Many estate planning lawyers send new clients a standard “engagement letter,” setting out the basics of what the lawyer will do and how much it will cost. If you don’t get something, ask the lawyer to put your fee agreement in writing. In some states, that’s required by law anyway.
Every fee agreement or engagement letter should include these terms:
Who you should contact when you have legal or billing questions. The lawyer you speak to initially may not be the one who handles the details of your matter. It may be more productive (and less expensive) to call the legal assistant when you have basic questions.
Additional costs. There may be expenses, in addition to the hourly rate or flat fee, that you will be billed for. For example, you might be expected to pay for the cost of mailing documents to a probate court or for recording (filing) a deed in the county land records office.
How often you’ll get a bill. You’ll want to know how often you can expect a billing statement—monthly, for example. You may prefer not to get one big bill when your estate planning or probate is finished. But if you’re expecting to pay only after everything is wrapped up, make sure you know whether your lawyer expects to be paid up front or receive regular payments while your matter is being worked on.
Ending the relationship. What happens if you decide that the lawyer isn’t meeting your expectations? Do you get back some or all of the money you’ve paid? If you can’t agree, how will you resolve the impasse? Some attorneys build in an agreement that if you have a disagreement over fees, you will take it to a local panel, usually set up by the bar association, for resolution.
Some of the terms that should be addressed depend on the kind of fee arrangement you have: hourly billing or a flat fee.
Flat fee agreements. Obviously, your agreement should state the total amount of the fee, what (specifically) the lawyer will do for it, and when you’ll get your documents. Make sure each document that you’re expecting is listed—for example, will, living trust, and healthcare advance directive.
Hourly billing. The agreement should set out the hourly rate of each lawyer (and legal assistant) who may work on your estate plan or probate matter. (Much of the basic work may be done by a legal assistant and then reviewed by a lawyer.) It should also contain an estimate of the total number of hours. Experienced lawyers usually have a good idea of how long it will take them to draft a document for you.
If the attorney wants a “retainer”—that is, an amount you pay up front, which is used up as the lawyer bills for his or her work—make sure the amount is stated. Also spell out what happens to the retainer if you change your mind about proceeding with the legal work or decide to end your relationship with the lawyer.