Posts tagged estate plan overview
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).

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

You may have gone your entire life never needing to hire, much less, interact with a lawyer, so it it's no surprise that you might not know exactly what to expect. In this next series of blog posts, my goal is to layout the general process of working with an estate planning lawyer. Hopefully, by understanding the basics, you will feel more comfortable about starting the important process for yourself and your family.

First Contact

As with any professional engagement, you will be calling or e-mailing the estate planning lawyer to find out about how he or she can help you. You might find your attorney in any number of ways, for example, through a general Google search, via Yelp, or specialized lawyer websites such as Whatever the avenue may be, you will be the one reaching out to the estate planning lawyer initially (for a number of reasons, a lawyer is unlikely to be the one "cold-calling" you to sell you services).

Details to Discuss

During your first call, there are a few general objectives you and the lawyer will have. Here are some of them:

  1. Find out whether you get good "vibes" from each other. Simply stated, do you feel confident that the lawyer knows what he or she is doing and vice versa; the lawyer will be assessing whether his or her skill set will be adequate to handle your situation.
  2. Specifics of what working with this estate planning lawyer is like. This would include details such as: (1) whether e-mail, physical letters, or phone calls are the best form of contact [note: many older estate planning lawyers rely heavily on physical mail rather than e-mail]; (2) what the lawyer's fee arrangement is [for example, you may discuss the amount of the retainer required and whether the lawyer charges by the hour or charges a flat rate; you can even ask about what a cost estimate would be for your estate plan]; (3) the timeline for completion of the estate planning documents [to some degree, this will also depend on how quickly you will be able to make decisions regarding your plan, but outside of this, the lawyer should be able to give you a good estimate].
  3. Information that will be helpful to the estate planning lawyer. To make your engagement go as smoothly as possible, it's a good idea to have the following information ready (preferably in a Word document or in an e-mail ready for whichever lawyer you ultimately decide to use): (1) personal information of you and your family, including name, address, phone number, e-mail address; (2) your family situation, for example, whether you have children from a prior marriage or your divorced, etc.; (3) copies of existing estate planning documents that you may have; (4) a list of your assets and the approximate value of each asset.

Setting a Meeting Date

After you've exchanged pleasantries and details about your estate planning situation, the lawyer or his or her assistant will often book a time to meet with you in person to go over the structuring of your estate plan. The estate planning lawyer may also send you a separate e-mail or questionnaire of additional questions to help the two of you have a productive meeting to discuss the finer details of your estate plan. (There is some homework for the lawyer to do, which I will discuss in the next blog post.)

So, there you have it, the first contact with your estate planning lawyer in a nutshell.

What is Estate Planning?

Before we can start talking about how to begin the process of preparing your estate planning documents, you need to get an idea for what estate planning is.

Estate Planning Overview

At its core estate planning is a process where you develop a plan for how your assets (e.g., real estate, bank accounts, etc.) will be used while you're alive and after you pass away. Often this is where "Wills" and "Living Trusts" come into the picture. An estate plan also includes documents such as an Advance Health Care Directive that make sure someone is in place to make health care decisions for you if you become incapacitated (i.e., you're no longer able to communicate your wishes). Finally, planning for any minor children you may have is another major component of an estate plan. The end product of this process is generally a set of estate planning documents that specifies your wishes.


Developing an effective estate plan involves analyzing various moving parts and how they all interact with each other, and frequently having an estate planning lawyer guide you makes a lot of sense. Here's just a brief list of things you might need to think about:

  1. Who will be in charge of making sure your assets get distributed to your family or loved ones?
  2. Who will take care of any minor children you may have?
  3. If you own a business, what will happen to it if you suddenly pass away?
  4. How can you minimize the impact of income, estate, and property taxes as a result of your death?
  5. How can you put a process in place so that your assets get distributed to your beneficiaries over time?
  6. If you suddenly became incapacitated and couldn't communicate your wishes any more, who would make medical or financial decisions for you?

Carrying Out the Estate Plan

As with any plan that is put in place, the eventuality is that it must be carried out. This latter phase is often referred to as estate or trust (if you've set up a trust during your lifetime) administration. During this stage, the Executor or Trustee is tasked with carrying out the wishes that you've specified in your estate planning documents.