Expertise and integrity head the list of essential criteria.

    The way David Bize III, a certified financial planner with Investment Concepts in Oklahoma City, Okla., tells it, a woman consulted with him recently after her husband survived a heart attack. While reviewing their estate planning documents, which had been prepared by a prominent local estate planning attorney, Bize noted that their documents did not properly address estate tax planning issues nor was the client's trust funded. Bize referred the couple to another attorney, who redrafted the outdated documents and assured that the assets were reregistered as required.
    A year later the husband died, and with the proper documents in place, the estate paid taxes of approximately $50,000. Had he died from the heart attack, while the former attorney's plan was in effect, their estate tax would have been ten times that figure, Bize reasons.
    Another financial planner, Anthony J. Rossetti, president of Heritage Financial Services LLC in Winter Park, Fla., recalls sending a client for basic estate planning purposes to a local attorney who drafted unnecessary living trust documents for the client costing more than three times what Rossetti felt the documents should have cost. "The client was in his late thirties with no children and had no business interests or special needs that warranted that particular service," Rossetti says. Not surprisingly, the client was upset at the cost. "This obviously hurt my credibility with the client, since I had recommended the attorney."
    Sound familiar?
    Most financial advisors providing comprehensive financial planning services today are engaged in estate planning with clients, and many have had negative experiences with estate planning attorneys. Such black eyes can be costly. You could even lose clients if such incidents persist. In this litigious era, there's reason aplenty for having a formal process in place for selecting an estate planning attorney for your team and not leaving it, say, to a chance meeting of someone at lunch or a seminar who seems to fit the bill.
    "As a financial advisor, if you're holding yourself either to a fiduciary relationship with the client or just a level of excellence, you should have a formal process for evaluating outsourced needed client services," says Charlie Haines, president of a fee-only multifamily office in Birmingham, Ala., bearing his name. "If you're the quarterback of the team, you better know the skills of your teammates."
    An essential part of the process is selecting an estate planning attorney with the prerequisite expertise and with whom all parties are comfortable. Different estate planning attorneys gravitate to different areas of specialization within the estate and tax arena. As a financial planner, you're apt to have a good idea of what vehicles will accomplish your client's objectives, and it's only natural you would want to connect these clients with attorneys who have expertise and enjoy working in that area. The trick is doing it so it's a win-win situation for everyone-you, the client and the attorney.
    "My referral list is different for different clients, depending on their personality, temperament and financial circumstances," says Keith Newcomb, a financial planner and wealth manager at Full Life Financial LLC in Nashville, Tenn. "I've got favorites that do simple wills for nontaxable estates, others who are ideal for the noncharitably inclined, and some who have a passion for charitable gift planning."
    Given the pros and cons, what traits should you look for in selecting an estate planning attorney to represent your clients? Here's a checklist of criteria, which incidentally you can use as a template to select any outside professional:
    Competence and Expertise. Ideally, you want someone who has the expertise you can rely upon and who will take care of your clients in a competent manner.
    "Look for an attorney where at least 50% of their annual revenue is generated by providing estate planning services. Follow the money; it is a sure sign of learning what business expertise the attorney possesses. Additionally, consider attorneys who have joined estate planning committees, networks or councils. This shows a commitment to staying on top of their game," advises Mark LaSpisa, a CFP licensee and managing advisor of Vermillion Financial Advisors in South Barrington, Ill.
    Rossetti says, "We value the attorney's competence to explain concepts to our clients in terms they can understand. There's a common misconception that if someone is an attorney, that they are qualified to do estate planning, and they may not be, just as every financial advisor is not an expert in all areas of financial planning. "
    Competence and experience are also high on Bize's shopping list. "The attorney must have prepared estate planning documents for many persons with the same needs as my client," he says. "If asked specifically and directly, most attorneys will tell you for how many people they have prepared a certain type of document."
    Bize refers clients with less complicated planning needs to small-firm attorneys "because they are not expensive and many have the requisite experience. I refer families with net worths in excess of $5 million, who have a substantial amount of privately held stock, or charitable intent, to a large firm."
    La Spisa suggests that planners ask to see a copy of the attorney's sample estate planning documents. "This will allow a planner who is knowledgeable to evaluate the caliber of the template the attorney uses to begin drafting. For example, if the trust template is five pages long, chances are you don't have an attorney that prepares a lot of trust or provides them for higher net worth clients. If the attorney refuses to provide his/her template consider another attorney."
    Haines assesses the listening skills of the prospective attorney. He looks for attorneys who listen to the client and then describe the benefits of the two most likely strategic solutions. If the client likes the benefits, then the attorney outlines the features of the strategies. "What we don't want is an attorney who will describe the features of seven strategies and then put the burden on the client to choose," Haines says.
    A Collaborative Effort. Ideally, the relationship between you, the client and the estate planning attorney should be a collaborative effort.
    "We make sure the client fully understands the financial and psychological benefits to the strategies being employed," Haines says. "The attorneys appreciate the support for their work, and the clients feel even better about the process."
    Should planners attend meetings with attorneys and clients? This depends. Rossetti tries to maintain control throughout the estate planning process by having either himself or another planner in his firm attend several or all meetings with the attorney and his clients. "From that standpoint," he says, "we can protect our client's interests."
    LaSpisa also attends client meeting but cautions advisors to be careful. "Planners must be aware not to overstep their boundaries and commence practicing law in meetings," he warns. "The role of the planner is to facilitate quality communication between the client and the attorney. In that communication, he's bringing to the discussion facts about the client with which that attorney may not be familiar and questions that the client may fail to ask themselves."
    Excellent Follow-Up. Having an attorney who will ensure that the estate planning process is completed, and who is responsive to clients' needs, should be a requisite for any relationship. For example, consider removing attorneys from your recommendation list if they don't return telephone calls within a reasonable time.
    "Many attorneys just prepare documents, leaving the asset transfers to the clients, who in many cases aren't sure how to effect the transfers, which renders the documents useless," Bize contends. "Also, as estate laws change, most attorneys don't follow up with clients to advise them that an update or review of their estate planning documents is prudent."
    No Conflict Of Interest. It almost goes without saying that you need to trust any attorney you choose. You don't want an estate planning attorney to turn around, for example, and refer your client to someone else at a later time.
    As a matter of course, advisors licensed in particular areas should be wary of attorneys who hold similar credentials. Otherwise, you could ultimately lose the client. Bize makes sure attorneys with whom he deals are not insurance or securities-licensed or sharing an office with someone who is. "This is a red flag," he says.
    Attorneys and financial advisors need to participate in this process with a great deal of mutual respect as to what each professional can contribute. If you don't, it could become either a turf battle or a matter of professionals trying to show off to the client. In the end, the client just wants to trust their advisors to give them an estate plan that is the most appropriate for them. 

Bruce W. Fraser is a freelance financial writer in New York who has contributed to many publications. He can be reached at [email protected]. Visit him at