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Estate planning is about more than arranging for the distribution of assets to your loved ones when you die. Wills and trusts are usually what come to mind when estate plans are discussed, but durable powers of attorney, living wills and the designation of someone to make health care decisions for you are only a few of the essential components of an effective estate plan.

Choosing the right attorney to guide you through the process of planning your estate is an important first step. The attorney you choose must be capable drafting wills and other documents, but you also need someone with the ability to explain complex legal and tax issues in a clear and easily understood way. You also want to know the attorney is willing to devote the time needed to answer your questions. Here are five tips for finding a qualified estate planning lawyer.

1. Understand what the attorney should do for you

The purpose of having an estate plan is to allow you to control the orderly distribution of your assets and financial holdings after your death, but it is much more. An experienced estate planning lawyer takes the time to learn a great deal about you before making recommendations. For instance, if you want to leave a portion of your estate to your child or another family member with special needs, your attorney can make it possible for you to do so without interfering the recipient’s Supplemental Security Income or other government benefits.

If you are the owner of a business, a skilled estate planning attorney can create a plan for ownership succession if you retire, become disabled or die. This can avoid having the business you worked hard to build sold because there was no plan in place to keep it operating.

Lawyers who make estate planning the focus of their practices have the ability to identify potential issues their clients might experience and develop strategies to avoid them or to minimize their impact. Structuring an estate plan to minimize tax liabilities is only one of the ways an experienced estate planning attorney can help.

2. Narrow down your choices

Get the names of a few attorneys and call them. Some of the things you want to find out during your conversations include:

  • The number of years the attorney has been in practice
  • The percentage of the lawyer’s practice devoted to estate planning
  • The academic degrees held by the attorney
  • Whether the attorney is certified as a specialist in estate planning
  • Whether the attorney speaking to you is the one who will handle your estate plan
  • An explanation of what the attorney usually includes in an estate plan
  • The fees the attorney charges and the specific services the attorney will perform

Some states, such as California and North Carolina, have programs allowing attorneys to be certified as specialists in estate planning. Certification usually requires the successful completion of a written examination to demonstrate proficiency in estate planning. The attorney must also devote a certain number of hours each year to practicing in the specific specialty.

3. The attorney you select should ask the right questions

You might have found the right person to prepare your estate plan if it seems the attorney is asking a lot of questions. The average person might have a general idea about what he or she wants in an estate plan, but it is the attorney who shows the person how to do it and suggests other things the client might need. For instance, you might tell your attorney you want your estate to go to your spouse. A skilled estate planning lawyer might ask: “What happens if you and your spouse die together in a common disaster.” It’s probably something you and your spouse never thought about, but a good attorney guides and directs you through the process of planning your estate.

4. Does your attorney recommend periodically reviewing your estate plan?

Superior estate planning attorneys know an estate plan is not something you do once and forget about. The attorney should recommend reviewing your estate plan every three to five years and sooner if any of the following events happen in your life:

  • Divorce or remarriage
  • Death of a spouse
  • Birth of children or grandchildren
  • Changes in the size of your estate
  • Changes to the state and federal tax laws
  • Relocation to a different state
  • Sale or purchase of a home

Attorneys with a solid background in estate planning should be able to recommend other situations that would warrant a review.

Review what you know and make the choice

These 4 tips should help you to find an attorney capable of guiding you through the process of developing your estate plan. Equally as important as legal knowledge is the lawyer’s willingness to spend time getting to know you to understand what your plan needs instead of making generic, one-size-fits-all recommendations.