In popular culture, movies, and books, estate planning attorneys are generally shown representing only wealthy clients who own large acres of lush property. But in actuality, these licensed law professionals can represent a variety of people with differing estate needs and levels of assistance. While it’s true they may be best suited for helping clients who have many assets or large and/or intricate estates, estate planning attorneys can also assist with matters such as simple will creation or helping to establish a durable power of attorney.
Of course, the decision to hire an estate attorney is an individual choice and should reflect your own unique circumstances (and budget). But these highly skilled lawyers can help give you peace of mind knowing that whatever you own – from simple possessions, such as prized jewelry, furniture or a car, to multiple properties – will be left in good hands with someone you love or otherwise trust once you pass on. Below we take a closer look at their role in estate planning.
Estate planning is the process of establishing a plan – through a series of legal documents – that states your wishes for your estate after you die or become incapacitated. This plan lists the people or organizations you want to receive the things you own, and involves the counsel of professional advisors who are familiar with your goals and concerns, your assets and how they’re owned, as well as your family structure.1
Estate planning attorneys, sometimes called estate law attorneys or probate attorneys, possess a thorough knowledge of state and federal laws impacting estate distribution. An experienced estate planning attorney will help make sure that all related documents are properly prepared to meet your objectives. They are among a number of professional advisors, such as accountants and financial advisors, who can provide their own particular counsel and services for your estate planning needs.
Pro Tip: Want an in-depth resource on estate planning essentials? Our guide to estate planning offers a handy checklist, important tips, and common questions to consider when starting the process.
Depending on the size and complexity of the estate, not everyone will need an estate planning attorney (more on that later). However, these attorneys can be instrumental in navigating the legal complexities of estates, particularly for those with large or complex cases, and assisting with a variety of tasks, including:
Look for an attorney in your area who specializes in estate planning and is board certified (not all states require board certification). The National Association of Estate Planners and Councils provides a searchable database of accredited affiliated lawyers and other related professionals within the industry. Also, referrals from trusted friends and family members are ideal. If you’ve previously used a lawyer in a related sector, such as real estate or family law, see if they can provide a recommendation. Lawyer rating services are another option, but be wary, since, as in the case of rating services in general, some may not be entirely reliable.
Did You Know? There are two types of durable power of attorney: one for health care and the other for finances. Check out our power of attorney guide for specifics.
The cost for estate planning attorneys can vary depending on the complexity of the estate and where you live. According to AARP, a lawyer might charge a flat fee of anywhere from $300 to more than $1,500 to draft a will and other basic estate planning documents.2 If working on an hourly basis, estate lawyers can typically charge $150 (for a basic will) to $300 an hour.
For those who can’t afford the cost of a lawyer, there are less expensive do-it-yourself legal providers or even kits you can buy online or in stores. These DIY options enable you to complete professionally prepared estate planning documents without necessarily having to obtain or pay for private counsel. A word of warning, though: The American Bar Association urges caution when using these options for estate planning given the potential risk of the inexperienced making detrimental errors.3
Did You Know? A living will is a legal document that outlines your choices regarding end-of-life treatment. Visit our finance hub for more information on this and other finance-related topics for older adults.
Generally speaking, the significant difference between estate planning attorneys and probate lawyers is that the former are hired to assist people with divvying up their estate and assets while they’re alive. This can also include helping to prepare wills, trusts, and other pertinent documents.
Probate lawyers, on the other hand, usually handle estate administration or assist the executors of the state (or estate administrator if there’s no will) and the family once the person dies. The process of probate refers to the legal procedure in which the court oversees the distribution of property following the person’s death. The duration of probate varies depending on the type of estate. For an average modest estate, the duration of probate can range from six months to two years.4
While estate planning attorneys are well-equipped to handle a variety of estates, not everyone will require their services. The complexity of your estate will determine if you should hire one. If you’re looking to create a basic will and your assets are relatively simple and straightforward, it may be more feasible (not to mention cheaper) to create one yourself or solicit the help of a trusted family member or friend. However, for larger, more complex estates, the service of an experienced, professional attorney is highly recommended.
The decision to create an estate plan is a personal one and is largely dependent on the size and complexity of your estate. However, nearly everyone over the age of 18 should have a will, especially if you have assets or a family.
It’s highly advisable, even if it’s just a basic will. Most people have some kind of asset, whether they realize it or not. Think about everyday items like computers, cellphones, or even photos.
By law, pets are considered property and cannot inherit money or other property. Fortunately, there are ways you can look out for Fido after you’re gone by setting up a pet trust. This enables you to leave money for your pet’s care and designate a guardian.
If you have no formal will or estate plan in place upon your death, the state will end up deciding how to divvy up your assets for you.