by Ryan W. Smith
Many successful financial advisors are the focal point of all finance-related questions for their clients and with good reason. Assisting families with retirement and college-expense planning, along with regular investment accounts puts many advisors in a thought-leader position with their clients. There is a significant amount of trust given to a financial advisor who is helping a family plan for their future.
However, even the best financial advisors cannot handle every financial planning scenario and need assistance from a specialist. Estate Planning is one of the main areas where a specialist might be required, oftentimes working in conjunction with a family’s financial advisor. An important question for financial advisors regarding Estate Planning is how to evaluate attorneys who specialize in that area regarding future recommendations and consultations
Here are some things advisors should consider when evaluating Estate Planning attorneys:
1) Is the attorney’s personality a good fit with the clients and their family?
This may seem like an odd requirement, but Estate Planning is a necessarily intimate and morbid process. Attorneys will have to ask people very personal questions about topics they will most likely be hesitant to speak about. Additionally, when the plans and documents will need to be put into action years later, client families will be especially vulnerable and emotionally drained from grief due to their recent loss. They will need to feel comfortable with the attorney for successful Estate Planning and implementation to take place.
2) Does the attorney have the necessary technical skillset?
The simple fact that estates are planned and documents are signed well in advance of their necessary implementation makes evaluation difficult at best. It is the final tax bill, once a client has passed away, and whether proceeds passed to beneficiaries without conflict or additional emotional trauma that serve as the guideposts of successful estate planning.
There are three primary ways to evaluate the skillset of Estate Planning Attorneys. The first is to consider how long the attorney has been practicing and the second is determining how much of their time is allocated solely to estate planning, trust administration and related issues. A third way to evaluate attorneys in the Estate Planning sector is via peer recognition.
There are some organizations like Leading Lawyers, Best Lawyers and Super Lawyers that many refer to, but it is the American College of Trust and Estate Council (ACTEC) that appears to be most widely used and highly regarded. ACTEC requires members to give speeches, write or engage in legislative activities while also requiring other members to indicate whether they are comfortable giving referrals to a particular lawyer.
3) What Quality Control Process takes place during the drafting process?
Successful attorneys, regardless of their area of legal expertise and whether they practice alone or work in a large firm, will typically have a quality control process in place for all documents. Many will have a second attorney proof documents just to be sure. Having a formal review process will most likely increase plan costs, but making sure any and all drafting errors are caught and resolved before documents are signed is worth the additional expense to nearly all clients. In many cases, errors that make it past document signing will not be caught until it is far too late to correct them.
4) Does the attorney have a defined timeline for the process?
Meetings and plans mean nothing during the Estate Planning process. Only when documents are signed and trusts are funded do any plans actually carry enforceable weight. It is important for advisors to make sure that Estate Planning attorneys have a defined timeline to complete the full process. Successful Estate Planning attorneys will often have a process that runs two months or less, oftentimes scheduling the final meeting for document signing and check writing during the initial get-together since that will ensure a greater likelihood of follow through by clients.
5) Where are the original documents to be stored?
Oftentimes, requirements to get into safe deposit boxes can be arduous once the box holder is deceased. There is an additional cost to be considered as well. Some attorneys will allow originals to be kept in the firm safe for no additional fee. If a client changes attorneys, typically only a letter is required, stating that the originals should be mailed to the new firm. It is often very helpful to notate all copies with the location of the original as well, so that there is minimal confusion when those originals become legally necessary.
6) Does the attorney have his or her own Estate Plan?
Is there a documented line of succession in case the unfortunate happens to the attorney? There is a delicate balance to be struck here in that a large group working on Estate Plans can leave clients and their families feeling under-served. However, it is important, especially for sole practitioners, to have a plan in place in case they are no longer able to work.
7) Does the attorney have malpractice insurance?
Because errors and issues might not be uncovered for many years after the documents were signed, it is important for the attorney to have coverage and a plan that can be implemented years down the road.
8) Will the attorney work will well with a client’s other advisors?
Estate Planning is one part of an overall financial plan, but it is a variable that can have deep impact on many other facets of financial planning. It is important for a financial advisor looking for an attorney in Estate Planning to know if that attorney will work well with the accountants, insurance professionals, other attorneys that all form the financial “team” that clients and their families rely on.