Estate Planning Attorneys: What They Do and How to Choose One
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An estate planning attorney helps people determine where their assets should go upon their death or incapacity. The attorney should look carefully at your unique family and financial situation, explain the estate planning process and help you make the best choices for you and your descendants and beneficiaries.
What does an estate planning attorney do?
Estate planning attorneys do more than just prepare your will; they can walk you through a full spread of end-of-life arrangements.
People with fairly simple estates may be able to complete their estate planning with a comprehensive online software program, but for more complex situations, an attorney may be worth the extra cost.
If you have child care concerns, a chronic health diagnosis or live in a state with its own estate taxes, an estate planning attorney can help you navigate your planning. Some estate planning attorneys also specialize in elder law or taxes.
“Estate planning is more than just document preparation. It’s coordinating what you own with your plan to make sure that everything passes the way you want it to and in the most tax-efficient way,” says attorney Susan H. Levin, who specializes in elder law and estate planning at Rosenberg, Freedman & Lee in Newton, Massachusetts.
Though you can complete your estate planning documents on your own or with will-making software, estate planning attorneys can help maximize your legal protections and tax benefits. They can also help you coordinate your accounts with your documents, such as ensuring that your beneficiary designations match up.
An estate attorney can also craft power of attorney and advance health care directive documents or set up a revocable living trust to avoid the probate process after your death.
» Doing it yourself? Here are our top picks for online will makers
Do I need an estate planning attorney?
Whether you need an estate planning attorney depends on your unique circumstances, but some factors could affect your decision. Here are a few to consider.
You may need an attorney if:
You have kids. Proper estate planning makes a big difference if you have minor children or dependents, as another adult may need to manage your assets until the child comes of age. This usually requires a trust, which is more complex than a will to set up.
Your state has its own estate or inheritance taxes. The federal estate tax ranges from rates of 18% to 40% and generally only applies to assets over $12.06 million in 2022 or $12.92 million in 2023. However, some states have estate taxes, too. In Massachusetts, for example, assets over $1 million are taxed, which homeowners and life-insurance-policy holders will likely easily meet. An estate planning attorney can help you navigate your state’s specific laws.
You’re uncomfortable navigating the legal process. Estate planning documents include specific language that may carry different meanings depending on the situation. An estate planning attorney can answer questions you may not have considered.
You’re at risk for incapacity. A well-planned estate is essential for those with chronic health conditions or disabilities. If there’s likely to be a time when you can’t manage your money and health by yourself, an attorney can help you and your loved ones make use of directive documents and advocate for your needs, especially if they have experience in elder or disability law.
You may not need an attorney if:
Everything you own is in beneficiary-designated accounts. Many people have most of their savings in retirement and insurance accounts, such as a Roth IRA or a 401(k). These assets typically pass to the beneficiary you name on the account, not in your will, so if your beneficiaries are straightforward (and not minor children), you may not need advanced estate planning assistance.
Your lawyer doesn’t customize the process for you. Not all attorneys are created equal; some may provide a service equivalent to online estate planning software and don’t go above and beyond. “If an attorney doesn’t ask you about everything you own and all the names on your beneficiary-designated accounts, then they’re essentially a ‘document mill,’” Levin says. An attorney who carefully coordinates your assets may be more costly, but it’s likely to pay off in the long run.
Your estate planning starts simple, and you can hire an attorney in the future. You can always start the estate planning process independently and consult an expert as your situation and plans evolve, especially as you age or if your health changes.
How to find an estate planning attorney
Here are four things that can help you hire a high-quality estate planning attorney.
Start with qualifications. Many counties and states have lawyer associations and councils to which an established attorney may belong. In some places, an attorney can be designated a “Super Lawyer,” which is a network of highly rated lawyers. Also, check for membership in the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel.
Ask for recommendations. Word-of-mouth still goes a long way, particularly if an attorney is well-established in your area. If you’re searching online, websites such as SuperLawyers.com or Justia.com can highlight attorneys near you.
Request a free consult. Many lawyers offer free consultations to help clients get to know them. “Use your discretion to see if you click,” Levin says. “It’s important to establish good enough rapport with your attorney to discuss private family matters.”
Look for specializations. Depending on your circumstances, you may benefit from an estate planning attorney with additional expertise. “If you have a degenerative or chronic health condition that’s likely to result in incapacity or require in-home care, an elder law attorney may be helpful,” Levin says. Many attorneys also specialize in Medicaid or estate taxes.
How much does an estate planning attorney cost?
Prices can vary depending on your location and the law firm you choose, as well as whether you’re paying an hourly rate, a fixed per-document rate or a comprehensive estate bundle. Here are a few estimated prices ranges for popular services:
Overall average hourly fee: $250 to $310.
Average hourly fee for lawyers with less than 10 years in practice: $210 to $265.
Average hourly fee for lawyers with more than 10 years in practice: $280 to $350.
Typical flat-rate package fee: $1,000 to $2,000.
63% of estate planning lawyers offer a free 30- to 60-minute consultation.