Choosing an Effective Estate Planning Attorney

The key to the success of a client’s estate plan is to find those attorneys who are values-based, relationship-driven, client-centered, and counseling-oriented.

An effective attorney will have an orientation toward relationship building and counseling rather than document preparation.  The first thing he or she will offer is the ability, through counseling, to draw out the client’s hopes, dreams, fears, and aspirations for himself and his loved ones.  The attorney will carry on a sensitive dialogue that will enable the client to make clear his or her wishes to maintain control over his or her affairs, to be cared for properly in the event of a disability, and to provide meaningfully for loved ones after he or she is gone.

An effective attorney will inquire about the complexities of the family relationships through multiple marriages, special health needs of a grandchild, a son-in-law who is not to be trusted, the spendthrift daughter.  On a more positive note, the right kind of attorney will ask about the client’s wishes to fund the education of children and grandchildren for several generations and philanthropic goals that provide the client with feelings of significance that surpass his success. 

In-depth counseling forms the strong foundation on which a long-term relationship is built.  The effective attorney will involve other advisors in this process to the degree that the client is comfortable with that arrangement.  When a client shares what is really important to him or her now and after death, he develops a strong bond with his professional advisors.

Another trait of an effective attorney is a true commitment to the team approach in estate planning.  A good estate-planning attorney recognizes that every member of the planning team (including the investment advisor, the insurance professional, and the CPA) is vital to the success of the plan.

Legal documents are not enough.  Even documents that have been drafted from in-depth counseling and are custom-designed to meet the unique needs of the client are not enough.  Documents standing alone are like a car without gasoline; the documents’ instructions only apply to assets that are properly owned.

For example, a will only controls those things owned in the individual’s name – not jointly.  The trust only controls those things owned by the trustee of the trust.  An irrevocable life insurance trust works only if it is properly funded with a suitable insurance policy.  Advanced entities require careful balancing of assets for maximum effectiveness.  Accurate valuation of the client’s business interests is imperative.  New planning tools often require additional accounting and tax advice.

The effective attorney will be focused on a long-term (even multi-generational) relationship with the client and his family.  The attorney will not have a transactional approach to the estate plan, but rather a process approach.  The estate plan is never really done until the client has passed away and every instruction for every beneficiary of every subsequent generation has been carried out.  Those who speak of the plan or the client in the past tense may have a shortsighted perspective.

The client-centered estate planning attorney wants to ensure that everything possible is done to make sure that the estate plan is carried to fruition and that the client’s expectations are met.

There is nothing as constant as change.  The client’s personal, family, and financial situations change all the time.  Kids get married and have children; there are divorces and remarriages; and investment values go up or down.

In addition, laws (both tax and non-tax) change constantly.  We have an estate tax.  Then the estate tax is abolished.  Oops, the estate tax is back.  Assets in retirement accounts and trusts generally are protected from creditors and predators.  Some protected assets may not be protected in certain circumstances.

The other thing that should be constantly changing is the growth and education of the attorney and every advisor working with that client.  New estate planning strategies should be developed, new tools should be discovered, and there should be increasingly better ways to express legal and planning concepts.

The effective estate planning attorney has systems in place to ensure he stays in touch with the client, that the planning team knows of changes, and that there are methods to adjust the plan in light of those changes.

The effective attorney will also be aware that for a plan to work well, the people who will help in the future need to know what’s going on.  If the children will someday serve as trustees and personal representatives, the estate planning attorney might educate those children on what to do.  An ongoing relationship with the client and client’s family will help to ensure the success of the estate plan.  Jeffrey A. Cramer of the Cramer Law Center strives to be an effective estate planning attorney.

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