If You Need More Help

You probably won't need a lawyer's help to make your living trust with WillMaker. But you may come up with questions about your particular situation that should be answered by an expert. This is especially likely if you have a very large estate, must plan for an incapacitated minor or have to deal with the assets of a good-sized small business. We highlight these and other "red flags" throughout the manual and program.

Before You Hire a Professional

If you have questions about estate planning, you may want to consult some other do-it-yourself books or websites before you consult a pricey expert. It's often worth the money to pay a good lawyer for advice about your specific situation; it's rarely worth it to pay by the hour for education. Reading some background information before hiring a lawyer is usually the best approach.

Here are some places to get more information and help with estate planning:

  • Plan Your Estate, by Denis Clifford (Nolo). This book explains how to draw up a complete estate plan making use of a will, living trust and other devices. It introduces more complex estate planning strategies, including various types of tax-saving trusts for the very wealthy.
  • 8 Ways to Avoid Probate, by Mary Randolph (Nolo). If you're interested in learning more about some of the probate-avoidance techniques discussed in this manual, check out this book.
  • Special Needs Trusts: Protect Your Child's Financial Future, by Kevin Urbatsch and Jessica Farinas Jones (Nolo). This book will help you understand and draft a trust that allows you to provide for a child with disabilities without jeopardizing government benefits. Even if you decide to have a lawyer draw up or finalize the trust, you will be armed with the information you need to get the best possible help.
  • The Executor's Guide: Settling a Loved One's Estate or Trust, by Mary Randolph (Nolo). This is an invaluable handbook for anyone asked to serve as an executor. It can also help you prepare your estate for your own executor, to make the job as easy as possible.
  • The Trustee's Legal Companion, by Carol Elias Zolla and Liza Hanks. Learn the ins and outs of being a trustee with this guide to the complex tasks that face every trust administrator.

What Kind of Expert Do You Need?

If you have questions, the first thing to decide is what type of expert you should seek. Questions about estate taxes may be better (and less expensively) answered by an experienced accountant than a lawyer. Or, if you're wondering what type of life insurance to buy, you may be better off talking to a financial planner.

Consult a lawyer if you have specific questions about a provision of your living trust or other estate planning document. Also, see a lawyer if you want to get into more sophisticated estate planning -- for instance, if you want to establish a charitable trust or plan to avoid estate taxes.

Different Ways to Get Legal Advice From a Lawyer

Although many consumers (and some lawyers) don't know it yet, the way lawyers and their customers structure their relationships is changing fast. Lawyers used to insist on taking responsibility (and fees) for creating an entire estate plan. But in what has become a very competitive market, many lawyers now offer piecemeal services tailored to just what a customer wants.

This means you no longer have to walk into a lawyer's office, turn over your legal problems, and wait for an answer -- and a bill. Instead, you can often buy what you need, whether it's a bit of advice, a single estate planning document, a review of a document you've prepared with this program or regular coaching as you handle a probate court proceeding on your own.

If you adopt this approach, you and the lawyer should sign an agreement that clearly sets out your roles and states that the lawyer is not acting in a traditional role, but instead giving you limited services or representation. Without this type of agreement, lawyers fear that dissatisfied clients might later hold them responsible for more than they actually agreed to take on. The agreement should make things clear to you, too, so you know what to expect from the lawyer.

Working With a Lawyer

Before you talk to a lawyer, decide what kind of help you really need. Do you want someone to advise you on a complete estate plan, or just to review the documents you prepare to make sure they look all right? If you don't clearly tell the lawyer what you want, you may find yourself agreeing to turn over all your estate planning work.

One good strategy is to do some background research and write down your questions as specifically as you can. If the lawyer doesn't give you clear, concise answers, try someone else.

Lawyer fees usually range from $150 to $400 or more per hour. It depends on the area of the country you live in, and generally, you'll pay more in urban compared to rural areas. The fee of an experienced specialist may be 10% to 30% higher than that of a general practitioner, but the specialist will probably produce results more efficiently and save you money in the long run.

Be sure you settle your fee arrangement -- preferably in writing -- at the start of your relationship. In addition to the hourly fee, you should get a clear, written commitment from the lawyer about how many hours your problem should take to handle.

Read more about Working With an Estate Planning Lawyer.

Finding a Lawyer

Finding a competent lawyer who charges a reasonable fee and respects your efforts to prepare your own estate planning documents may not be easy. First of all, you'll want to find a lawyer who specializes in estate planning. Most general practice lawyers are simply not sufficiently educated in this field to competently address complicated problems. Here are some ways to look for help.

Personal Recommendations

The best way to find a lawyer is to get a recommendation from someone you trust. So ask your relatives and friends -- especially those you know who have substantial assets and have likely made an estate plan. You may also want to ask those who run their own businesses. They are likely to have a relationship with a lawyer, and if that lawyer doesn't handle estate planning, he or she probably knows someone who does.

Finally, you might check with people you know in any social or other organization in which you are involved. Senior citizens' centers and other groups that advise and assist older people may have a list of local lawyers who specialize in wills and estate planning and are well-regarded.

Group Legal Plans

Some unions, employers, and consumer action organizations offer group legal plans to their members or employees, through which they can obtain legal assistance free or for low rates. If you are a member of such a plan, check with it first. Your problem may be covered free of charge. If it is, and you are satisfied that the lawyer you are referred to is knowledgeable in estate planning, this route is probably a good choice.

Some plans, however, give you only a slight reduction in a lawyer's fee. In that case, you may be referred to a lawyer whose main virtue is the willingness to reduce fees in exchange for a high volume of referrals. Chances are you can find a better lawyer outside the plan and negotiate a similar fee.

Nolo's Lawyer Directory

At www.nolo.com, Nolo offers a directory that provides a detailed profile for each attorney with information to help you select the right lawyer for you. Attorneys use their profiles to describe their experience, education, and fees, and also tell you something about their general approach to practicing law. For example, each lawyer states whether he or she is willing to review documents or coach clients who are doing their own legal work. Nolo has confirmed that every listed attorney has a valid license and is in good standing with his or her local bar association.

Attorney Referral Services

Your local county bar may have an attorney referral service, which differs from a directory in that a referral service will gather some information about your legal needs and match you with attorneys who might be a good fit for you. Usually, you'll get a few names of attorneys to consider.