One of the first things many people ask when talking to an estate planning attorney is “How much does it cost to make a will?” On its face, it’s a reasonable question: legal services can be expensive, and people naturally want to know what they will be spending. But it’s not the best question to ask when you are looking to create a will or an estate plan, and it’s certainly not the first one you should be asking. And while a good estate planning attorney will let you know what to anticipate as far as the cost of your estate plan, most lawyers worth their salt won’t be able to answer this question—at least, not right off the bat.
In fact, you should be very hesitant to hire an attorney who gives you a firm answer to the question “What do you charge for a will?” It would be kind of like walking into a hospital and asking, “What do you charge for a surgery?” In that case, the answer should certainly vary depending on whether you need a mole removed or a heart-lung transplant. The hospital staff isn’t going to just give you a price. They are going to ask you questions about your health, and run tests to determine your condition. Similarly, in the case of a will, the focus should be on identifying your needs first before discussing costs.
Part of being a good estate planning attorney is being an ethical estate planning attorney. An ethical estate planning attorney will charge you a fair price for the services you receive. An ethical estate planning attorney will also make sure that the services you receive are the services that you need—not more, and not less.
But how do you know what services you need? Well, that depends on two things: your goals, and your circumstances. For most people, especially those with young children, a primary goal is “to protect my family.” A good estate planning attorney will encourage you to dive deeper.
What does protecting your family look like to you? It may mean that you have a guardian lined up in case something happens to you and your child’s other parent. It may mean that if you die while your children are young, their surviving parent will be able to provide for them financially without needing to work right away. It may mean that money is available for your children’s higher education.
You may have other goals, too. To provide for a family member with special needs. To keep your family from fighting over your estate. To protect assets from creditors. To minimize taxes. A thoughtful attorney will spend time talking to you to help you identify goals that you may have, but have never clearly articulated. All of that will drive what your estate plan looks like—and what it costs.
Even if you have the exact same estate planning goals as your best friend or neighbor, your estate plan may still wind up looking very different. Why? Because your life situations are probably different. You likely have different assets, different heirs and beneficiaries, different exposure to risk.
A good estate planning lawyer asks a lot of questions, many that you may not have thought about. You might contact a law office looking for a will. A will is the building block of an estate plan, and most people need them. But even if your estate is modest, a will is probably not all you need. Many people who come looking for a will are focused on the question of, “Who will get my assets after I die?” They have not considered other equally important questions like, “Who will make important decisions for me while I’m still alive, if I can’t make them for myself?” “How can I make sure my family gets as much as possible of my estate, and the government gets as little as possible?” and “Will my family be prepared to manage their inheritance?”
In other words, you might be looking at the future through a window that’s one square inch. Part of your estate planning attorney’s job is to expand the window so you can see the big picture—and get ready for it.
If you’re asking about what the cost of a will, you’re asking the wrong question. A will is a document; having one prepared can be a transaction. But it should be more than that.
A will is a document, but what it represents is your family’s peace of mind and security. And those things are not contained within a piece of paper. When you hire an estate planning attorney, you should be creating a relationship with someone who understands your goals and helps you achieve them. It may take only a few weeks to create an estate plan customized to your situation and your family’s needs, but your relationship with your estate planning attorney shouldn’t end there.
Your attorney should be available to you through the years as your circumstances and needs evolve. You may accumulate wealth, have children, and go through other changes. When you pay for a will and other estate planning documents, you are not just paying for documents. You’re paying for the guidance of someone who knows both the law and your unique situation, and who is genuinely invested in doing the best for you.
Start by getting recommendations for estate planning planning attorneys from people you trust. And feel free to ask them, “What do you charge for a will?” But remember that the right answer to that question will be, “Tell me more about you and your family.”