How to find an estate planning attorney

Look for someone who specializes in what you need, whose fees you can afford, and who you think you can work well with.

Derek Silva

Derek Silva

Published July 28, 2020

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KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Estate planning attorneys can create wills and trusts that people won't contest in court

  • An estate attorney can plan for cases where you’re incapacitated and can’t care for yourself

  • Search online, through your local probate court, and through local, county, or state bar associations

  • A simple will may cost as little as a couple hundred dollars in some areas, but more complicated situations may cost you thousands

An estate plan allows you to prepare for what will happen after you pass away or if you can no longer take care of yourself and your estate. If you need to start your estate plan, you can create a will, a trust, or both, with the Policygenius app. This app's tools are vetted and approved by attorneys and tailored to your state.

An estate planning attorney can help you create a solid plan for handling both of these situations. They can also offer legal advice on wills, trusts, your local probate process, and estate taxes. Most people can benefit from working with an estate planning attorney.

The internet is a useful tool for finding an estate attorney, but it shouldn’t be your only source. Look for referrals from family and friends. Your local probate court can likely refer you to attorneys. Also check with your state and local bar associations, since an attorney must pass the bar exam to practice in your area. Laws can vary significantly from one state to the next.

Regardless of how you search, always talk to a prospective attorney to make sure they’re someone you would feel comfortable sharing your personal information with. It’s also important to understand their fees, and exactly which services are included; get everything in writing.

An estate planning attorney may also be called an estate attorney, an estate lawyer, or an estate planning lawyer.

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What does an estate planning attorney do?

In general terms, an estate planning attorney can help you do two main things: create a plan for what happens to your assets after you die, and plan who will manage your assets if you become incapacitated and can no longer take care of them yourself.

Estate attorneys are experts in trusts, wills, the probate process, and taxes within your state. Laws vary widely by state and estate planning documents can be as broad or limited in scope as you want, so attorneys are helpful whenever you have questions.

Beyond just planning for after your death, an estate attorney can also help prepare for situations where you become incapacitated and cannot care for yourself or your assets. In particular, some attorneys specialize in elder law, which is tailored to senior citizens.

Here some things an estate planning attorney can help you do:

  • Choose beneficiaries and determine how your assets are distributed after your death
  • Create an ironclad will that’s harder to contest after you die
  • Set up and manage a trust, including charitable trusts
  • Decrease the size of your estate, like through an irrevocable trust
  • Minimize your estate tax bill
  • Write a durable power of attorney document for healthcare decisions or managing your assets if you can’t care for yourself
  • Write a living will outlining end of life decisions
  • Appoint guardians for your children
  • Plan for unexpected situations, like the death of your beneficiary (for example, by using a per stirpes designation, although many states use other forms of distributing assets to the descendants of deceased heirs, such as "by right of representation")
  • Handle assets you don’t specifically bequeath or name, called residue of your estate
  • Answer any questions you have about estate planning and local laws

If you’re unsure about where to start with your estate plan, try our complete guide to estate planning, or read more about when to hire an estate planning lawyer.

How much an estate attorney costs

The cost of working with an attorney varies depending on where you live, what services you receive, how complex your situation is, and the lawyer’s fee structure. Many estate attorneys offer a free consultation, which you can use to discuss the basics of what you want and how much you’re willing to pay.

Estate planning attorneys typically charge more in a city compared to more rural areas, so you may pay about $200 per hour in a small town but more than $300 per hour in a major city. Different services also have different costs. For example, getting just a will may cost you a couple hundred dollars, while setting up a trust is likely to cost $1,000 or more. But even just a will could cost significantly more if you have a large estate that you’re distributing among many beneficiaries, versus a small estate that’s all going to your spouse.

Regardless of how much an estate attorney is charging, it’s important to have a written record of what services the attorney will perform for you, how much you will pay (whether that’s a flat fee or hourly rate), and how you will pay the costs.

Learn more about the costs of a will.

Hourly fees vs flat fees

An estate planning attorney may bill you according to an hourly rate ora flat fee. A flat fee offers the benefit of indicating up front how much you will pay, but neither billing method is necessarily better and they’re used in different situations.

An attorney is more likely to offer a flat fee if they feel they can confidently predict how difficult it will be for them to create your documents. So you may be able to pay a flat fee for creating a simple will, but you may have to pay the attorney’s hourly rate if your will has the potential to be complicated. Some lawyers may even offer certain “packages” that include preparing a predetermined set of documents for you. For example, an attorney may set a flat rate for a service that includes creating a will, power of attorney, and living will for you.

If you pay an hourly rate, you may have to pay a retainer. A retainer is an amount that you pay in advance, based on the expected cost for your services. The attorney will use the retainer to pay for their services, and then you may have to pay more if the final cost goes beyond the retainer. You may have to pay the full retainer up front, or you may have to pay a portion up front and the rest later.

3 steps for finding an estate planning attorney

Finding an attorney may seem like a daunting task, but breaking the process down into smaller steps can help:

  1. Create a list of potential attorneys
  2. Talk to the attorneys on your list
  3. Understand their fees and make your choice

1. Create a list of potential attorneys

The first step is to look for attorneys. As you search, create a list and add any attorney who you think is an option. You can pare down your list later. Make sure you look for an attorney who specializes in estate law. That may sound obvious, but if you work with someone with another specialty, even if they also work with estates, your estate plan could suffer.

Where to look for estate planning attorneys

Here are some places to find an estate planning attorney:

  • Referrals from friends and family
  • Referrals from financial advisors or accountants
  • Local probate courts
  • Local, county, and state bar associations

A referral from a friend or family member who has already created an estate plan is a great place to start. You may even find that someone in the family is a lawyer who can help you. Referrals are especially useful if you get them from someone whose situation is similar to yours, since your costs and experiences may be more similar.

If you already work with a tax accountant, financial advisor, or other financial planner, they are a good resource. Even if they don’t have the specific knowledge to help with your estate planning, they may direct you to someone who does.

You can also find potential attorneys through your local probate court. Estate planning attorneys need to be very familiar with the local probate process and courts will have information on attorneys they’ve worked with. (It also wouldn’t hurt for you to ask if they find any attorneys easier or harder to work with.) Start with your court’s website if they have one.

All attorneys need to pass the bar exam to practice law in your area and the state bar association will have lists of their attorneys. To start, check the website of your local, county, and state bar associations. They may also tell you the specialty of certain attorneys.

What about estate lawyer ads on TV and radio?

Local and state laws regulate who can legally claim to be an attorney. You can be confident that the people in print, radio, or TV advertisements are actually lawyers or part of a firm that provides legal services. However, you should absolutely look up reviews of them online and check that they are experts in estate planning.

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2. Talk to every attorney on your list

It sounds tedious but it’s important to talk with all your potential attorneys. Estate planning is a personal process. You will be sharing personal information about your money and your plans for the time of your death. Having a strong attorney-client relationship will make things a lot easier.

Questions to ask an estate attorney

Start with a gut check. After talking, does this person seem like someone you could work closely with, potentially for years? If not, you may not want to force it.

Here are 7 questions you should ask a prospective estate lawyer:

  • How long have you been practicing?
  • Where were you educated in law?
  • How will we contact each other?
  • Will I be able to reach you directly or will someone else be my point of contact?
  • Will you send me updates on my plan in the future or is this a one-time service?
  • How will you charge me (hourly vs fixed rate) and what is your rate?
  • Are there any charges not included in that rate?

Also ask if the attorney has experience with any other specific situations you need help with. For example, if you want help planning business succession, then make sure to ask if they have experience with that.

If you’re working with a lawyer at a large law firm, it’s important to know if you will work exclusively with one person. It’s possible that an assistant or paralegal will serve as the point person for communications, while the actual attorney is harder to contact.

In some cases, attorneys provide a one-off service, such as creating a will or trust document. If you want to review the plan or make changes, you’ll need to reach out. Others provide you with annual (or more frequent) updates to your plan. This will cost more but extended planning services can be useful later in life.

You may also want to look for an estate planning attorney who will represent your estate in court during the probate process. It's possible for another attorney to handle that, but working with someone who already knows your estate could make the process smoother.

3. Check their fees and make your choice

After step two, you’ve probably eliminated attorneys who didn’t seem like a good fit. At this point, go over the remaining attorneys on your list. Recheck all of their fees to see who you can reasonably afford. Make sure you understand everything they’re going to charge you and what those charges cover.

Recheck reviews of each attorney and try to talk with people who have worked with them. That could include a client or even another attorney. Again, talking to people at your local probate court can help. Attorneys who are difficult to work with or who treat people poorly will likely develop such a reputation quickly with their peers.

If you feel like you want to have a follow-up conversation with one of the attorneys, do it. You shouldn’t feel like you’re putting them out. This is their job and you’re going to be working with them a lot for at least a short period. How they handle follow-up calls is also a good way to gauge how they will work with you if you actually become their client.

Personal Finance Expert

Derek Silva

Personal Finance Expert

Derek is a tax expert at Policygenius in New York City. He has written about multiple personal finance topics in the past, and his work has been covered by Yahoo Finance, MSN, Business Insider and CNBC.

Policygenius’ editorial content is not written by an insurance agent. It’s intended for informational purposes and should not be considered legal or financial advice. Consult a professional to learn what financial products are right for you.

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