Getting Help From a Lawyer

You probably won’t need a lawyer’s help to make Nolo's Online Will. But the process of working on your will might raise some questions about your particular situation that should be answered by an expert. This is especially likely if you have a very large estate, must plan for an incapacitated minor or have to deal with the assets of a good-sized small business. We highlight these and other “red flags” throughout the program.

What Kind of Expert Do You Need?

If you have questions, the first thing to decide is what type of expert you should seek. Questions about estate taxes may be better (and less expensively) answered by an experienced accountant than a lawyer. Or if you’re wondering what type of life insurance to buy, you may be better off talking to a financial planner.

Consult a lawyer if you have specific questions about a provision of your will. Also see a lawyer if you want to get into more sophisticated estate planning—for instance, if you want to establish a charitable trust or a detailed plan to avoid estate taxes.

Different Ways to Get Advice From a Lawyer

Although many consumers (and some lawyers) don’t know it yet, the way lawyers and their customers structure their relationships is changing fast. Lawyers used to insist on taking responsibility (and fees) for creating an entire estate plan. But, in what has become a very competitive market, many lawyers now offer piecemeal services, tailored to just what a customer wants.

This means you no longer have to walk into a lawyer’s office, turn over your legal problems and wait for an answer—and a bill. Instead, you can often buy what you need, whether it’s a bit of advice, a single estate planning document, a review of a document you’ve prepared with this program or regular coaching as you handle a probate court proceeding on your own.

If you adopt this approach, you and the lawyer should sign an agreement that clearly sets out your roles and states that the lawyer is not acting in a traditional role, but instead giving you limited services or representation. Without this type of agreement, lawyers fear that dissatisfied clients might later hold them responsible for more than they actually agreed to take on. The agreement should make things clear to you too, so you know what to expect from the lawyer.

Finding a lawyer. Finding an attorney in your area who is willing to review your will or just answer a few questions could be a challenge. Most will want to draft your will from the start. But it’s possible, and you have a few lawyer-finding tools at your disposal.

Working With a Lawyer

Before you talk to a lawyer, decide what kind of help you really need. Do you want someone to advise you on a complete estate plan or just to review the documents you prepare to make sure they look all right? If you don’t clearly tell the lawyer what you want, you may find yourself agreeing to turn over all your estate planning work.

One good strategy is to do some background research and write down your questions as specifically as you can. If the lawyer doesn’t give you clear, concise answers, try someone else. If the lawyer acts wise but says little except to ask that the problem be placed in his or her hands—with a substantial fee, of course—watch out. You’re either dealing with someone who doesn’t know the answer and won’t admit it (common) or someone who finds it impossible to let go of the “me expert, you plebeian” philosophy (even more common).

Lawyer fees usually range from $100 to $350 or more per hour. But price is not always related to quality. It depends on the area of the country you live in, but, generally, fees of $150 to $250 per hour are reasonable in urban areas. In rural areas and smaller cities, $100 to $150 is more like it. The fee of an experienced specialist may be 10% to 30% higher than that of a general practitioner, but the specialist will probably produce results more efficiently and save you money in the long run.

Be sure you settle your fee arrangement—preferably in writing—at the start of your relationship. In addition to the hourly fee, you should get a clear, written commitment from the lawyer about how many hours your problem should take to handle.

You can learn more about finding and working with estate and probate lawyers on Nolo.com.

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