What Happens When You See a Lawyer About Estate Planning?
The basic phases of estate plan creation are: initial consultation; information gathering and planning; drafting; review; and signing. Afterward, there are funding steps and there should be ongoing review and attention to the plan to ensure that it continues to meet your needs. This is Part One of a two part post.
Initial Consultation with a Qualified Estate Planning Attorney.
Different lawyers conduct their first client meeting in different ways. In California, many attorneys offer a free initial consultation for estate planning. For some attorneys, this means fifteen minutes for you to meet the attorney and get a general feel for things. (Choosing a lawyer is like choosing a doctor — you have to be comfortable.) Other attorneys offer longer initial consultations, sometimes free or sometimes for a reduced fee. Be sure you know which type of consultation you can expect when you make the appointment.
What Should You Bring to the Initial Estate Planning Meeting with the Lawyer?
What to bring with you to the initial consultation also varies, but most attorneys would like you to bring copies of your current estate plan, if you have one. You might also bring a list of your current assets, and the names, birthdates, and addresses of your loved ones and of anyone you want named as executor, trustee, agent, etc. But that’s all information that can be gathered later as well. Many attorneys prefer to send a client questionnaire in advance of the meeting so that consultation time need not be used up taking down basic information.
What Happens During the Initial Estate Planning Consultation?
During an initial consultation, the attorney usually spends some time just chatting and getting to know you better. This allows you to decide if you are comfortable with this attorney, and allows the attorney to assess your mental capacity and independence of thinking. The attorney needs to feel comfortable that you are not suffering from diminished capacity or being unduly influenced by another. For this reason, the attorney will want to meet with you alone (or with you and your spouse, for a joint plan). Children, siblings, parents, caregivers, significant others, etc., will generally need to wait in the lobby. In fact, it’s better that they not come to the office at all for this initial meeting.
The attorney will also ask you about your general goals and intentions and whether you have specific questions or concerns. The attorney should spend some time educating you about estate planning basics. If you decide you would like to hire the attorney and complete a plan, some attorneys will continue with a longer meeting at that time, but most will schedule a time for you to return for a “planning session,” and will give you a list of information you will need to bring to the next meeting. Unless your matter is a very simple and limited task, the attorney will also give you an engagement agreement for your review and signature. California law requires attorneys to have written agreements if the fee will exceed $1,000.
The attorney will also discuss fees and probable costs at the initial meeting. “Fees” means the expense for the attorney’s services. “Costs” are out of pocket expenses paid to third parties, such as recording fees to the county recorder. Some attorneys charge an hourly fee for estate planning, from beginning to end. Others charge a flat fee for the initial plan, then an hourly fee for amendments and changes in the future. If you and your spouse are creating a joint estate plan, the attorney will probably also ask you to review and sign a conflict of interest disclosure and waiver. This is to explain limitations and consequences of joint representation.
Some attorneys will combine the initial consultation and a preliminary planning stage, while others prefer separate client meetings.