The Care of Our Child is Left to . . .
February 24, 2010 10:33 AM   Subscribe

What is a reasonable cost for setting up a will?

We have no major assets. Just your standard checking and savings accounts with little to no money in them. I have some savings bonds that haven't matured yet, and I think my husband has a small stock or two with dividends of less than $1. So basically, we just want to set up a, "Here's where our son should go and how he should be cared for. If those people are unable or unwilling to do so, he should go with these people. Appropriate numbers and addresses" type will. It really doesn't seem like it should be all that involved, but I am not a lawyer. Yes, neither are you, likely.

I've called around to a couple of agencies and even solo practitioners, and the cost I'm being quoted is something like $300 - $500 for the consultation and upwards of $400/hour for preparing the letter. It seems crazy to me to spend $1000 on this. It makes sense if we had a bunch of stocks, bonds, and other major assets that may require greater understanding or handling, but we don't. I was told these prices even after I explained what we were looking for.

We thought we might be able to just write up our wishes, make copies, have all the copies notarized and give a copy to the appropriate people to hang on to. But it seems on further reading this wouldn't necessarily hold up in court as well as a lawyer done will should our relatives decide to get all crazy and contest it.

So it seems that we may, in fact, need a lawyer, but do we really need to pay $1000 for one? I think we could reasonably afford about $600 overall and that might be pushing it. I mean, mostly we really want something legally in place for what should happen to our son and the people who we asked to take him and people we asked to him in the event those people can't are all on board and understand their roles and position in this. So given that we pretty much have everything set up to have a will made, how much is reasonable to pay?

And I've asked friends for references. I've looked at the find-a-lawyer wiki for the low cost section, and I can't seem to locate either legal aid or a law school clinic in the area that deal with estate planning.

(Bonus points if you can refer me to a reasonably cost T&E lawyer in the Greater Boston area.)
posted by zizzle to Law & Government (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
IAAL, IANYL, and I'm not a trust and estates lawyer. $1000 sounds like a lot to me, unless the lawyer is also going to set up a trust for you, and possibly do power of attorneys. Maybe look into solo/small firms near you, who are likely to be more general practitioners but have this experience.

I think that the answer to this depends as much on what you want to happen to your son as it does what your assets are. By that I mean, if you're going to will your son to people who will want him and understand your wishes, and you don't think there is someone who is going to contest that, you are less likely to need the lawyer than you are if you're going to send him to someone that your whole family hates. (What constitutes a valid will also varies by state, so be aware of that as you're going along - I know not what MA requires).

Also, keep in mind that you might not have a lot of assets now, but if a will is set up properly, the $1000 can be a one time fee that will cover you when you do have a lot of assets. And, life insurance is an asset, so if you have a bunch of life insurance (which, IMO, with a kid you should consider), there may be more assets in the end.

Also, a will without a trust won't keep your heirs out of probate court, if that's a consideration.
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:57 AM on February 24, 2010

$400 an hour? Who do these guys think they are, associates at Sullivan and Cromwell? I work for an insurance company and we really don't like paying our litigators more than $150/hour if we can help it, regardless of where they're located. Much happier at $125. Some markets we can't get below $200, but $250 is an upper limit.

You should be able to do this for $600 easy, particularly given what you're talking about. Check the yellow pages. Those guys whose pictures are on the back? This is their bread and butter.

I doubt you can get this taken care of at a law school clinic though. Lots of misdemeanor defense/prosecution, landlord/tenant, family, and guardian ad litem stuff. This sort of transactional thing isn't what most of them are set up to do, and the process of probating a will 1) can take way longer than a semester or two, and 2) is generally funded by the estate, so there's not a huge need to get this done for free.
posted by valkyryn at 11:07 AM on February 24, 2010

It also may be worth calling sole practitioners, taking a minute or two to explain what you're looking for and how simple your circumstances are, and offering $500 for the work to see what they say.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:09 AM on February 24, 2010

My Quaker meeting has had some legal work done by a local lawyer. He has been willing to work with us to cut costs in two ways:

1. Reviewing a document we've prepared.

2. Agreeing to do what he could for X amount.

We have had a relationship with him in the past, so I'm not sure how open a lawyer would be do doing either of these things from a cold call. But I thought I'd toss it out there, for if you can't find a lawyer for a more affordable price to do the work you need done.
posted by not that girl at 11:18 AM on February 24, 2010

I'm in the exact situation you are (no major assets - a house with a mortgage, a car, and a bit of life insurance). Married with one kid. My primary reason for a will was guardianship also.

I emailed 3 local trust & estate lawyers and got 3 radically different quotes. I went with one whose flat rate for this type of will is $450. This includes reciprocal wills for me and my husband ($350) and a durable power of atty and advance directive for each of us ($100). All the drafting, any corrections or changes (within reason), and the execution are all included in the fee.

The most expensive quote was $1150! I'm in Oregon.
posted by peep at 11:21 AM on February 24, 2010

OK, so after posting I realize my comment is not an answer, just a personal story. You say you've contacted multiple lawyers already. Maybe call a few more and mention that you don't believe you need a revokable living trust and ask for their guidance on that, and if they can give you a quote with and without it.

After meeting with our lawyer, he explained that we really did not need one because of our limited assets and their complexity, and if we had, it would have been quite a bit more expensive. I wonder if the attorneys you've contacted are assuming you would be setting up a revokable living trust.
posted by peep at 11:26 AM on February 24, 2010

I was an estate lawyer before my son was born. (Not in your jurisdiction, however.) Cost will depend on where you are located. $1000 may not be unreasonable for your area (in fact, given that it's Boston, I don't think it is). Low-cost and legal aid will not do estate planning.

It seems crazy to me to spend $1000 on this. It makes sense if we had a bunch of stocks, bonds, and other major assets that may require greater understanding or handling, but we don't. I was told these prices even after I explained what we were looking for.

I'm not trying to be harsh in saying this, but: First, someone with a substantial estate will be paying far more than $1,000 in estate planning expenses. Second, what's more important, a bunch of stocks and bonds or your kid? People often say to me, "But I only want to protect my kid, not deal with extensive assets!" I think this is a very backwards way of looking at the world (and I say that as a parent) -- who cares what happens to money after you die? But I DEFINITELY care what happens to my kid.

Regardless, doing a will, even a simple one, is not a negligible investment of time on my part. Even if I only meet with the clients once at the beginning and once to do the signing, that's typically at least two hours, and then there's the time that even simple wills take to write. (And I have to say, even the clients who insist they already have the information ready rarely do have all the information ready that I actually need, and are likely to call several times with additional questions or changing their mind repeatedly; frequently even if it's the right information it's incomplete and I have to spend precious time either contacting the client to finish it out or looking up what county something's in or whatever.)

Finally, calling lawyers and protesting that you only want something "simple" and their costs are too high telegraphs a few things to them: First, that you don't understand the time investment that goes into the "simple" will and don't value their time; Second, that you're more likely to be a deadbeat (any practice management training you do at all will warn you that clients who complain about costs upfront are far more likely to either not pay the bill or to sue later); Third, that you have not needed legal services in the past because you aren't savvy in how they work, so you are unlikely to bring them repeat business or recommend them to your profitable friends, so working with you on the cost isn't of particular interest to them. I specifically focused my practice on young families with children who couldn't afford high fees for wills, but there was only so low I could go before I wasn't covering my overhead. I received probably a dozen calls a month, ranging from, "When my dad had a will written in 1950 it cost $80 and I don't understand why you cost more!" (really!) to "But I can buy a kit at Office Max for $20, so you should be willing to do it for no more than $40! That's a reasonable fee!" (really!) It's unfortunately since you're simply being honest and upfront, but these are the same things "problem" clients lead with, so in many cases you're being shunted off because of that.

You may find lower costs if you look at general practice attorneys OUTSIDE the Greater Boston area. Find a small-town lawyer and the per-hour costs may be more tolerable. As long as they're licensed to practice in your state, it'll be fine.

@valkyryn: "I work for an insurance company and we really don't like paying our litigators more than $150/hour if we can help it, regardless of where they're located." That's because you hand out bulk work so they give you a bulk rate, and you pay reliably; but trust me, it gets passed around until the lowest man on the totem pole is stuck with it and hates doing it, because if it's lower than the firm's target billing rate, he's going to get penalized for it in many firms.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:34 AM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Eyebrows McGee, those are all really good points but there's also the very real fact that late-20s somethings with $60k in student loans, childcare expenses and daycare that are 70 - 80% of take home daycare/month need to, you know, feed their kid, too. So, yes, $1000 is no small amount of money to us, and no, we are not likely to bring repeat business to anyone because we don't know too many other people with kids.

I fully appreciate the value of a good lawyer's time. I really, really do. I have friends with law school loans. I get it. But we really just can't spend $1000. It's not financially possible, so yes, the cost does seem outrageous to me because it's also a reflection that perhaps lawyers don't really understand that many people do not have that type of financial maneuverability. And that's really our problem. The finances just do not exist.

And, no, we've never needed legal resources before because, well, we've never had cause to need legal resources for. Perhaps our inexperience is getting us. I don't know. But the costs that they're asking all told is well above our monthly take home pay after rent and daycare that we sorta need for food, dig?

valkyrn, yeah, that's what I thought too --- that somewhere around $600 is reasonable.

As a second option --- is it possible to create a will in a state we don't live in? Like, we could set something up where the relatives who would take our son live because in those states that cost would be considerably cheaper. But I don't know if we need to create it in the state in which we are residents or not.....
posted by zizzle at 11:52 AM on February 24, 2010

Quicken Willmaker which in association with Nolo. Probably the same thing as on the Nolo website / books but with prompted questions.
posted by smackfu at 12:08 PM on February 24, 2010

I absolutely understand your issue (and it's why I focused my practice on families like yours), but I'm trying to show you why you're having trouble finding an affordable lawyer. And if you're leading with what you've posted here, you're frustrating the lawyer (or the receptionist) before you even begin, and you're not going to get any traction.

Are there not more rural/inexpensive parts of Massachusetts? (I know it's an expensive state generally but it can't all be as expensive as Boston!) I would seriously call around to some general practice attorneys out in less-populated areas, see how much of it you can do by e-mail, and then take a day-trip for the signing. They're likely to be far less expensive and far more willing to negotiate on fees. (And they deal with a broader range of clients, so they're often more welcoming to legal n00bs. ;) ) They'll probably appreciate that you understand they provide high-quality legal services at a lower cost than Boston.

the cost does seem outrageous to me because it's also a reflection that perhaps lawyers don't really understand that many people do not have that type of financial maneuverability
It's not (for the most part); it's a reflection of the fact that overhead costs are high -- not just because lawyers have student loans, but staff, office, equipment, malpractice insurance, etc. A lawyer making $100,000 a year and billing 2,000 hours who's being billed out at $300/hour is making $50/hour billed; the rest of that $300/hour is paying support staff, office costs, insurance costs, etc.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:09 PM on February 24, 2010

>As a second option --- is it possible to create a will in a state we don't live in? Like, we could set something up where the relatives who would take our son live because in those states that cost would be considerably cheaper. But I don't know if we need to create it in the state in which we are residents or not.....

Your will should be drafted so that it is valid wherever you live when you die. Because it will be (1) the state where you live when you die and (2) the state where you own real estate when you die that will be dispositive. One of the benefits of going to a lawyer rather than using a Quicken form is that the will is most likely to be properly drafted, to account for these things. Remember that the fee that you pay for this one-time service will probably cover you until your kids are grown. A fee of $1,000 is about $60 per year for those 18 years.
posted by yclipse at 2:27 PM on February 24, 2010

Our set up was just like Peeps above. Cost us $500 for the package - reciprocal wills, power of attorney arrangements, basic stuff.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 3:03 PM on February 24, 2010

Are either of you still in college? I got my will done (free, I think) at student legal services at my university.
posted by bentley at 4:32 PM on February 24, 2010

I live in NYC and got quotes at around $2,500! Found a lawyer in my wife's hometown of Ithaca who only charged us $300! It's all about where you live and the market there. Do the small-town lawyer bit if you have any connection outside of the big city.
posted by mtstover at 5:45 PM on February 24, 2010

I'm north of San Francisco and the T&E lawyers I've found close by who advertise themselves as "affordable" charge $700-$800 flat rate for doing wills, durable power of attorneys, and advanced health care directives for a couple. Others an hour's drive away are a bit cheaper. Estate planning prices around here range from affordable $1500 flat rate to "starts at $3000". This county is rather moneyed.

Caveats about DIY wills, fiy.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 10:21 PM on February 24, 2010

I mean, fyi
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 10:21 PM on February 24, 2010

My husband and I had our wills done for $425 total by a single lawyer practice about an hour outside Toronto. It was a flat rate. In Toronto the estimates were double or triple+ from a full service multi lawyer firm.

Consider a single lawyer office an hour or so out of Boston to save money.
posted by saradarlin at 1:24 AM on February 25, 2010

A couple of points (which have mostly already been covered):

1. No clinics of any type will do Wills and Estate work. Clinics exist to help people with no money who have no choice but to be dealing with the legal system. They pretty much exclusively serve people who have no money and are: accused of a crime, getting evicted, in danger of losing custody of their children, losing their disability benefits, getting deported, etc. Serious matters which the person has no choice but to deal with even though there's no way they can afford to hire a lawyer.

2. Those "do it yourself will kits" are a total crock. You're almost certainly throwing money away if you buy one of those.

3. Find a young sole practitioner. Lawyers generally charge by how long they've been called to the bar, which makes some sense; someone with 20 years experience should charge more for their time than someone with 3 years experience. Sole practitioners always charge less than big or medium sized firms as their overhead is typically much lower and their client base usually has less money to spend. It doesn't seem like your estate planning needs are that complicated but the lawyer is still going to have to do some work. S/he will need to meet with you twice (once to gather the information and again to sign and notarize the wills) so just the meetings alone are 1-2 hours of billable time and that's before they've even started drafting the wills. That being said, many lawyers view Wills as a loss leader and will quote a flat fee for drafting Wills just to get you as a client. Start calling sole practitioners; you'll eventually find someone who will draft Wills for you and your spouse for ~$500. If you call someone and their quote is too high ask them to refer you to someone cheaper. Don't be embarrassed about asking as lawyers who charge high rates for their time know that not everyone can afford their rates and probably have a regular referral arrangement with someone cheaper (the legal profession runs on referrals).
posted by mizike at 7:43 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

mizike, can you expand on why you think roll-your-own-will kits are a bad deal? I've never opened one up, so I'm not really sure what they involve.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:14 AM on February 25, 2010

Craven, there can be a variety of problems with them. The one I mentioned above where the guy told me I should charge $40 because the will kit at Office Max was $20 I went and checked out, and it didn't even come CLOSE to meeting my state's standards for a valid will. (And by the time it's a problem, you'll be dead!) I've seen a lot of "DIY estate planning" material pushed by tax-resistor groups that are basically elaborate and illegal methods for attempting to avoid the income tax. The biggest problem that I've typically seen, though, is that they don't meet state standards for a valid will.

But even with a decent kit, they're one-size-fits-all, and people's lives simply aren't. To me, if someone wants to do that with their money and stuff, it's not that big a deal because if it doesn't work out, it's just money and stuff; but if someone wants to do that with their children's guardianship, I strongly, strongly recommend against that!

I'll tell you what I would like to see: Many states have a "short form" health care power of attorney or living will that you can copy and paste directly from the state statute, fill in your blanks, and if you have it properly executed (often witnesses and a notary), it's valid. These generally cover very basic and generic circumstances, and come with a couple pages of "don't use this if X" and a lot of explanation of what it means and doesn't mean. I'd like to see states create a "short form" will that allows families with minor children (in particular) to designate guardians for those children and direct their estates be put into trust for the children. Most people don't want to do anything very different from what the state would do if they died intestate (w/o a will), but that would allow them to designate guardians and trustees and select from a small menu of options.

I know there would be a few problems with such a scheme, but it's worked really very well with HCPOAs and living wills, and I can imagine various ways you could try to control the problems -- like require them to see a county official at the courthouse to validate the will in some way, who briefly runs down the options and ensures they understand what they're signing and that their situation is short-form appropriate. If you charged $150 for that service it'd be a moneymaker for the courthouse (and all courthouses are always in need of funding) but still far more affordable than seeing an attorney.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:33 AM on February 25, 2010

Makes sense. Strange that the DIY kits don't create valid wills. Maybe I'm overgeneralizing a little here, but I think Turbo Tax does a pretty good job with the tax code, which is famously complex, for someone with really basic taxes like me (no house, no dependents, etc.). It seems like it wouldn't be that tough to do something similar for creating wills, much along the lines of the fill-in-the-blanks-on-the-statute setup that you explained.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:48 AM on February 25, 2010

Well, one of the problems is that in some states, literally filling in the blanks isn't a valid form of will; some states demand either the whole thing be prepared a particular (and uniform) way or the whole thing be handwritten in the testator's own handwriting (holographic). But the bigger underlying issue is that wills are ripe ground for fraud and duress; a form may make it easier for a grasping young relative to force infirm granny to fill in the blanks in his favor, whereas a lawyer is supposed to be able to suss out whether granny's being forced into something. In theory, anyway. But, like I said, I think there are ways you could work around that and protect against it.

I think the largest problem in terms of DIY legal kits is that while most people are at least vaguely aware of how to file their taxes, and a taxpayer using a program gets feedback from the IRS THAT YEAR, most people are not particularly legally savvy, and it's dead easy to rip someone off with a $20 form (especially if nobody will notice it's wrong until they're dead). With will kits in particular, you could operate for five years and then disappear from the face of the planet with all the money you made before anybody you sold a will form to even dies and their heirs find out it was a scam. Since most people see maybe a couple of wills in their life before they make their own (and frequently they see exactly none!), people's expectations are largely formed by fiction and television and many wouldn't know how to recognize a scam. I've had clients insist a will I drafted wasn't valid because it didn't say "Witnesseth" or "Come ye all here by these assents" (well, that's from a proclamation, not a will, but you get the idea) or something else they picked up from a novel or a movie. Also requests for fancy old-style fonts on a "title page" so it would be "official" (like this).

A little Googling turns up that California and I think alike; they have a statutory fill-in form:
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:23 PM on February 25, 2010

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