Posts Tagged ‘flat fees’

When You Need to Talk With a Lawyer

OCTOBER 5, 2015 VOLUME 22 NUMBER 36

So often we field questions (on this website and in our practice) about whether people need to consult a lawyer. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is a terrific resistance to seeking legal advice. We lawyers don’t always help — our fees can be substantial, and unpredictable. We speak a language that sounds vaguely familiar but seems foreign to most people, and we often fail to translate — or even to recognize that our clients may not speak that language.

Too often lawyers treat the question dismissively. “Would you perform brain surgery on yourself?” we often ask. “Then why would you try to handle your own legal matter?”

That’s an unfair characterization. Legal help is seldom much like brain surgery. There are, of course, two big differences: brain surgery pretty much requires a patient who has been anesthetized, and it involves technical skills that are also unknown to most people, but also highly dangerous.

You can, in fact, handle most of your legal issues yourself. You are likely to do fairly well if you do, provided that you do plenty of research and have a basic understanding of the law before you start.

We don’t think most people should try to take care of their own legal matters, of course, and we’re not advocating it here. We just don’t want to terrorize you into hiring us. Instead, we want to convince you that legal representation is an expense worth incurring.

A better comparison might be with auto mechanics, or even plumbers. Can you change your own oil, or fix a leaky faucet? Of course you can. You will likely do just fine with either task. Similarly, you can probably find a health care power of attorney form online, fill it out and get it signed and witnessed. But there are some tasks — with your auto, with your plumbing, and with your legal affairs — better left to professionals.

So when do you need a lawyer? Of course it depends on your comfort level and time availability. I know how to change my car’s oil (it’s actually an electric car, but that’s a different story) but I choose not to do it. Why? Because I’d rather have it done professionally, and spend the extra time with my grandchildren, or finishing up the work I get paid for, or just raise a glass of wine instead. You might feel the same way about legal jobs — or you might not.

Before we leave the metaphor, let us make another observation: sometimes people who undertake their own auto maintenance (or plumbing, or legal work) mess it up. When that happens, the cost of fixing the problem may be well in excess of what it would have cost to turn the problem over to the professionals in the first place.

Some people take great pleasure in mastering disparate tasks for themselves. Others prefer to delegate when it makes good sense. When does it make sense in the legal world?

Complicated legal issues

Some things are harder to handle on your own, of course. You can figure out how to create a health care power of attorney, but are you as comfortable about your ability to create a living trust? Are you even sure you know whether you need a trust? How about funding of the trust? These issues are more complex than most simple documents.

High stakes

Your estate might be modest. Perhaps you own your house and a single bank account. Do you plan on leaving everything to your spouse, or to your only child? It’s hard to see how you will go very wrong by preparing your own will (though of course we have seen people who manage to do that). But if your estate is larger, or your family situation more complicated, you might benefit from getting legal advice.

Unusual legal problems

Do you need a guardianship or conservatorship for a family member who has become incapacitated? That’s a little out of the ordinary, and you will have a harder time finding help online or among your non-lawyer friends. Talk with a lawyer. Incidentally, the first thing the lawyer will probably do will be to explore alternatives to save you expense and legal complications. But that’s a point to be made later.

Why not hire a lawyer?

Most people are concerned about the likely cost of legal advice. Start your interview with a new lawyer by discussing fees. Will fees be flat or fixed? Or will they be hourly? If the latter, you have a harder time predicting the total fees (though they may ultimately be lower than flat fees). Ask the lawyer to honestly assess the likely total cost. Explore the possibility of setting a maximum fee, or terminating the representation if costs begin to escalate.

Interview more than one lawyer, but do it quickly. Make your first lawyer appointment and then immediately schedule a second (and maybe a third). Figure out which lawyer seems most responsive to your concerns, and most able to handle your legal problem. Ask friends and colleagues for their suggestions and for any experience they might have with your chosen lawyers.

Are you comfortable?

You might be talking with the best, the smartest, the most reasonably-priced lawyer in town. But if you don’t feel comfortable, the experience is not going to be positive. You should insist on getting calming assistance, and peace of mind — that’s a lawyer’s stock in trade.

[Next week: we’ll tackle which kinds of legal problems we most often see people foolishly trying to handle on their own.]

The Myth of the Simple Will

JUNE 15, 2015 VOLUME 22 NUMBER 22

“I don’t want anything complicated,” said our new client. “I just want a simple will.”

For almost four decades, we’ve been waiting for the client who wants a complicated will. We’re still waiting.

We hear the “I only want a simple will” request often. What clients really mean, of course, is “I want a cheap will.” That is, they don’t want to pay a lot for the legal advice or preparation of elaborate documents.

Our favorite variation is the client who wants a simple will, then tells us their assets are straightforward and their family situation ordinary. You know — the half-interest in a summer cabin in another state, the oil and gas interests in two other states and the closely-held family corporation that is worth somewhere between $1,000 and $10,000,000. And family situation? You know — one child has a developmental disability, another a drinking problem and the third is married to a spendthrift. But we’re just going to disinherit one, split things between the other two and trust them to work everything out.

We send a questionnaire to our prospective estate planning clients, so that we can figure out at least some of the possible issues during our first meeting — which is much more productive if we have the information at hand. Clients sometimes show up without having filled out the questionnaire, since they aren’t sure they want to hire us (hah! who wouldn’t want to hire us?) and they don’t want to go through the trouble of collecting information. More dangerous, though, are the clients who intentionally leave some of their assets off the questionnaire — in a misguided attempt, we suspect, to minimize the cost of their estate planning. That’s a little like not mentioning to the dentist that you have a persistent and painful temperature sensitivity on one tooth, hoping that it won’t need any expensive work.

Why do we even care about what assets you own? Isn’t it because we can charge you more if we know how wealthy you are?

No.

We need to know about your assets to figure out whether you have an estate tax issue. Are you pretty sure you aren’t worth the $5 million that is required before federal estate tax concerns? OK — but what about state estate taxes? Though Arizona doesn’t have one, the state where you have that summer cabin might impose one. And have you added in the face value of your life insurance policies? Also the trust your grandfather left for you, which you don’t think of as “yours”? Also the possible inheritance from your parents? Those questions are all on the questionnaire, so that we can discuss them with you.

One of the principal questions we are going to talk about with you is whether you should have a living trust. Don’t worry — we’re not going to order you to do anything. But we do want to be able to give you a realistic estimate of the cost of probating your estate, and what you might reasonably do to avoid or minimize that cost. Without good information, we can’t give you either estimate.

There are real costs associated with choosing a “simple” will. We want to be able to estimate those for you, so that you can make informed decisions. By the end of our initial conversation, we will almost certainly be able to give you a flat-fee estimate of the cost of preparing your estate plan, with at least a couple variations for you to consider. Then you can decide how much simplicity you can afford.

How often do our clients end up with what might be called a simple will? If we get to define “simple,” our estimate is about half the time — or perhaps slightly less often than that. But even clients with those simple wills also have financial powers of attorney, health care powers of attorney (with living will provisions) and an instruction letter; the entire product of our representation will almost always amount to at least a dozen pages of lawyer language. We’ll also provide a translation/guide to the documents, and we are very interested in helping you to understand the options, your choices and the documents themselves; we don’t charge more for answering questions, and we like to get the opportunity.

A word about flat fees: almost all of our estate planning is done on a “flat-fee” basis. We will quote you a fee in our initial consultation, and that’s what we will charge. Do you need four drafts and extensive revisions? No additional cost. Do you love the first draft, and need no changes? Great — we got it right. But we don’t reduce our fee for doing a good job on the first pass, either. We think that arrangement makes it easy and comfortable for both of us. You get as many appointments, revisions and discussions as you need. We get the comfort of knowing that we heard all your concerns and questions, and that we’ve had an opportunity to address everything.

Even a short, inexpensive will is not simple. It is a profound document, and it isn’t even possible to figure out what it ought to say until we’ve talked through some of the issues.

Oh, and whether your estate plan is simple or complex, inexpensive or less inexpensive, it needs to be reviewed and (probably) revised every five years or so. But that’s a different concern we need to grapple with.

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