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Your Estate Plan Should Not Cost More Than Your Car

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

Perhaps that seems an obvious point, but for most of us, legal fees seem as intimidating as a trip to a used car lot. One thing you may or may not know about me is that my first career was in retail store management. As part of that job with several different companies, I was responsible for sales.

I hated sales. I began my career as a salesperson and I hated every moment of it—except for the moments I spent connecting with strangers without selling them anything! Some of the best days were ones where I would be considered a failure according to the sales results. My real strength was in saving people money and teaching them how to get around spending. At my core, I was a problem-solver and a supporter of other salespeople. All I wanted to do was help.

I have carried that attitude forward into my practice. I am very much not a salesman, despite being the entire marketing department at the firm--and I hate being sold. In the context of estate planning, I bristle when I see clients being oversold on legal services. I am not here to sell you anything; I am here to solve or prevent issues that keep you from living your best lives.

But I must warn you: not every attorney or legal services provider adopts this approach. So how do you know whether you are getting what you need versus being sold a bill of goods? Read on to find out.

What is Estate or Legacy Planning?

First, we need to know what we are talking about. Estate planning (aka legacy planning) is an important process that can help you plan for assets and take care of your needs during the rest of your life, while also ensuring that your assets are distributed according to your wishes after you die. Some of the documents and tasks associated with estate plans are trusts, last wills, living wills, powers of attorney, and beneficiary designations. However, it is important to be aware of the potential for over-preparing or overpaying for your estate plan.

  • The complexity of your estate plan does not necessarily dictate the cost.

The cost of an estate plan can vary depending on a number of factors, including the complexity of your estate, the specific documents that you need, and the experience of the attorney who is preparing your plan. However, there is no need to pay a premium for a complex estate plan if you do not have a complex estate. Many planning activities can be completed by the client with some instruction and legwork.

  • Many affordable estate planning options exist—but not all are created equal.

There are a number of ways to create an estate plan without breaking the bank. For example, you can use online estate planning tools or templates, or you can work with a less expensive attorney. Just know that online tools may not provide you with adequate legal advice equivalent to what you might receive from a licensed attorney who is committed to your relationship. And when selecting an attorney, you are more likely to get advice tailored to your situation if you choose one who dedicates special time and training to estate planning, probate, and property. (If you own a farming operation, you should probably have an attorney who specifically handles farms.) This does NOT mean that a general-practice attorney is unable to help you, however.

  • You can shop around for the best price and best-fitting relationship.

Just like any other service, it is important to do your diligence as a consumer when you are getting an estate plan. Consider asking for a pricing list, find out whether a free consultation is offered, and ask friends about their experiences with a particular attorney. If an attorney is unable to accommodate you, consider whether they will be able to accommodate your family if you suddenly pass away. If you are uncomfortable with an attorney, try another. A fee agreement is not a marriage contract.

  • Keep an eye on how the attorney actually makes money.

Does the attorney charge by the hour? By the document? One-size-fits-all pricing? None is necessarily wrong, but each can have an impact on your wallet. If one does charge by the hour, ask after your consultation how long this plan should take to prepare. If they charge by the document, find out which documents will be required and whether you need all of them—or whether some of your existing docs will do. If the attorney charges one basic price for an estate package, find out whether there is a cap on consultation or drafting time, or whether any discounts are offered.

  • Ask about discounts and payment plans up front if cost is a factor.

In all honesty, most attorneys who take credit cards also offer payment plans—but they may not know they do! The major credit card processing companies used by attorneys have a similar buy-now-pay-later option as you find at major e-retailers. And while almost all estate planning attorneys will charge you money upfront to cover the work they put forth, it might not be necessary to pay one hundred percent of the fee until you are ready to execute the plan. Let the attorney know your concerns about cost, and observe whether they are prepared to accommodate you.

  • Consider what you are giving up by using an online document preparer.

Some legal document providers will give referrals to a licensed attorney . . . and some will not. Where they do provide referrals, it is important for you as the client to know how the attorney is being paid. Where they do not provide referrals, consider that this may absolve the provider of any responsibility for the end result. Even if you don’t trust attorneys overall, two heads are still better than one. An online service will charge you for each document and may also charge you an overall case fee. By the time you pay for these, you might have been able to have an attorney expertly draft your plan! You won’t know if you don’t shop.

  • Be cautious of anyone advising that “this is the only approach to take.”

There are a plethora of approaches to planning an estate. None of us, no matter our experience, knows what will happen in the future; all we can give is our best guess. So if someone is advising you that “a trust is the only way” or “you have to have X document,” you might be talking to a salesman and not an attorney with your best interest in mind. Beware of absolutes, and ask to hear additional options.

What is a Consumer to Do??

If you are concerned about overpaying for your estate plan, there are a few things you can do:

  • Do your research. Before you meet with an attorney, take some time to learn about the different types of estate planning documents and the costs involved. This will help you to be a more informed consumer.

  • Be clear about your needs and limitations. When you meet with an attorney, be clear about your goals for your estate plan and your budget. This will help the attorney to create a plan that meets your needs without overcharging you.

  • Consider multiple avenues. Speak with several attorneys and/or peruse several sites before making a decision. This will help you to ensure that you are getting the best possible price, but also the person or service that meets your needs overall.

My Approach to Your Plan: Meeting You Where You Are

Legacy planning is an important process, and at my office it does not look the same for every client. Some clients would be better served by a trust. Some clients would be better served with a Will-based plan. Some would be just fine with a packet of documents and some instructions. Do you need a binder? I can give you that. Do you need me to email your plan to you? I can do that, too. Do you need a payment plan? I can work with you. I just want to help. I would rather help you today and get a plan in place than to hear from your family down the road with no plan—or worse, a bad plan—and a ton of complex tasks to do.

You can request a current pricing list here. While it does not cover every scenario, it is what I will refer to at the end of a consultation to come up with a fee agreement. My firm uses LawPay, which can not only process credit or debit cards and ACH, but also offers a legal-fee financing option (“ClientCredit”) for qualified borrowers. Call or email me to set up a quick consultation.

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