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An estate planning attorney, or estate lawyer, can help you plan for what will happen to your estate when you pass away or if you become incapacitated. You may want to hire an estate planning attorney for all but the simplest of estate plans to ensure that your wishes are recorded in a way that complies with federal and state laws.
What Does an Estate Planning Attorney Do?
An estate planning attorney is a lawyer who specializes in the federal and state laws related to estates, trusts and probate. They can review your situation and help you create or update your estate plan to ensure your plan aligns with your wishes.
Some of the documents and situations an estate planning attorney can help with include:
- Last will and testament: A last will and testament is where you can share what you want to happen with your affairs after you die. For example, you can use it to name individuals and charities as beneficiaries for your assets and designate a guardian for your children.
- Living will: A type of advance directive, a living will specifies what you want to happen if you become ill and can't communicate your wishes as well as your preferences for funeral arrangements. The specific name for the document can vary by state.
- Trust: Many people create and transfer assets to a living trust. A trustee can manage the trust fund on behalf of its beneficiaries, and the funds can be transferred outside of probate―the potentially costly and lengthy legal process of distributing an estate's assets after someone dies.
- Choosing beneficiaries: With some accounts, such as bank and investment accounts, you can name beneficiaries for the account's funds. The funds can then be passed to the beneficiaries outside probate and without being transferred to a trust. You'll also want to consider who you name as the beneficiaries of life insurance policies.
- Durable financial and medical power of attorney: Power of attorney documents let you name people who can make financial or medical decisions on your behalf (they don't have to be the same people). These are "durable" if the power continues while you're incapacitated.
Your estate planning attorney can also advise you on more specific questions, such as how you can use different types of trusts to care for family members and create an estate plan that will minimize estate and inheritance taxes. However, estate taxes aren't most people's primary concern because you can pass on more than $12 million tax-free as of 2022.
When You Might Need an Estate Planning Attorney
It may make sense to hire an attorney to help formulate or review your estate plan for all but the simplest circumstances. You also might have an estate plan from when you were younger that you need an attorney to update so it aligns with your current situation and wishes.
You might consider hiring an estate planning attorney when you:
- Have a large or blended family
- Have children who are minors or family members with special needs
- Think a family member may contest your will
- Own family business or investment properties
- Want to create a trust
- Have assets in other states or countries
- Are worried about estate or inheritance taxes
However, if you don't have a lot of assets, a spouse or children, and you are comfortable with your assets being passed on to your closest blood relative, then you could opt for a DIY option. There are services that can help you create a will online.
Finding and Hiring an Estate Planning Attorney
You can start your search for an attorney online, and by asking friends, family members and other professionals (such as your financial advisor) for recommendations. Look for an attorney who specializes in estate planning in your state, as laws can vary from one state to another.
There are certifications and designations that can help you identify experienced estate planning attorneys, such as an accredited estate planner, chartered trust and estate planner, or certified trust and financial advisor. Some states also offer additional certifications.
The cost for an estate plan can vary depending on what you need, where you're located and who you hire. Some attorneys may have project fees for basic estate plan documents, while others may charge by the hour. You can reach out to several attorneys to ask about their pricing and what's included.
Also, remember that your estate plan will likely need to be reviewed and updated in the future. You might want to hire an attorney you think you'll be comfortable working with for years to come.