By Michael Keany
So you're ready to start the estate planning process. It's essential to find a good estate planning attorney who can draft a plan that meets your specific needs. But how can you tell which estate planner is best for you? As you begin the search process, we've got four essential questions you should be asking each candidate.
1. What qualifications does the attorney have?
Just because an attorney has passed the bar and is licensed to practice law doesn't mean they are necessarily well-versed in estate planning. You should look for someone who focuses primarily on estate planning and who has been actively practicing in this area for at least several years. Take some time to research attorneys you are interested in. Most attorneys have websites on which they highlight their qualifications and experience. Also, if the attorney is part of a firm, you should read more about the firm and the other attorneys there to see if the firm is a good fit for you, as well.
2. What is the attorney's area of expertise?
An estate plan can be very complicated, and you'll want an attorney who can handle whatever issues are special to your situation. For example, if you have a taxable estate (estate in excess of $5.4 million for Hawaii residents and/or $11.4 million for U.S. domiciliaries) you'll want an estate planning attorney who is also an expert in tax law. If you have a beneficiary with special needs who is receiving or may receive government benefits, you'll want an estate planning attorney who is also an expert in drafting special needs trusts. If you have international assets or are not a U.S. citizen, you'll want an estate planning attorney who is also an expert in international tax laws and estate planning for international citizens. If you own a business, you'll want an estate planning attorney who is also an expert in business succession planning issues. Finding the right estate planning attorney for you might come down to what unique circumstances need to be dealt with as part of your estate.
3. What's the attorney's pricing structure?
Some estate planners bill on an hourly basis and others charge a flat fee. Which method are you most comfortable with? If you think you'll need to spend a lot of time with your attorney or know you'll be asking a lot of questions (in person or by phone or email), a flat fee arrangement might be ideal for you. If your estate plan is relatively basic, you may prefer an attorney who bills on an hourly basis. When it comes to your money, the fewer the surprises the better.
4. How long is the attorney's turnaround time to create or update your estate plan?
How quickly do you need to have your estate plan up and running? Ideally, you're planning your estate well in advance so this may not be an issue for you; but, if you're playing catch-up on planning, or if your business or personal life has some time-sensitive things going on, it's worth asking in advance for a ballpark estimate.
You'll likely have additional questions that pertain to your specific estate planning goals, but these questions are a good starting point to making sure that you choose the best attorney for your needs.
What's the Next Step?
Once you've hired an estate planning attorney, he or she will help you draw up your estate planning documents. As part of the process, you will need to name your successor trustee—the person(s) or company that will step in and carry out your instructions if you die or become incapacitated. The advisors at Bank of Hawaii's Private Bank are here to help you perfect your plan. Before you need successor trustee services, they can help with your investments, tax planning, business succession planning, and bill paying, if necessary. And when you do need someone to step in, their familiarity with your assets and your intentions will help your advisors ensure a smooth transition.
Michael Keany is Bank of Hawaii's managing editor of content marketing. He's worked as a writer and editor in Honolulu since 2004.