You might think that any lawyer with law degree (a J.D.), a license to practice law, and no disciplinary complaints can make you a good estate plan or advise you well regarding an estate or trust. Those things are important, but they might not be enough. Just like you wouldn’t go to just any licensed doctor for brain surgery, you might not want to go to just any licensed lawyer for an estate plan or advice regarding a trust or estate. Choosing the right lawyer is even more important in large estates and contested matters.
So how do you pick a lawyer who is likely to be good at estate planning or advising you regarding an estate or trust?
Specialties for lawyers don’t work like specialties for doctors. Basically, any lawyer can call himself a wills, trusts, and estates attorney. There are board certifications for lawyers; however, they aren’t widely available, and the standards for board certification might not be sufficiently rigorous. The rest of this post will help you take a more careful look at your prospective lawyer’s qualifications to practice in the field of wills, trusts, and estates and—I hope—help you sort the good from the mediocre (and bad).
In reading, please keep in mind that these are my opinions. Many lawyers (probably including some at Yates Campbell & Hoeg!) will disagree with me.
1. Practices Primarily in the Field of Wills, Trusts, And Estates
Have you ever heard the saying about a jack of all trades being a master of none? I recommend looking for a lawyer who practices primarily (75% or more) in the field of wills, trusts, and estates. Based on my experiences with many lawyers and their documents, I consider this the single most important criterion in selecting a wills, trusts, and estates lawyer. The law and best practices change often in this field, and keeping up takes time. You might have to ask the lawyer or office staff to find out how much of a lawyer’s practice is in the area of wills, trusts, and estates.
What counts as wills, trusts, and estates?
The field is sometimes called trusts and estates, wealth planning, private client services, or estate planning and administration. Note that some lawyers call estate planning for business owners business planning or business succession planning. Elder law and family law are separate fields of law, though they may overlap to some extent with wills, trusts, and estates.
There are two aspects to the wills, trusts, and estates field: estate planning (the planning we do while you’re alive) and estate/trust administration (the work we help your executor, trustee. and heirs do after you die). I think it’s important for an attorney practicing in this field to understand both, and it’s often convenient (and more efficient) for your executor or trustee to be able hire your planning attorney for the administration.
An LL.M. degree is an advanced degree in law, usually in a particular area of law. In the wills, trusts, and estates field, you will find many lawyers who have LL.M. degrees in estate planning or tax law. An attorney who has one of these degrees has had formal training in some of the more complex issues that arise in estate planning and tax matters.
There are many certifications a lawyer can obtain and many membership organizations a lawyer can join. Some are wills, trusts, and estates-specific. The requirements to become certified or join a particular group vary greatly: some involve a rigorous application process, while others can be bought. Some certifications and memberships are certainly worth considering in assessing lawyers. Membership in the American College of Trusts and Estates Counsel (ACTEC), for example, is considered very prestigious among wills, trusts, and estates attorneys. It is a membership that must be earned, and many of the members are considered preeminent attorneys in this field. Membership in most bar associations (mandatory state bars, like the Virginia State Bar, aside) is purchased. For example, I am a member of the Fairfax Bar’s Wills, Trusts and Estates Section. I joined by filling out a simple application and paying dues. I consider the organization very worthwhile, but no one should conclude anything about my skills based on that membership.
Experience is valuable to a lawyer. I recommend you assess the experience of the lawyers you are considering. In weighing a lawyer’s experience, consider how much of the lawyer’s experience is in handling cases like yours.
Also be sure to look into whether any lawyer you’re thinking about hiring is keeping up with the laws and best practices. As I mentioned above, the law and best practices in this field change often. Whether a lawyer is keeping up will likely affect what the lawyer can do for you.
4. How the lawyer works
Lawyers’ processes and policies vary. Make sure the processes and policies of the lawyers you’re considering are feasible for you. Here are a few questions you might want to ask:
- How long do you usually take to do what I need?
- How many meetings are involved in the process? What if I want more/fewer meetings?
- How will you communicate with me? Do you email?
- How long does it take to get an appointment with you?
- Will you be my primary point of contact, or will someone else from your office be involved?
- Which members of your staff will be working on my case? Who will do what?
There are no right answers to these questions. The answers just need to satisfy you.
5. Comfort Level
You will probably have to share personal information with the lawyer planning your estate or working with you on an estate or trust administration. Discussions about family issues and money are unavoidable. I recommend choosing a lawyer you feel comfortable talking to.