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Estate Planning: Counting the Cost

By L. William Schmidt, Jr., Senior Trust Officer

It is estimated that only 30% of Americans have Wills. It is shocking that we devote so much effort to accumulating wealth and often take so little, if any, time paying attention to who will enjoy what remains of that wealth when we die. Estate planning attorneys and financial consultants often wonder why their potential clients are so negligent when it comes to this matter which so importantly impacts your family.

A 2014 Harris Poll provided some clues to this inattention to the transfer of our wealth. It found that 57% of those having no Will stated that they just haven’t gotten around to it. This sounds like the answer for why you haven’t cleaned out your basement. I suspect it is more of an excuse than a legitimate reason.

More surprising, 17% of those polled stated they didn’t need a Will. I guess this is an acceptable excuse – if you don’t care who gets your money after you’re gone. It is even more astonishing when you consider that, in the absence of a Will, the state where you die will determine your heirs. That might work, but it seldom does.

The final reason discovered by the Harris Poll was the 14% who blamed cost. This is perhaps the most legitimate excuse. There is an almost universal fear of visiting the lawyer’s office (maybe not as great a fear as visiting the dentist, but pretty close). The ultimate decision involves balancing the cost with the perceived benefit. During the decades of drafting Wills and trusts, at the conclusion of the initial conference, my prospective client would inevitably ask, “Sounds good, but how much will it cost?” Here are some suggestions for how you might approach the cost issue.

First, make sure you select an attorney who specializes in providing estate planning services. You don’t want someone who does this on the side after spending the day in traffic court. The expert will give you a better product and, ultimately, at a better price.

Second, ask if the attorney offers a free initial consultation. Many of them will make this service available, and this allows you to evaluate both the recommendations made and your comfort level with the person who will be assisting you with this very personable service. If you found a lawyer who looks to be highly qualified and comes highly recommended, you may decide to forego the free consultation, but always ask what the charge would be for that service and realize that you expect to gain some valuable information from that meeting.

Third, if the plan recommended by the attorney seems to be exactly what you need, ask the most important cost question, “Do you charge for this service on a flat fee which you will quote me (and what is it), or do you charge an hourly rate (and what is it, and how many hours do you estimate it will take). You don’t want any surprises when you come back to sign your documents and pass out when they hand you the statement for services rendered.

Fourth, make certain you understand the consequences of the recommended estate plan, and don’t sign anything until you have the attorney review it with you to make sure it captures your objectives.

Fifth, if you really hate lawyers and think your goals are really that simple, you can resort to Legal Zoom and try drafting it on your own. However, many estate planning attorneys tell me that their litigation practice has flourished from the uninformed use of such services.

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