From time to time, we meet potential clients who are "going down the list" comparing our services to other law firms. They're asking themselves, "How do I know what law firm to use for my estate plan?" It's an important question and provides a great starting point!
As you might imagine, the answer is going to be different for everyone, but to help navigate the new territory, I often tell people, "it's a lot like buying a car." Below you'll find how a more familiar process (car shopping) can help orient you as you step into the search for an estate planning law firm.
Shopping for a car
Imagine calling up a car dealership and asking, “how much does it cost to buy a car?” As you might assume, the sales representative would need to know some details about what kind of car you are shopping for. They might ask:
- Are you looking for the cheapest mode of transportation that will get you from point A to B, or are you prioritizing certain features such as safety, reliability, and comfort?
- Would you prefer new or used?
- Do you want an automatic or a manual?
- Do you want a car with the highest safety ratings available?
- Do you want car with the highest reliability ratings available?
- Do you want something that is sporty and fast or a family vehicle that is comfortable and has lots of room for storage?
- Do you want a premium interior with leather seats?
And of course, it has to fit your budget. It doesn’t do you any good to answer the above questions and realize that the car you want is a $4.5 million Lamborghini Roadster when what you can afford is a pre-owned economy vehicle.
Meanwhile, communication can also pose challenges. Have you ever gone car shopping and been overwhelmed by the “car talk” and jargon that the sales rep throws at you? Most people don’t understand the mechanics of how a car actually works, they just know how to operate the car. Are you looking for double-wishbone suspension, or are you looking for a comfortable ride in a durable, versatile vehicle? Sometimes the technicalities just make it harder to discern what we want.
Shopping for an estate plan
Most of the above can also be said for estate planning. Planning for you and your family’s future is an arena that is laden with jargon that can be confusing. Understandably, many people don’t fully grasp the mechanics of estate planning and the various components that are critical to a comprehensive plan. Plus, there are lots of different features and benefits you can roll into your planning to better protect yourself and your family. But, like your car choice, your plan also has to fit your goals and budget. For example:
- Would you prioritize paying less now, even if it meant more time and cost for your family later, or are you willing to commit a little more time and money now to save your family significantly more time and money in the future?
- Is it important to make things as easy as possible for your family?
- Is it important that the plan also address the possibility of future long-term care (we hope so! These days, it’s critical!) or are you only wanting to address how your assets are distributed upon death?
- If you are married, is it important to leave things to your spouse protected from future remarriage, lawsuits, or divorce?
- Is it important to pass things to your beneficiaries protected from lawsuits, creditors, and divorce?
- Is it a priority for you to keep assets in your bloodline for multiple generations?
- Is it important for you to have greater protection from lawsuits and creditors?
Like car shopping, estate planning is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. A law firm should be willing to work with you to understand your goals and help you figure out the best plan that fits your budget.
Are you comparing apples to oranges?
If you’re comparing planning options at different firms, consider this: Are you making an “apples to apples” comparison, or are you comparing an apple from one firm to an orange from another? Over the years, we have put an enormous amount of time and energy into developing not just what our clients want, but ways we can make our plans better for them and their family. Our plans have so many “little extras” baked in that, frankly, it can be hard for us to concisely convey all of these little extras and how they benefit you and your family.
For example, our plans come with funding assistance—the process of helping you update the titling on your assets and updating beneficiary designations. This is a critical part of the estate planning process, yet many law firms don’t do it—or they say they will and don’t follow through. Why is it such a critical part of the process? Because your plan will not work if your accounts and beneficiary designations do not get set up correctly! Our Funding Paralegal will call each of your financial institutions to obtain the appropriate forms and fill them out on your behalf. She’ll then make you an organized Funding Portfolio that includes letters of instruction and completed forms. Then she will meet with you to review the forms and explain the next steps to take. While the amount of time involved can vary from client to client depending on their accounts, it’s not uncommon for this process alone to take 8-15 hours of our Funding Paralegal’s time for trust-based plans.
Additional ways we go the extra mile:
- We take the time to explain to you how your plan works and provide counseling as to how to structure things.
- We don’t just do boiler-plate form documents. Each plan is custom-designed with you and drafted to your specifications. Depending on the type of plan, this may include detailed guidance about how to care for and provide for you in the event of a health decline, or special clauses to protect your beneficiaries, such as education trusts, substance abuse protections, pet trusts, and more.
- We provide trust planning clients with automobile trusts—it takes a 3-page memo to explain in-depth why we take this extra measure, but it boils down to it being the best combination of protection from probate without creating additional taxes at the DMV or causing issues with your insurance carrier.
- We provide trust-based clients with a Successor Trustee Manual to help their successor trustee better understand their role at a time when they most need level-headed advice.
- We provide a variety of personal directives to help you think through and capture your wishes regarding general health care issues, long-term care-related issues, end-of-life issues, and final arrangements planning.
Of course, this list is only the beginning of the specialized care and attention we offer our estate planning clients.
Make sure you aren’t getting a lemon!
In addition to figuring out what type of planning is appropriate, it’s just as important for you to vet the law firm. In the same way you would check out a dealership when car buying, take the time to make sure your law firm will follow through on their promises. What is their reputation? How long have they been practicing estate planning? Is estate planning the only thing that they do, or are they a “general practitioner” that’s offering to draft you a will?
Do your due diligence on any law firm you’re considering: Do they have educational information available on their website to help you better understand the topic before moving forward? Do they offer free seminars, books, and reports to provide additional education and information? Do they have lots of stellar testimonials from satisfied clients? Do they have numerous great reviews on Google, Facebook, and Avvo? Have they been recognized by publications such as SuperLawyers, The Best of Cary, and the Maggy Awards or similar?
If you are comparison shopping, have you really grilled them as to whether their plan will truly include all the various protections and components of the plan that we recommended to you? Unfortunately, many firms are quick to say “yes we can do that do” but then their plans and execution fall woefully short—the classic case of over-promise and under-deliver. And of course, by the time your family discovers this (due to your incapacity or death), it will be too late to fix the mess that they’re left with.
Remember, you are putting your and your family’s financial future in the hands of a professional. Just like you wouldn’t just pick the cheapest car, don’t simply pick the cheapest estate planning option without researching and thinking long and hard about it. Carefully examine the firm’s reputation and experience in the industry. When it comes to estate plan expectations, the phrase “you get what you pay for” is apt. If someone is offering to sell you a brand new Porsche with all the bells and whistles for the price of a ten-year-old Honda Civic hatchback, your alarm bells should start ringing!
And finally, if you’re shopping around, there’s just one more thing to consider: will they guarantee your satisfaction? Our guarantee is written right into our Engagement Agreement:
At any time between signing the agreement and 60 days after delivery of your planning documents, if you are not completely satisfied with our services, we ask that you, 1) please tell us immediately, and 2) give us an opportunity to make it right. If we cannot make it right, we will refund 100% of your fee.
We hope you’ve noticed why we are so confident in our clients’ satisfaction. You owe it to your family and your own peace of mind to be as confident in your choice of estate planning attorney.