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Sunday, March 1, 2009


From the New York Times
February 26, 2009
Good Advice Makes All the Difference in Estate Planning

IT’S always been painful to spend money on estate planning, because you don’t live to reap the benefits even if you know your heirs will. Amid the current financial duress, you may be tempted to eliminate what might seem like a discretionary expenditure.

Yet your estate plan may urgently need a tuneup or a total overhaul because of the increase in the federal tax-free amount or changes in your personal circumstances. To find the best person for the job and pay for only what’s essential, consider these issues:

DO YOU NEED A NEW LAWYER? After a brief conversation by phone or in person, the professional who created your last plan might be able to make any necessary changes at little cost. On the other hand, if you hope to use sophisticated techniques like avoiding the generation-skipping transfer tax, achieving valuation discounts through family limited partnerships or protecting assets from creditors, be prepared to pay for expert guidance. And don’t be afraid to ask, “How many of these kinds of transactions have you done?” If the answer isn’t dozens, consider finding someone else.

HOW DO YOU FIND A GOOD LAWYER? Start with referrals from people you know who are in similar situations or from professionals whose judgment you trust, like accountants, financial advisers or other lawyers. State and local bar associations can direct you to lawyers in your area but can’t vouch for their skills. Other names can also be found on, the nationwide lawyers’ directory that you can search by location and area of practice, and on the Web site of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, a group of trust and estate lawyers.

Depending on where you live, you may have a choice between large national firms with many practice groups or estate-planning boutiques — small firms that specialize in trusts and estates work. The latter tend to be less expensive because their overhead is lower.

Meet with the lawyer before you decide to work together (most professionals charge for this initial consultation only if you go forward). Pay attention to chemistry.

Barbara E. Shiers, a lawyer with Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz in New York, said it’s important to consider this question: would you feel comfortable revealing highly personal information that bears upon your estate plan? This might include not only your finances but also the state of your marriage and relationships with other family members, and whatever might keep you awake at night, like children’s substance-abuse problems or spending habits.

“Everyone would write the best possible will for themselves if only they had the knowledge,” said Pam H. Schneider, a lawyer with Gadsden Schneider & Woodward in Radnor, Pa. You want a lawyer who can listen to your concerns and put herself in your shoes when she drafts the necessary documents, Ms. Schneider said.

HOURLY RATE OR FLAT FEE? While most lawyers charge an hourly rate, some offer flat fees for a package of basic estate planning documents, like a will, living trust, power of attorney, living will and health-care proxy. John L. Berger, a lawyer with Lowenstein Sandler in Roseland, N.J., bills by the hour but gives clients an estimate of the total cost. If clients require more changes or explanations than he factored in, he gives them a heads-up before they incur additional charges.

SHOULD YOU AND YOUR SPOUSE HAVE SEPARATE LAWYERS? This adds to the cost, because two people will need to get up to speed on your situation and draft documents, rather than having one lawyer produce his-and-hers versions of the same wills and trusts. But under most state laws, when couples are jointly represented, everything you tell the lawyer, even privately, is not confidential from your spouse

Separate representation may be desirable in second marriages between those who already have children, said Stephanie E. Heilborn, a New York lawyer. It’s even more important for people in troubled marriages or when one spouse has skeletons in the closet — like a secret companion or an out-of-wedlock child.

You may dread the day when that bill comes, but look at it this way, Ms. Heilborn said: A good estate plan is a surefire way to save taxes, and that’s money in the bank for your heirs. Few investments can make the same promise.