Some people who pay professionals to fill out their tax returns, mow their lawns, or color their hair cannot bring themselves to pay a lawyer to prepare an estate plan for them. They do not want to spend thousands of dollars on something that they think they can do themselves with will-writing software that sells for less than $100. It’s possible to get a very basic estate plan for $1,200 to $2,000 if you shop around, says Deborah Jacobs, a lawyer in New York City.
An experienced attorney can use legal software more efficiently than you can. More important, he or she can offer customized solutions if your situation is complicated. Your needs are too complex for a do-it-yourself estate plan if you must provide for a disabled child, you owe estate taxes, or you own a business. Consumer Reports tested three will-writing products in 2011 with the help of a law professor specializing in estates and trusts. We concluded that all were inadequate unless a very simple plan was required, such as one that leaves everything to a spouse, with no other provisions.
Jacobs suggests a compromise. “I encourage consumers to seek the help of a lawyer and I also tell them to shop aggressively on price,” she said. “You can go out and get multiple bids, just as you would if you were getting your house painted.”
Start by getting referrals to lawyers with expertise in estate planning from your accountant or financial planner, or check the websites of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys for estate-planning specialists in your area.
Then call a few and ask how much they will charge, if anything, to meet with you for an hour and discuss your estate planning needs. After your consultation, some attorneys will quote a flat fee for an estate plan; others bill by the hour and will estimate how much time it will take to draft the legal documents you need. Concentrate on negotiating the lowest price you can with the lawyers you like the best.