How Much Should Your Estate Plan Cost?

You know you should get a will. Or maybe you should set up a trust. How do you know which one is right for your particular situation? What other documents should you have? Spoiler alert: you need more than just a will. How much will setting up your estate plan cost?

We get these questions a lot. And the answer isn’t necessarily black and white. There are a lot of things to consider when you are creating your estate plan, so when people ask how much it costs, we give them the lawyer answer: it depends. When we tell people this, we aren’t trying to be vague or misleading. It really does depend on several factors. And as you probably know, there are a lot of options available when it comes to your estate planning, so we thought it would be helpful to break things down a bit so you can decide what type of planning works best for you.

The DIY Online Plan

($179-250+ for a Basic Will Plan; $600+ for a Trust Plan)

These are the plans you do yourself online at sites like Legalzoom, Trust & Will or Mama Bear Legal Forms. You purchase a plan, choose your state, answer some questions, and voila! You now have documents that are (hopefully) legal in your state and will (possibly) work the way you think they will when you become incapacitated or die. The problem here is that if you aren’t working with an experienced attorney who can walk you through the choices you are making when filling out the forms, you really don’t know if you’re making the right choices for your family. Now, if you are a lawyer or paralegal who works in a law firm doing estate planning, then you’re probably okay to do your own estate plan online and know with some degree of confidence that the choices you are making will have the legal effect you think they will. The good news is that if your plan doesn’t work the way you thought it would because you didn’t actually understand the legal effect of the choices you made, you won’t actually know – because you’ll be dead. Your family will know though, and you can be sure they’ll be the ones left cleaning up the mess. 

The Attorney Who is Contracted by Your Employer or Union, aka the General Practitioner Who Also Does Wills 

(Free to $500 for a Basic Will Plan; $500+ for a Trust Plan)

A lot of companies or unions have contracts with attorneys who will do your will plan for free or a significantly discounted fee. This is probably better than doing it yourself online, right? You would think so, but it might not be. Here’s why: in general, attorneys who are offering these services are not estate planning attorneys. They are either general practitioners who do a little bit of everything, or they have a primary focus such as personal injury or family law and they do wills on the side as an added value to their clients or as a way to get some easy income. If you’ve ever heard the term “a jack of all trades is a master of none”, this is what you should be thinking when working with this type of setup. The attorneys are probably very good attorneys, but they aren’t usually well-versed in estate planning. They normally use form templates that they cut and paste for each client. They don’t do a lot of customization to account for each family’s unique circumstances, and they may not even walk you through different scenarios to make sure your documents reflect the outcomes you would want should that scenario play out. They might not even meet with you at all. There’s a reason these attorneys don’t charge much for doing these plans. It’s because they don’t put a lot of time and effort into getting to know the client and their goals. Sadly, the plans tend to work only a little bit better (and sometimes worse) than ones prepared online without an attorney. 

Non-attorneys Who Partner with Lawyers 

($500+ for a Basic Will Plan; $1000 for a Trust Plan)

Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about non-attorneys, financial advisors for example, who offer estate planning services for their clients. Not only is this a bit concerning, it’s probably unethical if the Financial Advisors aren’t extremely careful. Here’s how they usually work: They will tell you that you need an estate plan (so far so good), and that they work with attorneys who draft the documents (also okay so far). The scary part occurs when the Financial Advisors (not the attorneys) are the ones educating their clients about the law and making legal recommendations about how they should set up their estate plan. This is called the unauthorized practice of law. If a non-attorney offers legal advice, that is a huge red flag. 

Now, if your financial advisor recommends you get an estate plan, describes various documents associated with that plan, refers you to an attorney who is knowledgeable about estate planning, and then the attorney gives the legal advice and drafts the documents, that is perfectly fine and the way it should be. Again, the cost is lower because the actual lawyers aren’t doing all of the work they should be doing, and it’s often just a document mill with the focus on getting plans drafted and signed rather than creating plans that will actually achieve the clients’ goals. If you are considering going this route, do your homework first. Make sure an experienced attorney is the one giving you the advice on how to set up your estate plan and make sure you are asking questions to ensure your plan is set up the way you want it to be. 

The Experienced Estate Planning Attorney

($1500+ for a Basic Will Plan; $4000+ for a Trust Plan)

If you’re looking for an attorney that will help you create an estate plan (simple or complex) that will cover all the bases and consider multiple scenarios, you’ll want to work with an attorney or firm that focuses primarily on estate planning. Estate planning can be more complex than people realize, so having someone who makes it their main practice area helps ensure that your plan will work the way you want it to. There are a lot of experienced estate planning attorneys out there, and no two firms are exactly the same. Even with firms that focus exclusively on estate planning and related services, the fees can vary depending on the specific services provided. For example, some firms will charge $1500 for a basic will plan and others will start at $2500. What’s the difference if you’re  getting the same basic documents? 

The difference is in the service offered beyond the basic documents. Some firms are very hands on with their clients and have a relationship based focus, where others focus more on document preparation. You normally won’t see the lawyer again after you sign your documents unless you go back to them for updates. With a relationship-based firm, you’ll be contacted by the firm for the life of your estate plan to ensure it’s updated when needed and that everything is set up as it should be. 

As long as you are working with an attorney who asks you questions about your goals and helps you plan accordingly, the choice is yours with regard to what kind of relationship you want your family to have with the firm. If you’re looking for a firm that offers white glove service and also serves as a resource for you and your loved ones as your family and life change over the years, then the fees will be higher to support that level of service. If you’re looking for a comprehensive estate plan without the relationship focus, there are firms that offer that as well. It’s important to consider what is best for you and your family when considering what type of firm you want to work with to create and maintain your estate plan. 

The Bottom Line

Like most things, you get what you pay for. If the price is low, you are probably not getting the benefit of an experienced estate planning attorney’s expertise and time, and your estate plan may fall short of your goals. If you are paying a higher fee, you’re paying for that time and expertise. There is a reason attorneys are required to go to law school and pass bar exams. The law can be complex – even for those who want a “simple will.” If you don’t understand the law and how it works when you die – even with a will – you shouldn’t be doing your own estate plan. Find an experienced estate planning attorney who will help you create a plan that will work for your family when they need it, rather than leaving a mess because you wanted to save some money.