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My Estate Planning Attorney Quit!

My Estate Planning Attorney Quit!

Key Points:

  1. Estate planning is a lifelong process.
  2. Has your estate planning attorney done their own planning?
  3. Being proactive keeps costs

What do you do when your estate planning attorney walks away from the practice of law and sends you an “it’s been nice knowing you” letter? Or worse, suddenly dies leaving no associate or partner behind? The question—a real one I got from a real person—raises several important issues.

Proper planning is a process:

The question itself illuminated a fact that many people wishfully ignore: estate planning is an ongoing process rather than a one-time event. Many people approach estate planning like a wisdom-tooth extraction: let’s get it over with! But that won’t work.

Every time you acquire new property, trade trucks or tractors, open a new investment account, or buy additional life insurance you are making an estate planning decision. The decisions you make will either support or undermine your estate planning goals. In each instance, at least a brief discussion with your estate attorney will be appropriate. Sometimes in-depth counsel and advice are needed. Later (you hope!) there will be steps taken to carry out the plan (i.e. at your death or disability) and some professional help will be required again. Your family should be talking to the same attorney from year to year, not jumping from one attorney to another.

The best attorneys focus on the ongoing client relationship rather than a specific transaction. When you work with your professionals as partners (figuratively, of course) in this lifelong planning project, they will feel more accountable and responsive to you. Whenever you contact them, it’s like working with a friend instead of a “necessary evil.” A modest retainer fee keeps that attorney available for questions as they come up, without the penalty of a bill every time you call. Having your attorney on retainer means the attorney has a duty to let you know when laws change or other elements of your plan might need updating. Like the old adage “a stitch in time saves nine,” this sort of relationship usually costs less in the long run. It also provides more peace of mind along the way.

Someone once put it this way: some attorneys do planning to you, others plan for you, but the best ones will plan with you. If you have such a relationship with your attorney, you are on the right track!

Even good attorneys retire or die:

Never mind all the jokes about what happens to attorneys in the end! It is true that most will retire and all will die. As you talk to any attorney who might become your family’s planning advisor, ask them questions like these: “What happens to me when something happens to you? Do you have your own personal and professional plans in order? How are you going to assure that your clients’ needs are met when you retire or die?”

Many farm families work with a rural attorney who is practicing solo. A law practice has traditionally been very much about the lawyer, that brilliant guru who dispenses knowledge on command—the command being the hourly fee! When the guru dies, so does the law practice. That sudden loss of the trusted advisor will be a disruptive event for a family. Even in a multi-attorney firm, often only one does estate planning, so these same question must be asked.

An attorney who cares about clients will not ignore this issue. The client-oriented attorney must have a plan for the succession of the practice. It should involve a smooth transition over a reasonable period of time, anticipating emergency matters as well as the mundane and routine. The underlying business structure should support the client relationships through even death or retirement. Ask your attorney how his business will survive, how your needs will be met when he quits, and how much warning you’ll receive!

It just makes sense

It seems rather fundamental. Estate planning is a long-range proposition built on a long-term relationship, where both parties take their commitments seriously. An attorney who wants to plan your estate but hasn’t planned his own—including the ways it affects you—probably doesn’t deserve your business.


Article authored by Curt W. Ferguson and originally published in the Prairie Farmer magazine, October 2008 issue