A financial planner recently asked me the following:
Second, because this question comes up from time to time, what organization of estate planning attorneys do you recommend I use as a general resource? I just googled "estate planning attorney organizations", but I found several:
Which one should I start with? Assume the clients have assets of $1-$3M - not enough to worry about federal estate taxes, but big enough to be somewhat complicated, and definitely worth updating the will, doing the business and health care POAs, etc.
First, I'd say that it's better to get a referral from someone who has worked with an attorney, or any other professional for that matter, rather than simply to hire from a membership directory or Google results. However, if your referral network doesn't result in a reliable recommendation, membership in an estate planning organization can be one criteria for choosing an attorney, or developing a short list to investigate further.
I'm a member of three of the organizations this financial planner listed— ACTEC, NAELA, and the Boston Estate Planning Council. ACTEC stands for the American College of Trusts and Estates Counsel. It is the most selective of these groups and many of its members work for larger firms and represent clients with larger estates. Given its challenging process for membership, clients can have a high level of confidence in the abilities of its members. On the other hand, their members are likely to charge higher fees and to work primarily with clients with more assets.
NAELA is the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. Any attorney may join, but membership is expensive. This means that its members have a keen interest in elder law and are, on average, going to keep up-to-date on new developments and have more experience in the field than non-members. NAELA offers accreditation as an elder law specialist.
NAEPC stands for the National Association of Estate Planning Councils. There are 268 local councils around the country. Membership in the local councils includes attorneys, financial planners, accountants, and insurance brokers. While vetting for membership is not nearly as extensive as that for ACTEC, new members must be sponsored by existing members and approved by the local council. NAEPC also offers accreditation in estate planning for members who pass certain tests.
The American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys is essentially a marketing and practice management service for estate planning attorneys. Members receive services to help them run their practices, including a forms system for generating estate planning documents. AAEPA requires that members participate in 36 hours of continuing legal education annually. To the extent that a national company can create better forms and systems than individual practitioners, membership can mean that clients will receive a higher level of service and better drafted documents than clients of nonmembers. But nonmembers may also do just as well or better using other resources.
I was not familiar with the National Network of Estate Planning Attorneys and, frankly, found it difficult to figure out what it offers from its website. While its members may be excellent estate planning attorneys, it does not appear to be a good resource for selecting an attorney.
I was also unfamiliar with the American Association of Trusts, Estate and Elder Law Attorneys. It appears to have 19 members around the country, a number of whom I happen to know and think highly of. So, it could be a resource for finding an attorney, but it's reach is limited.
Other organizations that can be good resources for creating an initial list of potential attorneys to be vetted include: