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.
End-of-life planning is a difficult but necessary process. It’s important to consider what you’d like to happen with your assets after your death, how they will be distributed, and to whom. Through estate planning, you can create a legally-binding plan that dictates your wishes and entrusts certain people with the responsibility of seeing those wishes through. Estate planning requires extensive legal experience, and the support of an experienced estate planning attorney is typically advised. These professionals can walk you through the process from start to finish, compile and file documents, and ensure that your wishes are protected by the law.
Here are some of the many roles and responsibilities that an estate planning attorney can complete.
Your estate planning attorney is an important member of a larger team of professionals that might include your accountants, investment advisors, and insurance agents, among others. An attorney can work with these team members to support your estate planning needs. They may choose to organize and conduct meetings with specific people. They may also get in touch with your accountant to file tax returns, update business entity documents, and ensure that other necessary changes are made. An attorney understands what needs to be done and who can be called on to complete tasks, saving you the time of learning and organizing the necessary collaborations yourself and allowing you to focus on other pressing matters instead.
To ensure that your property and other assets are distributed in a legal manner, an attorney can analyze records and titles to ensure that they are clear and able to be transferred to your selected beneficiaries. This process can include advising on pre and post-nuptial agreements, marital property agreements, and marital settlement agreements after divorce as well. With the help of an estate planning attorney, you can address any concerns that arise related to your property such as unclear property boundaries or previously undiscovered liens and help you solve them before they cause even more problems for your family after your death.
Despite your most ardent wishes, what you’d like to happen to your assets may not be legally possible or may cause additional and unnecessary stresses. An experienced estate planning attorney can point out these issues and work with you to find alternative solutions that accomplish the same goal in a more streamlined manner. They can also advise you on other end-of-life choices, such as financial and medical directives, organ donation, disposition of remains, and similarly important decisions that you may not be able to deal with later on in life. Without an estate planning attorney’s assistance, you may find yourself setting your family up for more financial hardship as the result of poor planning and research.
Estate planning attorneys understand that there are often several beneficiaries involved in the asset distribution process. To make this process run more smoothly, an attorney can advise clients about how to best provide for beneficiaries with special needs, educational requirements, or other considerations. The attorney can also create a plan for meeting philanthropic goals and include charities or other organizations in your estate plan. This ensures that each person or entity is actually able to receive the assets you would like to leave them without going through a time-consuming process of their own to do so. An estate planning attorney can also confirm that you have enough assets to meet the needs of each of your beneficiaries in the most equitable manner possible.
Once you’ve decided how you’d like to distribute your assets, created a plan to ensure these wishes are met, and involved the necessary professionals, you can begin finalizing your estate plan. An estate planning attorney will draft documents that clearly outline your wishes so that others understand how to handle your assets after your death. An attorney will also help their clients move assets into the proper entities to facilitate distribution, such as trusts, and ensure that insurance policies, retirement accounts, and similar accounts list the correct beneficiaries. This final step in the estate planning process formalizes your decisions and sets your beneficiaries up to receive their portion of your assets without delay.
When beneficiaries come into an inheritance, one thing they may not consider immediately is how they are going to settle financial obligations that belong to the deceased person who has left them assets. Property taxes, outstanding loans and immediate debts should be addresses as quickly as possible to avoid any penalties to the estate. An experienced attorney can help a beneficiary by sorting through the deceased party’s financial obligations and recommend a course of action on paying down debts. They can also determine if income tax or gift tax is applicable toward the inheritance, and determine if payments can be made to cover taxes or if the sale of assets is warranted to cover the costs.
On the other side of the spectrum, probate attorneys can locate and secure material assets and financial capital that were left to the beneficiary. This may include property deeds and titles, bank accounts, stocks and bonds, retirement accounts and insurance settlements. Having estate planning attorneys secure an entire inheritance can ensure that the beneficiary does not neglect to maintain accounts that they are now responsible for. Property should be retitled into the beneficiary’s name, and life insurance policies and retirement accounts should be collected on and redistributed into new bank accounts also in the beneficiary’s name for the purpose of securing the inheritance.
If, for any reason, a beneficiary decides not to keep their inherited property, having a probate attorney assist in the sale of this and other assets can be an invaluable resource. Probate attorneys specialize in inventorying inherited property, obtaining appraisal value on items within the property and assisting with the sale of inherited items. They also prepare and file any required documentation through the courts, ensuring that nothing is overlooked with the sale of the estate. Hiring a probate attorney to execute the sale of inherited property can help beneficiaries avoid legal issues and complications, while helping them to collect fair market values on the items they wish to sell. Anyone that has come into an inheritance, no matter how large or small, may want to consider consulting with estate planning attorneys to decide what their best course of action may be.