People find professional partners like attorneys in all sorts of ways. Sometimes its through marketing and advertising, sometimes through friends or professional referrals. However it is that you find yourself sitting down with someone, the next question should be: Is this person the right partner for me?
First though, I just want to take a moment to define “asset protection” as opposed to other practice areas like general estate planning and elder law. Simply put, the goal of an asset protection attorney is to protect what you’ve earned for you and for your beneficiaries to the fullest extent of the law. Traditional estate planning is focused on one thing, transferring assets at death. That is an important goal and an essential part of asset protection planning, but asset protection goes far beyond simple wealth transfer. An asset protection lawyer should be able to talk about not just the risks of probate, but of tax consequences, long-term care costs, medical costs, risk of lawsuits and divorce (for both you and your kids) and all the other potential pitfalls life, and death, have to offer. People are living longer and incurring greater medical costs, divorce rates and lawsuits continue to rise. In this climate, asset protection is more essential than ever. So how do you choose the right asset protection attorney?
There are a few questions you can ask and things you can look for to determine whether the attorney sitting across the table is the right partner for you. The first question, which can come as a surprise to many is: Is the person sitting across from you an attorney? Many people are unaware that some law firms use paralegals and even salesmen to conduct many of their client meetings while the lawyer themselves takes a back seat. Now, that’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with using paralegals to conduct certain client meetings and many paralegals have a great deal of legal knowledge. However, a non-attorney cannot give legal advice or make recommendations. Additionally, a paralegal may be extremely competent in their training, but might miss spotting major issues that an attorney could pick up on. In any case, it is essential to know who you’re talking to, their qualifications, what their role really is within the firm and what their relationship will be with you going forward.
Next up, are they asking about you or talking about themselves? This can provide a useful insight into the type of firm and their attitude going forward. An attorney who only talks about themselves and specific things they can do is like a financial advisor who aggressively pushes annuities or a waiter insisting you try the fish special; their focus is on selling you, not serving you. A good attorney will take the time and ask the questions to learn about you, your family, your goals and your concerns. Their focus should be on understanding your situation and solving those problems, not pushing any particular product.
Do they have a process? This is not unique to asset protection attorneys, but it’s something I’ve found to be of tremendous value within my practice both for the team and for the families we serve. Many attorneys, and I count myself in this group, are not naturally organized. We tend to take notes, scribble down ideas and want to dig into crazy arguments. This is a lot of fun for the lawyer and a major headache for the family. A good asset protection attorney should be able to walk you through the steps of the process, give you an accurate timeline and let you know what they’ll provide and what’s needed from you at each step. Having systems and processes is essential to a smoothly running practice that serves the best interests of its clients.
Fees. What are they and how open is the firm about them? If any attorney won’t tell you their fee structure, get up and walk. Plain and simple. Now, that’s if you’re talking to the attorney themselves and they have a solid understanding of your situation and goals. It is unreasonable and unfair to ask the person who answers the phone what the cost would be to address your specific situation. In fact, the person on the phone is often legally barred from answering those types of questions. Even the attorney can be put in a rough place when they’re asked to quote fees without having an accurate understanding of your situation. There’s two basic ways attorneys are generally paid for this kind of work: hourly rate or fixed fee. If it’s an hourly rate, that’s a number you can generally get right off the bat and often with a rough guess at the number of hours. If it’s a fixed fee, then the attorney needs to have a full understanding of the issue. No one walks into a mechanic and says, “My car won’t run, before you even look at it, tell me what it will cost to fix it.” A much fairer question is, “My car won’t run, what will it cost for you to take a look at it and tell me the cost to fix it?” As an aside, a good asset protection attorney should be willing to meet with you at little to no cost for an hour or so to discuss your situation so they can provide you an accurate assessment.
The final thing I would look for in a good asset protection attorney is their on-going support system for you. With traditional estate planning, most people do the planning, stick the will in a safe and forget about it. That’s fine if you plan on everything being sorted out by the Probate Court later, but that sort of planning does nothing to ensure your lifesavings are protected for yourselves or your children. Life changes. And even when life doesn’t change, the law changes, the world changes around us. The Secure Act fundamentally changed IRAs and 401ks on January 1, 2020. State and Federal bills change the tax landscape every few years. Medicaid/Medicare rules change on a nearly monthly basis. What was true five or ten years ago is likely not true today. A good asset protection attorney will want to stay in touch so they can help you adjust to your life changes and the changing legal landscape.
It likely comes as no surprise that at the Rutkowski Law Firm you meet with an attorney who will ask you questions and design a custom plan for you, following a clear process, providing up-front fee information and providing a variety of on-going support structures. If you’re interested in scheduling a virtual consultation with an attorney, please contact us.