How to Get Started
As my favorite song from The Sound of Music goes, “Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” So, what is the very beginning of estate planning? It’s finding a lawyer specializing in estate planning to implement your goals into an effective plan. Why do you need a specialist? You need a specialist for the same reason you don’t see an orthopedic surgeon when you have a skin rash or a podiatrist when you have chronic headaches. Like medicine, the law is filled with experts in a multitude of different areas. You don’t want a criminal lawyer who usually defends murderers to write your Trust or a patent attorney to plan your estate.
A very good place to start your search for an estate planning attorney is to ask your family, friends, financial planners, advisors, and other colleagues for a referral. Without a doubt, a word-of-mouth referral is extremely helpful. Another option is to call your state or local bar association to see if they have a referral service. Legal Aid offices are also available if you can’t afford a private practice attorney. Not only should the attorney you select be a specialist in the area of estate planning, he or she should also be licensed to practice law in the state in which you reside because an expert in Pennsylvania isn’t necessarily an expert in Idaho. Still can’t find someone to help guide you through the planning process? Log onto one of these Web sites:
- American Bar Association Lawyer Locator (www.abanet.org/lawyerlocator/searchlawyer.html)—Search members of the ABA by specialty, including Trusts and estates.
- American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (www.actec.org)—Well-versed in all areas of estate planning, ACTEC fellows are accredited practitioners with at least ten years of experience in this area of the law.
- Martindale-Hubbell Lawyer Locator (www.martindale.com)—This database allows you to search by specialty, including searching by Trusts and estates and geographic area.
- National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (www.naela.com)—NAELA members focus on the needs of elderly and disabled individuals.
When you call to make an appointment with a prospective counselor (hint, hint), inquire about costs, expertise, and availability. While I’m the first one to advise you that good planning is more than worth the money, and then some, you have to be comfortable with the likely fees. Preparing estate planning documents shouldn’t be done on a flat fee basis—an estate plan is never cookie-cutter or boilerplate and shouldn’t be priced as if it were an all-inclusive Caribbean vacation. Make sure your attorney can get your estate planning documents completed on a timely basis. The best lawyer in the world isn’t the best if the work doesn’t get finished. Make clear your expectations for completion. It’s important to ask questions now, before you’ve invested in an attorney. If you don’t like the answers or the responsiveness, get a second opinion.
Studies show that fewer than 30 percent of Americans have estate planning documents in place. We’re an aging population. We need to think about these things and think about them today. I applaud you for taking the first step in taking control of your planning and protecting your assets. I hope I make the process less intimidating (with a little laughter here and there) to encourage you to get it done. Talking about estate planning and the end of life isn’t exactly a walk in the park. But, control (at least for me!) provides the peace of mind to enjoy that walk in the park, and having an organized estate plan gives you that control.