Finding an estate planning attorney

Estate planning attorneys help you create a plan so that your assets go to your intended beneficiaries without court battles or big tax bills.

Derek Silva

Derek Silva

Published July 23, 2019

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

  • You can get help minimizing taxes on large estates and inheritances

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

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

Estate plans cover two main situations: what happens after you pass away and what happens if you can no longer take care of yourself or your estate. An estate planning attorney can help you create a solid plan for handling both of these situations.

An estate planning attorney is trained to manage trusts, wills, the probate process, and taxes. They can help you prevent people from contesting your will, and delaying the disbursement of assets to your intended beneficiaries. They can also help you minimize your estate’s (or your beneficiaries’) taxes.

During your search for an attorney, make sure to talk in person before you pay for any services. This is someone you will be working closely with and who you will share personal information with. That last thing you want is to feel uncomfortable around them. You should also work with someone local (at least in your state) because laws can vary significantly from one state to the next.

Some individuals will also want to consider an attorney with knowledge of elder law. While estate planning looks primarily at passing on an estate, an elder law attorney can handle situations related health care, long term care, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

In this article:

What estate planning attorneys do

When it comes to your estate — the collection of all your property and money — an attorney can help you decide how to distribute your assets before and after your death. Because they will know your exact goals in addition to local laws, they can help prevent a situation where someone can contest your will. It’s also possible for your lawyer to serve as the executor of your will.

If you’re looking to decrease the size of your estate or of your tax bill, an attorney can also help you set up and manage a trust. That includes serving as your trustee.

Beyond just planning for after your death, an estate planning attorney can also help prepare for situations where you become incapacitated and cannot care for yourself. They can advise you on a living will that specifies the kind of health care you want to receive. They can help you decide who manages your estate in your place, through a power of attorney document. And since these documents can be as broad or limited in scope as you want, an estate planning attorney will help you understand your options.

As an expert in the law, an attorney can also explain concepts with more nuance, like per stirpes for when your intended beneficiary dies before you or the residuary clause for assets you didn’t specifically name a beneficiary for.

To learn more, check out our guide to estate planning.

How much an attorney costs

The cost of working with an attorney varies depending on where you live, what services you receive, and how complex your situation is. The lawyer’s fee structure also makes a difference.

For someone who charges a flat fee, you can probably expect a will to cost you anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000. Setting up a trust generally costs more and you can plan to spend $1,000 or more. More complex financial situations may take longer and cost you more. You will also pay more if you live in a large city.

If you’re paying at an hourly rate, you can expect to pay at least $150 per hour.


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Do you need an estate planning attorney?

Most people can benefit from working with an estate planning attorney. If you draft your own will, you would do well to meet with an attorney just to look it over and make sure it’s ironclad. Even if you create a comprehensive plan yourself, having an attorney check it before you make anything official will help you and your beneficiaries prevent headaches down the road.

You should definitely work with an attorney if you have a large estate and you think you will need to pay estate tax. The federal estate tax only applies to very large estates, worth $11.58 million or more in 2020 ($11.4 million in 2019), but some states levy the tax on smaller estates.

Reasons to work with an attorney

Here are a few specific reasons you should work with an estate planning attorney:

  • Estate laws vary by state
  • Drafting legal documents isn’t always easy
  • An estate planning lawyer can make sure your will is ironclad

Estate laws can vary greatly from state to state and a local attorney can help you understand how the local laws apply to you. For example, some states require that you name an executor (also called a personal representative) who is either a relative or a resident of your home state. If you name someone who doesn’t meet those criteria, planning your estate could become a mess and the probate court will need to appoint an administrator.

Creating your own estate planning documents is also challenging. While it is possible for you to create a will on your own, using documents from the internet isn’t foolproof. One mistake, whether because something wasn’t written properly or because your local laws are unique, could make your will vulnerable to challenges and cost your intended beneficiaries time and money.

(Learn more about creating a will online.)

Working with someone who understands the law well, even if you only have them look over your documents, will avoid future problems and make things easier for everyone involved. This is especially true if you have a large or complex estate.

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 of any attorney who you think is an option.

Make sure you look for an attorney who specializes in estates. That may sound obvious, but if you work with someone with another specialty, even if they also work with estates, your estate could suffer. If you want help with something in particular, like planning business succession, then look for someone with experience in that. A good estate lawyer has experience in wills and probate, and should also take time to get to know your heirs before you die.

Here are some places to find an estate planning attorney:

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

One of the best places to start is with a referral. Talk to any friends and family who have already created an estate plan. They can give you the information of who they worked with and how the process went.

Many estate attorneys offer a free consultation. If you have any acquaintances familiar with probate law, they may be able to give you legal advice that can help your search.

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

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 couldn’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.

Attorneys need to pass the bar exam to practice law in an area and bar associations 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 the specialty of certain attorneys.

What about lawyers 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 may sound 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 attorney

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

Here are seven other questions you should ask a prospective 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?

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 at 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.

Whichever estate planning attorney you work with should also 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 will makes the process smoother.

3. Check their feed and make your choice

After step two, you’ve probably eliminated some attorneys who didn’t seem like a good fit. At this point, make sure to recheck all of their fees. You should understand everything they’re going to charge you and what those charges cover.

Finally, make sure to recheck reviews of each attorney. Look at reviews online. 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 your 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.