforward, have your will prepared by an experienced lawyer, and hire a financial planner or estate attorney to organize your finances. A common warning we heard from experts regarded clients who didn’t want to pay for their help, not realizing it’s almost always easier (and therefore less expensive) to prepare paperwork for an estate before a death, compared to the tasks needed to complete transfer of an unprepared estate after a death. Also, experts know when laws change and will keep your arrangements up to date. And by taking care of your own estate business, you spare your family a lot of work.
If you want a financial planner, there are different types: fee-only planners, who provide only advice (and usually charge by the hour) and planners who offer advice and hold and manage your assets. The latter charge fees equal to a percentage of the total value of the account.
You don’t want an estate planner who also tries to act as a stockbroker or investment adviser: He or she shouldn’t buy and sell equities or mutual funds, or tell you which ones to buy or sell. You want an advisor whose judgment isn’t clouded by commissions and other possible conflicts of interest.
Many of the customer reviews in our financial advisors section are for financial planners; these ratings will help your search.
Chat with potential planners and estate attorneys on the phone or in person; since you’ll share very personal details, you’ll want good rapport.
For lawyers, if you don’t have a complex estate or multiple heirs, negotiate a flat fee that covers meetings and services to create and maintain a specific set of documents (will, power of attorney, advance medical directive). Even if you have a very complicated estate, it’s reasonable to ask for a cost estimate upfront.
Other questions to ask:
- How much estate planning have you done? This is important if you’re looking for a lawyer. Most can properly prepare simple wills, but more complicated financial or family situations need someone who has seen it all. Ask candidates how many wills and trusts they prepare each year, and how many cases they guide through probate. If one asks you to complete a lengthy, detailed pre-meeting questionnaire, it’s a good sign he or she arranges a lot of estates—and saves you the cost of legal fees for doing your legwork.
- What are your credentials? Several organizations for financial planners require meaningful training, including Certified Financial Planners (CFPs), Chartered Financial Consultants (ChFCs), Certified Public Accountants/Personal Financial Specialists (CPA/PFSs), and National Association of Personal Financial Advisors–Registered Financial Advisors (NAPFA-RFAs). Attorneys can also earn certification through the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils, American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, and National Elder Law Foundation. Of course, while someone can attain certification but still do sloppy work, participation at least indicates a commitment to the field. Be aware that not all certifications are meaningful; some (not mentioned above) are set up by bands of lawyers who just want a credential after their names.
- What types of clients do you usually work for? Can you provide references of clients whose needs are similar to mine?
- Who will do the work? You or another member of your firm?