Posts tagged What is it like to work with an estate planning lawyer?
What is it like working with an estate planning lawyer? (Step 4)

Once your lawyer has produced draft documents to your specifications, the final step is to go in to the estate planning lawyer's office to have all of them signed. Because of the formalities involved, we have a strong preference for having our clients come to our office in Los Angeles so that we can oversee the entire process. Doing so allows us to have one final review with the client and to make any last-minute modifications to the documents before having them executed. It also allows us to make sure that the proper legal procedure is being followed as the documents are being signed.

If Coming to the Office is Not Convenient

On some occasions, where a client is not able to come to our office, we may arrange to visit the client and their home. This allows us to oversee the execution of the documents, but makes it difficult to make any last-minute changes. Additional witnesses may also need to be called to the client's home.

Finally, in instances where a client lives too far from our offices in Los Angeles County, California, we will prepare a detailed memo about how the documents should be signed. 

Post-Meeting Steps

After the meeting to sign the documents, you will be given an overview of the steps to ensure the effectiveness of your estate planning documents. These include:

  1. The lawyer will take care of the process of recording any real property deeds to transfer them to your trust.
  2. If you've created a revocable living trust, this means making sure that you properly re-title your assets in the name of the trust. The lawyer will likely have taken care of this with respect to any real estate that you own, but it is often up to the client to ensure that this is done with respect to financial accounts (the lawyer is often available for guidance).
  3. Ensuring that the beneficiary designations on your life insurance policies and retirement accounts are updated in coordination with your estate planning documents.
  4. Making your family aware of where you keep those estate planning documents in case something happens. However, in our experience, it may not be advisable to share the contents of your estate planning documents, as you may amend them and therefore set false expectations of the beneficiaries you've named in them.

That's pretty much it! After that, you should probably contact your estate planning lawyer every 2-3 years or whenever there's a major life event such as the birth of a new child or the death of a family member. It's also a good idea to contact your estate planning lawyer if there's a substantial change in your net worth.

What is it like working with an estate planning lawyer? (Step 3)

After the first real meeting, the estate planning lawyer may have additional follow-up questions. But at this point, assuming you've made some key decisions, the lawyer should have enough data to begin researching any issues (if any) and drafting your estate planning documents. A typical estate plan in California consists of the following documents:

  1. Revocable Living Trust
  2. Pour-over Will
  3. Durable Power of Attorney (Financial Decisions)
  4. Advance Health Care Directive
  5. Assignment of Assets
  6. One or more real property deeds

Draft Documents

After an initial draft of the documents have been prepared, the estate planning lawyer will typically send them to you via e-mail or regular mail so that you can look them over and ask any questions you may have. Alternatively, you may wish to set up an appointment to go over each document with the guidance of your lawyer. This meeting doesn't need to be in person, and can be over the phone.


If during your review you notice things that you would like to change or things that don't accurately reflect your wishes, now is the time to tell the lawyer so that he or she may update the documents before you sign them. The estate planning lawyer may re-send you the updated documents to ensure that the content has been revised to your specifications.

The end result should be a set of draft documents that is ready for signing, witnessing and notarizing.

What is it like to work with an estate planning lawyer? (Step 2)

So you've had an initial conversation with an estate planning lawyer and you've exchanged communications. The time has now arrived for you to have a more extended meeting to discuss the finer points of your estate plan. Don't worry! If you and your lawyer have done the necessary homework, this last step won't be difficult.

Presence of Family

For this extended meeting, it may be a good idea to bring along key family members who may be involved in your estate plan. For example, if you've named a family member to serve as your successor Trustee or your Executor. It is by no means necessary, and some people elect not to do that so that they can maintain privacy.

The only instance where you should bring a family member (if at all possible), is if you're married or in a registered domestic partnership. Your spouse and/or partner is more than likely going to be an integral part of your estate plan--indeed, you and your spouse/partner will likely have a joint living trust, so they would be a client too!

If your family comes along or if a family member introduced you to the estate planning lawyer, the lawyer will be diligent about making sure that you are not being coerced into making an estate plan that benefits the other family members. The estate planning lawyer will also check to make sure that you understand the nature of your requests and that you have the mental capacity to instruct the lawyer on creating an estate plan. The lawyer's ultimate obligation is to the client, which means that he or she will act in your best interest.

Details of the Discussion

At the meeting, the lawyer will try to get a sense for some or all of the following:

  1. The nature of your relationship with the people you want to include in your estate plan.
  2. What your particular needs or concerns are.
  3. Any specific health care or medical needs you or a family member may have.
  4. If you own a business, whether you've established a plan for succession or whether there's any "going concern" value (aka, is the business worth something if you aren't working in it?).
  5. Whether you want to donate to charities.
  6. How you want to structure gifts to beneficiaries who are minor or suffering from incapacity or other conditions, which makes an outright gift infeasible.

Remember that your estate planning lawyer is ultimately translating your wishes into legal format, so you should feel open and tell the lawyer what you are thinking. Keep in mind that an estate planning lawyer has likely worked with many clients who are facing similar decisions to you, and can often help you see the potential obstacles in how you want to structure your estate plan. In fact, this is one of the best values of having a live lawyer help. 

What is it like to work with an estate planning lawyer? (Step 1a)

After you've set up a meeting with an estate planning lawyer, there are a number of things that need to happen in the background. For you, the client, it's largely a non-event, but I think getting a sense for "how the sausage is made" can help you better understand the nuances of why estate planning can be somewhat complex.

The Lawyer's Tasks

After you've had your initial meeting, the estate planning lawyer will need to complete a number of tasks, including, but not limited to the following:

  1. Completing a conflicts search. "Running conflicts" (as we lawyers say) is the process where we search our Rolodex of past and present clients (including business entities) and other relationships to make sure that there's no "conflict of interest". This can become a tricky subject, but basically, the lawyer wants to make sure that he or she can fully represent your best interests, and if you have issues that conflict with the issues of a past or present client of the estate planning lawyer, then he or she may not be able to represent you without obtaining a waiver from you and that other past or present client. Don't worry too much here--the lawyer will let you know if there's a problem.
  2. Completing an Engagement Letter. Every lawyer should be sending you an engagement letter, which is simply a contract that specifies your rights with respect to the work that the lawyer will do for you. The letter should also contain specifics of the fees involved. A recent trend is for lawyers to sending these agreements in electronic form which you can then sign by "e-signature".
  3. Additional questions. The estate planning lawyer may have a worksheet with additional information for you to fill out. If there are relatively little gaps to fill after your initial contact with the lawyer, it may be a short e-mail with a bullet point list of additional details that the lawyer seeks to obtain. 

If your situation poses an issue that needs to be researched, the estate planning lawyer may also spend some time reviewing the law to ensure that he or she is providing you sound advice (but more often than not, the lawyer will be well-versed in the laws that affect your situation).