If you go to an attorney for an estate plan, how much will you pay, and what determines that price? Three factors help answer those questions: 1) the type of product or estate plan that you need; 2) the type of legal fees your estate planning attorney uses; and 3) who actually does the work on your estate plan.
The cost of your estate plan varies with which documents you need and with the complexity of each document. These documents are the estate planner's tools. A good estate planning attorney will recommend a combination of those tools and help you prepare a strategy to make the tools work together.
Example 1: A young couple of average wealth with small children will need an estate plan that focuses on guardianship and maximizing financial security in the event the parents pass away at a young age. This plan requires straightforward documents like a will, appointment of guardianship, and perhaps a basic living trust.
Example 2: In contrast, a wealthy individual with children from multiple relationships will need a plan that focuses on wealth management and legacy planning with careful consideration of family dynamics. This plan requires more skill in both strategic planning and document drafting, potentially involving multiple types of trusts, powers of appointment, and powers of attorney.
Keep in mind that fees for estate planning are not just a function of the time your attorney spends drafting documents. Good estate planning attorneys use their skills, knowledge, and expertise to construct a holistic plan that will help you accomplish your unique estate planning goals. You will pay more for the work of a more experienced estate planning attorney who can provide a complex plan. If you do not need a complex plan, consider finding an attorney who focuses on plans for simpler estates.
Lawyers use different types of fees for different services, and the way you pay your attorney has a big impact on how much you will end up paying for your estate plan. Lawyers typically use one of three common rate structures –flat fees, the billable hour, or contingency fees.
Flat fees are used when your attorney can quickly assess your needs and know what type of estate plan you require. Your estate planning attorney can look at your financial status, family situation, and any special considerations and know what planning tools you will need. For these common cases, your attorney may offer a flat fee arrangement—that is, a firm price to complete all of your estate planning work. You may be asked to pay this amount, or part of this amount, before work begins.
A typical flat fee estate plan includes the most common estate planning tools such as:
While this a typical estate planning bundle, not all flat fee arrangements are identical. When agreeing to a flat fee, be sure you understand what documents and services are included in your estate plan.
For plans that don't fit into one of those common flat fee categories, your estate planning attorney will likely charge an hourly rate for the time they spend thinking about, working on, and meeting with you about your case.
When charging an hourly fee, your attorney may ask you to provide a retainer before starting work on your case. A retainer is a prepayment of fees that the attorney will draw from as they work on your case. Retainer policies vary among attorneys and law firms. Your attorney may ask for a retainer of the entire expected cost of creating your estate plan. Or, your attorney may ask for just a portion of that amount (maybe one-half) and then bill you for the rest later.
Estate planning attorneys often use a billable hour if they anticipate your estate plan will require extra sophistication in planning or time coordinating with other professionals (for example, your financial planner). If your attorney cannot confidently predict the cost of your estate plan, they will charge an hourly rate that reflects their knowledge and expertise in the estate planning field.
Location also factors into your attorney's hourly rate. Generally, attorneys in metropolitan areas charge higher hourly rates than attorneys in less populated areas. Hourly rates also vary from state to state.
Estate planning attorneys typically do not use contingency fees. Contingency fee arrangements work best in cases where your attorney is trying to win you money in a lawsuit or settlement. For example, you agree to pay the attorney a portion (typically one-third) of whatever the attorney can get for you. If you get $15,000 in a settlement negotiated by your attorney, you would pay $5,000.
Because estate planning isn't adversarial – you're not fighting another person – contingency fees don't make sense. However, probate attorneys might use a form of contingency fee for helping you settle an estate.
No matter which type of fee arrangement your attorney uses, make sure you get it in writing! Your attorney should offer you an engagement letter that details:
This is the contract between you and your attorney. If your attorney does not provide an engagement letter like this, ask for one. You and your attorney should sign the agreement before work begins.
A final factor that contributes to the cost of your estate plan is who actually performs the work. This can vary depending upon the type of lawyer or law firm you hire. If you hire a solo attorney or a small firm, your attorney typically handles much of the work on your case and will charge you their hourly rate for all the work. If you hire an attorney from a larger law firm, your attorney will typically delegate some tasks to junior attorneys, paralegals, or other staff. This is particularly true if common, formulaic documents fit your estate plan's needs.
This division of labor isn't necessarily a bad thing for you. Junior attorneys, paralegals, and staff have hourly rates much lower than the experienced senior attorney who conducted your first meeting. Having staff complete tasks under the supervision of that senior attorney saves you money while also allowing you to take advantage of that senior attorney's experience and knowledge.
Knowing what goes into the cost of an estate plan, the question remains "So, how much?" As the above paragraphs reflect, the costs can vary widely. Some attorneys may prepare a simple will or power of attorney for as little as $150 or $200. On average, experienced attorneys may charge $250 or $350 per hour to prepare more sophisticated estate plans. You could spend several thousand dollars to work with such an attorney.
As with many of things these days, do-it-yourself estate planning options are available as well. Nolo and other online legal companies offer software products such as WillMaker. For less than $100, this software will help you create your own essential estate planning documents.