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By Mark Gilfix, Attorney, Gilfix & La Poll Associates, @markgilfix If you have (very wisely) decided to put an estate plan into place, or to update an existing but out-of-date plan, you are faced with a potentially overwhelming decision: who do you hire to help you on this journey? Options seem to abound. First, I do not recommend existing online estate planning services. Of all the online services I have seen, none provide an adequate level of guidance to their “clients.” Indeed, an up-front discussion with an expert is absolutely necessary as you structure your plan, which existing online services simply do not provide. Working with an attorney is truly a necessity. So how do you choose an estate planning attorney? I recommend 3 criteria to help you in your search.
  1. Do they specialize in estate planning? Many attorneys dabble in estate planning. Almost any attorney can find template documents to help clients create basic trusts, wills, power of attorney, and advanced healthcare directives. However, it is a highly specialized area. If an attorney does not specialize in this area, he or she might miss critical issues, or might be unfamiliar with sophisticated – but necessary – planning approaches.

How can you tell if an attorney is a specialist? If “estate planning” is the second or third listed area of practice on their website, this probably isn’t an area of specialization. Additionally, look to see if he or she is a member of any elder-law or estate planning organizations. Membership in groups like NAELA (The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys) is a good indicator of this specialization.

  1. Do they understand long term care asset protection planning?As you are probably aware, long term care costs can decimate one’s savings. Your attorney must understand strategies for protecting assets. He or she must be an expert at helping you plan and pay for long term care. For example, he or she must understand life and long term care insurance options, VA programs, and Medi-Care, as well as the complex rules around government program eligibility, in order to properly advise you. Failure to do so can cost you and your family hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  1. Do they have a succession plan?Your estate planning documents might not be put into use for many years, or even decades. And while I recommend that you revisit your plan every 3-5 years, you might not reconnect with your attorney until you face a crisis. What happens if your attorney is sick? What happens when he or she passes away? Many attorneys, especially solo practitioners, do not have adequate succession plans in place. Determine if the attorney is prepared for this by asking him or her how you would get help with your file if he or she were sick or unavailable?
This list is not exhaustive, but using these criteria should help you rapidly narrow your search. Interview at least 2 to 3 attorneys by asking them the questions above, and proceed from there. No matter what, don’t let the challenge of finding the “perfect” attorney stop you from putting a comprehensive and sophisticated estate plan into place for you and your family!
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