When you hire a lawyer to help you with your estate planning, both you and the lawyer should work at keeping your working relationship efficient and productive. Your lawyer should always clearly explain your options, estimate what the legal work will cost, and treat your decisions with respect. Here are some pointers for holding up your end of the bargain.
To get the best estate plan for you and your family, you’ll need to give your lawyer detailed information about your assets and financial arrangements—what you own, what it’s worth, how you hold title, and so on. But estate planning is all about your goals for your family—which means that you may also need to share some private or embarrassing information about family members. For example, what if you want to leave money to your children equally, but one of them is terrible with money, has a drug habit, or is set to marry someone you don’t trust?
The lawyer should have some good suggestions for ways to handle such difficult family situations. Instead of leaving money outright to a spendthrift child, for example, you might want to set up a trust, with someone else to manage the money for that child’s benefit. A solution like that could save your family a lot of heartache down the road.
It’s not pleasant to air this kind of dirty laundry, but it’s imperative that you do so. Keep in mind that any estate planning lawyer has heard about all kinds of family dysfunction and won’t be shocked by anything you have to say. And because of the attorney-client privilege, your lawyer cannot disclose anything you say in the context of your professional relationship.
Paying your lawyer on time sounds simple, but clients sometimes let lawyers’ bills slide. And you can’t expect a lawyer to keep working for you without getting paid. If you’re having trouble with a bill, talk to the lawyer and work out a plan for payments.
Lawyers are good at lots of things, but they aren’t always good at explaining legal concepts in plain English—and you probably don’t want to pay them to educate you, anyway. So get a leg up on the whole estate planning process by learning the basics before you see a lawyer.
If you’re an informed client, you’ll know what questions to ask and be more likely to understand the answers. Nolo.com has hundreds of articles on estate planning. If you want more, there are many do-it-yourself books that explain wills, trusts, and other estate planning issues.
Don’t be afraid to ask about anything you’re unsure of. But you can make things more efficient for both you and the lawyer if you collect a few questions and ask them together, during one phone call or visit. (If you’re being billed by the hour, this will also save you money.) Email can also be a good way to organize your thoughts and questions. If you’re talking on the phone or in person, take notes on the lawyer’s answers—estate planning can be legally complicated and emotionally taxing, and (just as when you visit the doctor) it can be hard to remember everything you heard.
Don’t pay a lawyer for routine tasks that don’t require the lawyer’s skills. You can do a lot of work yourself. For example, you could gather documents the lawyer wants to look at, such as real estate deeds, divorce decrees, insurance policies, and retirement account statements. You could also make phone calls to track down information.
If you wish, you can even draft your estate planning documents yourself. If you want to go that route, you would probably first consult the lawyer about the big picture—your goals and possible methods of meeting them. Later, you would hire the lawyer to look over the documents you’ve drafted and give you feedback. Not all lawyers work this way (often called providing “unbundled services” or “limited scope representation”), but it’s becoming increasingly accepted and popular.