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How to protect your family beyond death — without losing your shirt

  • Estate planning fees can range broadly, depending on your wealth and the complexity of your situation.
  • You can buy a package of estate planning documents online for less than $150, but this might not be enough for you.
Daughter with ailing father
Tomas Rodriguez | Picture Press | Getty Images

Estate plans are an essential piece of the financial planning puzzle, but here's a question people will struggle with: How much should you pay for one?

Here's the answer: "It depends on what you're looking for."

The problem that middle-class investors run into is that there's no real way to benchmark estate planning fees — which can include either hourly rates for an attorney or a fee for "package" of core estate planning paperwork.

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Those expenses can add up depending on how complex your case is: Say, if you need to purchase life insurance to fund a trust or you need to hire a trust administrator, you can expect to pay more.

"A lot of people do one of two things: They go for the cheapest price," said Stacy Singer, regional trust and advisory practice executive at Northern Trust.

"Also, often instead of making sure that the professional is qualified, they go with a recommendation from a friend," she said.

Here's the due diligence you'll need to undertake before you settle on the professional who'll handle your last will and testament.

Components of pricing

Lawyer reviewing will with widow
Rod Morata | Getty Images

The cost of hiring an estate planning attorney will differ based on the market you're in.

For instance, a lawyer in Green Bay, Wisconsin, may charge somewhere between $250 and $300 an hour, but you could see double that amount in New York and Washington, D.C., said Stephen Bigge, a CPA and partner with Keebler & Associates.

Experience plays a role, too. For instance, if you're in search of a lawyer to help you pass on your family business or an attorney who focuses on special needs planning, you might pay more for that level of expertise.

"Any family law attorney can do estate planning, but can they do it well?" asked Michael J. Searcy, president of Searcy Financial Services in Overland Park, Kansas.

"If you have issues related to transitioning a family business, you need an estate planner who understands tax and business law," he said.

More than documents

Lawyers
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For a fixed price, running upward from $3,500, according to Bigge, estate planning attorneys may offer a package of core documents.

This typically includes a revocable trust to help keep assets out of probate, a last will and testament, a living will that outlines your medical treatment in case you're incapacitated and a durable power of attorney.

Meanwhile do-it-yourselfers can draft a last will, power of attorney and living will on LegalZoom for as low as $149.

What you should consider is whether those documents on their own are sufficient to fully address your situation. Complexity drives cost, said Singer of Northern Trust.

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"If you have stocks, bonds and cash, then that's simpler than someone with a family business," she said. "The other complexity is in terms of what an individual wants in the document."

In one case, a client had a very straightforward plan for the distribution of assets, but a provision for what should happen if everyone in the family passed away together wound up being 12 pages long.

"This was something that made the plan more expensive," Singer said. "People don't necessarily think about that — they think assets are simple."

What to expect

Forces reshaping the financial advisory landscape range from regulatory and technology-related changes to shifting demographics and investor preferences.
Thomas M. Barwick | Getty Images
Forces reshaping the financial advisory landscape range from regulatory and technology-related changes to shifting demographics and investor preferences.

Here are a few suggestions for ensuring you select the right professional and that you're paying the right price for your situation:

• Be selective: Talk to your accountant or your financial advisor about who might be a good fit for you. If you're really starting at ground zero, search for an attorney through the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel or your local bar association, said Singer.

Interview multiple estate planners: If an attorney will give you a free consultation, be ready to talk about the details of your situation and see how they define the scope of your project. What do you get for the fee you're paying?

Further, if your estate planner is proposing a solution that may be complex and costly, ask him or her to explain why.

"Have a conversation," said Searcy. "Give me some examples where you had a client who had a situation like mine, tell me what you did and how it worked."

Get ready to bring in other advisors: Estate planning is more than just coming up with a package of documents – it could mean discussing family dynamics or highlighting other potential problem areas in your finances.

"Ask the estate planner if he is open to your CPA or wealth adviser joining the meeting," said Martin M. Shenkman, an estate and tax attorney in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

"Regardless of whether you have that done, an estate planner that welcomes other advisers is a good sign," he said. "One that shuns other advisers is cause for worry."

Address your fees: Given the wide range for estate planning costs, be sure to discuss those expenses up front.

"It's well known today that talking about fees on the front-end of a relationship is an appropriate thing to do," said Alan Rothschild, an estate planning attorney at Page Scrantom Sprouse Tucker & Ford in Columbus, Georgia.

"You don't know what a project costs until you know what is," he said.