Finding the Best Estate Planning Attorney for Your Family

Few things are more important to the success of your estate plan than the attorney you choose to design and draft it. Almost as important is the relationship that is formed between that attorney and other professional advisors who serve you in the areas of financial advice and accounting.

All successful estate planning is the result of several professions working together for the good of the client. However, professionals of one group sometimes have misconceptions of professionals belonging to other groups. For example, the financial advisor may see the estate planning attorney as little more than a document scrivener. But this is far from the truth.

Many attorneys who limit their practice to estate planning are values-based, relationship-driven, client-centered and counseling-oriented. And the good ones are willing to work together with other professionals on your behalf. They understand that thorough estate planning involves more than just legal advice. The key is to find those attorneys who meet this description.

So where do you find these rare creatures? How do you know if you’re dealing with the right kind of attorney? The right kind of attorney will have an orientation toward relationship-building and counseling rather than mere document preparation. The first thing he or she will offer is the ability to listen carefully to not only your goals – but also your hopes, dreams, and aspirations for yourself and your loved ones. The attorney will carry on a sensitive dialogue that will enable you to make clear your wishes to maintain control over your affairs, to be cared for properly in the event of a disability and to provide meaningfully for your loved ones after you are gone.

It’s About More Than Just Taxes

Any competent estate planning attorney can help you navigate the legal intricacies and tax laws that pertain to the passing of wealth. But the right kind of estate planning attorney will also be interested in your desire to pass along more than just money. He or she will ask about and explain how to accomplish such things as:

ofunding the education of offspring for several generations

omeeting philanthropic goals that will leave a legacy for your community

opreserving family history and stories that support the values you believe in

ocontinuing or divesting a family business

ocaring for a surviving spouse regardless of circumstances

oand much more.

On a less positive, but equally important note, the right kind of attorney will ask about such things as:

othe complexities of the family relationships that may exist due to second marriage situations

othe special health needs of a grandchild

othe son or daughter-in-law who is not to be trusted

othe child or grandchild who is a spendthrift or suffers from substance abuse

Such in-depth counseling forms a strong foundation on which a long-term relationship is built. That relationship is important because an estate plan is not a transaction. Rather, it’s an ongoing process that should be reviewed from time to time throughout your life – and potentially survives through several generations. You may choose to involve your adult children in the planning process, and the right attorney will build a relationship with them as well.

An Interdisciplinary Approach

Another trait of the right kind of attorney is true commitment to the team approach in estate planning. A good estate planning attorney recognizes that every member of the planning team (including the investment advisor, the insurance professional and the CPA) is vital to the success of the plan. The right attorney will involve the other advisors in the long-term relationship you have to the degree that you are comfortable with that arrangement.

Legal documents are not enough. Even documents that have been drafted from in-depth counseling and are custom-designed to meet the unique needs of the client are not enough. Documents standing alone are like the proverbial automobile without fuel.

The documents’ instructions only apply to assets that are properly owned.

For example, a will only controls those things owned in the individual’s name–not jointly. The trust only controls those things owned by the trustee of the trust. An irrevocable life insurance trust works only if it is properly funded with a suitable insurance policy. Advanced entities require careful balancing of assets for maximum effectiveness. Accurate valuation of your business interests is imperative. New planning tools often require additional accounting and tax advice.

Financial and insurance advisors, as well as accountants, provide the fuel that is needed to help ensure that appropriate financial assets are allocated and funded correctly, offer necessary valuations and tax returns, and provide the means for proper balance within the plan. The estate planning attorney you work with should not only recognize these truths, but be cooperative and collegial with the other professionals that are providing these things.

Each member of the interdisciplinary team provides a cross-check for the other members. If there is disagreement among the professionals on a strategy or its implementation, it can be discussed and worked out between them as a team. After all, estate planning is both an art and a science. In this way, you are served with unanimous agreement among the professionals instead of getting contradicting advice from multiple sources. Mutual respect and clear protocols will characterize the interdisciplinary team that is working well together. Each team member will know exactly what is expected of him or her, and communication with each other and with you will be constant and clear.

As mentioned, the right kind of attorney will be focused on a long-term (even multi-generational) relationship you and your family. Therefore, the attorney will not have a transactional approach to the estate plan, but rather a process approach. An estate plan is never really done until the person doing the planning has passed away and every instruction for every beneficiary of every subsequent generation has been carried out. Those who speak of the plan in the past tense (“They did their estate plan…”) may have a shortsighted perspective.

A Strategic Process to Support the Relationships

The client-centered attorney will ensure that everything possible is done so that the plan is carried to fruition and your expectations are met.

There is nothing as constant as change. Your personal, family and financial situations change all the time. Kids get married and have children; there are divorces and remarriages; real estate and financial assets change value as the market goes up or down; a child marries someone you don’t approve of; a grandchild gets involved with drugs; you win the lottery; and so on.

In addition, laws (both tax and non-tax) change constantly. First we have an estate tax. Then we’re told the estate tax isn’t so bad. The estate tax is abolished. Oops, the estate tax is back! Assets in retirement accounts and trusts are protected from creditors and predators. But then a court in one state says that some protected assets may not be protected in certain circumstances. There’s no way that a will or a trust drafted 20 years ago (or even 5 years ago) is current with all those changes. So updating and maintenance of the plan are required in order for it to work.

The other thing that is constantly changing (or should be) is the growth and education of the attorney and every advisor working with you on your plan. Over time, new planning strategies are developed, new tools are discovered, and there are better ways to accomplish a goal. Of course, you will continue growing as well, and your goals for the plan could change.

The right estate planning attorney has systems in place to ensure he or she stays in touch with you, that the rest of the planning team knows of changes, and that there are methods to adjust the plan in light of those changes. As every member of the planning team focuses on the needs of the client, the process will run smoothly, and you will be more comfortable with the advice that is given and the decisions you make.
The attorney will also be aware that for a plan to work well, the people who will help in the future need to know what’s going on.

If the children will someday serve as trustees and personal representatives, the attorney might be involved in teaching those children what to do. If ongoing trusts have been established to protect those children and grandchildren, the other advisors should be available to continue serving as advisors to the subsequent generations instead of losing that expertise and familiarity. The client-centered interdisciplinary approach can make that happen.

Your Role in the Estate Planning Process

Your role in the process is an active role, not a passive one. You should avoid the attorney who is content with simply telling you what to do, and then throwing together some documents to accomplish it. That is the attorney’s plan – not yours.

In summary, if you’re working with the right estate planning attorney, you should plan on being involved in three distinct steps:

1. Develop a plan with counseling-oriented (rather than document-oriented) professionals.

2. Commit you and your family to an ongoing maintenance and education program.

3. Assure that your wisdom is passed along with your wealth.

As you consider those you love, and those material things that you’ll someday leave behind, only a properly designed and implemented estate plan can ensure that your goals for those loved ones are accomplished.

Many estate plans in America don’t work. They often consist of fill-in-the-blank documents, delivered in a one-time transaction, and never updated. If that’s all an attorney can offer, that’s not the right attorney for you. Choose an attorney that is counseling-oriented, values-based, and as strong on relationships as he or she is on the law.

Does Having an Attorney Determine Whether You Win or Lose Your Social Security Disability Case?

Did you know you can increase your odds of winning your Social Security (SSA) Disability case by more than 50% if you are represented by an attorney? Simply put, that’s a dramatic difference and one that every Social Security disability applicant should heed.

Congressional and SSA’s own statistics confirm this statement is true. The statistic came to light in November 2001, during Congressional testimony provided by Congressman Robert T. Matsui of California. During the hearing Congressman Matsui provided the following testimony:

“Professional representation is a valuable-and indeed vital-service. The disability determination process is complex. Claimants without professional representation appear to be far less likely to receive the benefits to which they are entitled. For example, in 2000, 64% of claimants represented by an attorney, but only 40% of those without one, were awarded benefits at the hearing level.”[1]

At the same hearing, Congressman E. Clay Shaw, Jr. of Florida provided the following testimony:

“As many of you know, filing for Social Security benefits-especially disability benefits-is so complicated that many claimants must hire attorneys to guide them through the process.” [2]

Please understand I am not suggesting that you must have an attorney in order to win your disability case. People can and do win their cases on their own. In fact, SSA does not require you to have an attorney, you can represent yourself; but why on earth would you? Congressional and SSA’s own statistics show dramatic differences in the outcomes of cases depending on whether an attorney is involved.

I have debated for years on whether to write an article on why one should hire a disability attorney. I did not want the article to be viewed as self-serving for either myself or my profession. I am aware of the unfortunate stature attorneys hold in our society, some of which is deserved. I always enjoy the look in a person’s eyes when they learn I am an attorney; it is clear they are searching their mind to share the latest attorney joke…and most are very funny!

However, the testimony of Congressmen Matsui and Shaw confirms what SSA and many disability attorneys have known for years. With such a compelling statistic, it is my hope this article is viewed as educational, rather than self-serving.

So you know the difference a disability attorney can make in your case…what can do you do about it? For those of you who are now considering hiring an attorney, let me provide you with some basic information to assist you in your decision.

1. You only pay an Attorney’s fee if you win your Case!

The number one question on people’s minds is, “How can I afford an attorney when I am not working?” The answer is simple…you only pay the attorney a fee if you win your case. You do not pay an attorney upfront. Generally, every disability attorney will represent you on a contingency fee basis. Simply put, this means you do not pay an attorney’s fee unless you win your case. Thus, everyone seeking disability benefits can afford an attorney. The question you should be asking yourself is “can I afford not to be represented by an attorney?”

2. General information regarding the attorney’s fees

The SSA and federal law set the attorney’s fees in disability cases. The standard fee agreement most attorneys use states the attorney’s fee is contingent upon winning your case. The fee is 25% of all past due benefits for you and your family, up to a maximum of $5,300, or whichever is less. Some attorneys may use a fee agreement which provides for a maximum fee of $7,000.

It is worth noting that on February 1, 2002, SSA increased the maximum standard fee amount to $5,300 from $4,000. This is the first time the fee has been increased since 1990 and simply represented a cost of living adjustment.

Thus, the attorney’s fees are usually only a fraction of the benefits you receive; depending on the amount of your past due benefits, it can be a very small fraction.

3. What is my case worth if I win?

The answer to this question depends on a number of factors including…how long you have been disabled, when or if you will ever return to work, the amount of your monthly benefit and whether you have eligible dependents.

For example, if you are 45 years old, your monthly benefit amount is $1,000, and you do not return to work before age 65; your case can easily be worth $250,000! This amount does not include the value of the Medicare or Medicaid insurance you will be eligible for after being found disabled. As many of you know, the price of medical insurance in middle age, with pre-existing medical conditions, can be staggering and not affordable. This of course assumes that an insurance company is willing to insure you.

4. Why you increase your odds of winning your case if you hire a Disability Attorney

There are many reasons hiring an attorney can significantly increase the odds of winning your case. One significant reason is that disability attorneys understand the complicated laws and regulations that determine success or failure. Two questions I always ask potential clients are, “Do you know what you need to prove in order to win your case?” and “If you do not know, how are you going to go about proving it?

You should hire an attorney who specializes in Social Security disability law. Furthermore, I believe it is important to hire an attorney who has expertise in representing people with your type of diagnosis. It is important that your attorney believes in your case and that they can win it. I suggest you ask the attorney how much experience they have with your type of diagnosis and how often do they win? Any disability attorney should be willing to provide you with this information.

5. What an Attorney should do to increase the odds of winning your case

From the beginning, the attorney should set forth a strategy that you both of you should follow to win your case. It is critical to understand what is necessary to prove your case and how you will go about winning it. The sooner you know this, the sooner you can take steps to execute the strategy and thereby increase your odds of winning. Thus, you should consult with and hire an attorney either when you file your claim or as soon thereafter as possible.

Based on my experience in representing clients nationwide (remember Social Security is federal law and not state specific); literally none of them had a strategy or plan on how to win their case before they hired me. This is important because most of them were simply “doing whatever SSA told them to do” while their claim was being processed. This included seeing SSA’s doctors for an examination that often results in a denial of their claim.

It is important to understand that SSA is only obligated to investigate your case and is not charged with approving it. I am not suggesting that SSA denies every claim; I’m simply stating that my experience after having successfully represented many clients whose claims were previously denied by SSA because evidence was not obtained, not reviewed or SSA focused on what it wanted to in order to support a denial.

In conclusion, if you are contemplating filing a claim for SSA Disability benefits, I encourage you to consult with an attorney as soon as possible to help you understand the process. The consultation should not cost you anything except your time. By understanding the process and having a strategy, you will significantly increase your odds of winning your case.

Congressional and Social Security’s statistics do not lie – it is penny wise and pound foolish not to hire a disability attorney.

[1] November 16, 2001 CONGRESSIONAL RECORD, Testimony of Honorable Robert T. Matsui of California, regarding the Attorney Fee Payment System Improvement Act 2001.

[2] November 16, 2001 CONGRESSIONAL RECORD, Testimony of Honorable E. Clay Shaw of Florida, regarding the Attorney Fee Payment System Improvement Act 2001.

Attorneys

These days, people seem to need an attorney for any and everything. Whether it be buying property, divorce, civil lawsuits, criminal defense, even buying a horse. Attorneys are available for every need and can be found to fit any budget.
Many people find that choosing an attorney can be a painful process. There are so many things to consider including experience, price, and availability. One of the biggest problems for people is that they cannot find an attorney suited for exactly what they need and end up severely disappointed.

There is no shortage of attorneys anywhere. Shop around, ask questions, and research the right kind of attorney for you. Choosing the right attorney makes a huge difference in the outcome of your issue. If you need an attorney to defend you in court, make sure he or she has been trained in criminal law and also make sure they have dealt with a situation similar to your own. Some attorneys specialize in felony cases, others in misdemeanors. If your attorney has previously been through the process that you will soon go through, it will be much easier. Your attorney can coach you and guide you if you are confused or indecisive. Other attorneys do not deal in lawsuits or crimes, they are specifically trained to aid in the creation of contracts. Any time you buy or sell something, you usually have to sign a contract agreeing to certain terms, these attorneys helped the seller or buyer come up with these terms and write them out officially. There are attorneys who specialize in different areas of business such as restaurants, appliances, or pets. Their job is to create a contract, or terms of sales agreement, in which their client will not be liable should any malfunction occur. Not only do these attorneys create the contracts, but they can also help you understand them before you sign them. Unfortunately, the numbers of divorces are rising and thus the number of divorce attorneys is rising with them. These attorneys are trained to aid in the process of divorce and in the process of distributing the couple’s assets. They work with you and the other attorney to come to an agreement between the couple or in court, should it lead there. They can analyze the marriage and suggest an appropriate compromise.

In any situation, attorneys can be expensive. Some offer their services for free to those who qualify and others are very expensive. Their rates, however, do not decide their availability. Expensive attorneys and cheap attorneys are very busy and, no matter what their cost, may not be available when you need them while other attorneys may have very open schedules.

People’s needs for an attorney may vary and the attorney market reflects these needs. Do your research, ask friends for recommendations, and ask questions before you decide. You need to be comfortable with your attorney and confident in his or her abilities because they are not working alone, they are working with you.