How Do I Choose An Estate Planner?

Jan 11, 2008

There is no “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” or “UL” rating for Attorneys, Insurance and Financial advisors. And, to make matters more confusing, in Michigan, anybody can call themselves an “Estate Planner” with no formal training or credentials, whatsoever. This makes choosing a good planner a daunting task. One of my fears is that it is so daunting that it prevents people who really need to plan from seeking appropriate help.

Free Seminars,” and Radio and Television commercials touting websites and services abound today. Too often, these are offered by practitioners who are not qualified. There is a substantial amount of misinformation out there. While some of these services may well be legitimate, sorting out the accurate from inaccurate information is the challenge.

I encourage clients to look for certain “credentials.” Not that credentials, by themselves, qualify a person to adequately advice about good Estate Planning, but it helps “winnow” out those who are clearly not qualified. And, credentials presuppose a certain amount of formal education, training, and sometimes experience in the discipline of Estate Planning. If a planner is an active member of their local Estate Planning Council (which is affiliated with the National Association of Estate Planning Councils), they will have to have one or more designated credentials related to Estate Planning. They are also likely to be up to date on current issues and techniques. I have found this to be a good starting source to find qualified individuals. Having a designation as a CLU, CFP or LUTC for life insurance and financial professionals generally means they have had a certain amount of training in the estate planning area. Advanced degrees (for lawyers and accountants) such as a Masters Degree in Taxation, or a Master of Laws in Taxation or Estate Planning are also a measure of qualification.

Experience is also important. Clients should “interview” a prospective advisor before engaging their services. Most of us are glad to talk to clients for a reasonable period of time at no charge, in order to discuss our qualifications, how we work and how we can help a client. Fair questions are: How long has the individual been engaged in Estate Planning? What percentage of his or her business involves Estate Planning? How many plans or Estate Planning clients does he or she serve each year? How often do they attend professional Continuing Education programs in Estate Planning to stay current (The Michigan Bar Association has a great continuing legal education program which offers a lot to lawyers to stay up to date. Some of us “older” attorneys are not required to have any continuing education -- but we should attend anyway)? Do they have representative clients who would be willing to serve as a reference (note that this may be difficult, because of client confidentiality concerns)? How much and how do they charge for their services? And it wouldn’t hurt to ask that Estate Planning Council member if they attend regularly.

In the end, it is important that you--the client--be ultimately comfortable with your advisor. It may be that he or she is imminently well-qualified in terms of knowledge, experience, and credentials. But if you cannot build a comfortable and trusting relationship, the experience will not be satisfying. I always advise clients to find advisors who they trust and feel comfortable with and stay with those advisors.

Thanks for reading


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