Before hiring any kind of lawyer for any personal or business matters, you’ll want to be sure to review my article “5 Things to Know Before Hiring Your Personal or Business Lawyer”. Today’s article gets a little more specific, focusing in on what you need to know before hiring a lawyer to help you with wills, trusts, your estate and your business. Be sure you’ve considered the answers to these 7 questions.
1. What will happen during an initial meeting with your office and how much will it cost?
When you begin to consider getting your legal and financial affairs in order, the first thing to do is call the offices of lawyers who you will meet with to handle your planning.
This is a great opportunity for a first level screening to find the right lawyer for you, your family and your business. Pay attention to how the phones are answered (or not) by the office team. You want to find a lawyer who has a live person answering the phones who can answer quick questions for you when you are a client. And, you may even want to look for a lawyer who has an emergency, after hours number just for clients.
When you do talk with someone on the phone, be sure to ask what will happen at the initial meeting and whether there will be a charge for the meeting.
Look for an educational first meeting. Ideally, the purpose of the first meeting with your lawyer is not just to get to know him or her, but to provide you with specific guidance and information that will benefit you, your family and your business.
You want to leave this meeting with a clear action plan for what your next steps are to ensure your financial and legal affairs and business are set up the best possible way for your family.
Now, it may be that you have to pay for this guidance and don’t be afraid to do that because it can be a hugely valuable education. They key is, you want to know what the cost is going to be upfront so there are no surprises.
Don’t expect to get valuable information that will help your family during a free initial consultation. When a lawyer routinely gives away their time for a free initial consultation it’s not to give you an education, it’s so you can meet the lawyer and decide whether you want to work with him or her. Don’t expect free legal guidance.
2. Does my planning fee include a regular review of my legal documents? What if I want to make changes later?
Far too often today, families put in place legal documents and think “great, that’s done”, now I don’t have to think about that anymore. Then, the end of their life comes or a crisis pops up and their family finds out that the documents are out of date and the assets aren’t owned properly anyway. Then, the plan fails. Or, business owners set up an entity to shield their personal assets from their business, but then fail to operate the business properly and keep their entity in compliance. Then, the business plan fails. I blame these failures on lawyers who don’t set the right expectations for their clients.
The truth of the matter is legal documents are not set it and forget it. Your wills and trusts and your business documents are living documents that need to be reviewed and updated throughout your personal or business life. And you want to find a lawyer who will keep everything up to date for you, review your documents regularly, and offer a program to provide you with continuing guidance on an ongoing basis without hourly fees.
Look for a lawyer who has a membership program or ongoing service program so you can reach out to your lawyer on an ongoing basis for legal, financial and business consultation without worrying about being nickled and dimed. Oh, and be sure your lawyer isn’t going to charge you for photocopies and faxes!
3. Do you make sure my assets are titled in the right way and my business stays in compliance?
You can have the best business structured and the best legal plan set up for your family, but if your assets are not structured properly and if your business does not stay in compliance, it’s all a false sense of security because when push comes to shove and the crisis happens, those legal documents won’t work.
Make absolutely sure that the lawyer you are working with is not only going to put legal documents in place for you, but also is going to finish the job, by ensuring your assets are structured properly and your business stays in full compliance.
4. Can you help me make smart choices about things like buying insurance, saving for college, and retirement planning?
Your personal lawyer can and should help you make decisions not only about things like legal documents, but also about things like buying insurance, saving for college, planning for retirement and all the other challenging decisions that will come up along the way of your life and your business. Your business lawyer should be keeping you informed about things like hiring and firing, trademarking and copyrighting, and growing your business.
Your lawyer stands in a fiduciary relationship to you and you should never sign another legal document again (even a loan document or simple agreement) without having your lawyer take a look and make sure it’s in your best interest. If your lawyer says he or she can’t guide you on these things, look for one who can. This doesn’t mean your lawyer needs to be licensed to sell insurance or financial products or practice employment law or intellectual property, just that they have a big enough breadth of experience and knowledge that they can be a trusted advisor to you on these issues helping you avoid expensive mistakes.
5. Do you have a process for helping me capture and pass on my intangible wealth, such as my intellectual, spiritual and human assets or who I am and what's important to me or do you primarily focus on financial assets?
There’s a movement happening in the world in which we are finally beginning to realize that our wealth is far greater than the sum total of the dollars in our bank, brokerage and retirement accounts. In fact, many of us are becoming aware that our intangible assets are much more valuable.
When you are working with a personal lawyer, be sure to find a lawyer who will help you to capture, document and pass on not just your financial assets, but ALL of your assets, including the most often overlooked intangible assets, like who you are and what’s important to you. Your lawyer should have in place an actual process so that when your planning is complete, you have created either written or recorded messages to your loved ones that pass on your values, stories, insights and experience.
6. What sorts of things can you put in place to ensure my kids are always taken care of by people I want in the way I want and won’t lose their inheritance to predators or creditors?
Today, there are new technologies in legal planning that allow you to have the maximum assurance that your children will never be left in the care of anyone you wouldn’t want, even in the short term while the authorities are figuring out what to do. Be sure that your lawyer provides a comprehensive Kids Protection Plan® for the care of minor children, including ID cards for your wallet and instructions for your caregivers, listing out the names and numbers of local people who have legal authority to care for your kids, if you can’t.
In addition, be sure your lawyer talks with you about cutting edge technologies that allow you to pass on your assets to your children in such a way that when they do get control over their inheritance, it cannot be lost to a divorce or even a lawsuit filed against your child. They get to control it, without risking it. Not all lawyers know how to put these strategies into place the right way, so be sure to ask before you move forward with planning not only if your lawyer does, but how often he or she has in the past. These strategies have many traps for the unwary, so you don’t want a lawyer who isn’t well-versed in these strategies testing them out on you.
7. Do you guarantee your service?
Have you ever met a lawyer who guaranteed their service? If not, you are missing out. Many lawyers will guarantee your satisfaction, so be sure to ask. It’s difficult for a lawyer who bills time on an hourly basis to do this, but a lawyer who is billing on a package or flat-fee basis should offer a guarantee. If you aren’t happy with the service, they’ll refund your money. As long as they have a client-focused, service-based business and intend to do whatever is necessary to keep you happy, the lawyer won’t worry about offering a guarantee. Look for one who does. Caveat: Any lawyer who represents you in a litigated manner will not guarantee their service because there’s one guarantee with litigation – whether you win or lose, you very likely won’t be happy.
Don’t be afraid to ask these questions before you hire a lawyer to work with your family on personal and business legal planning. When you find a lawyer who says yes to these questions, hire him or her quickly before the practice fills up and he or she stops taking on any new clients. Asking these questions and hearing the right answers before you engage a lawyer to work on your wills, trusts, estate or business will ensure you put in place legal planning for your family and your business that will work when you need it.