Why Do Lawyers Charge So Much to Do a Simple Will?
Why Do Lawyers Charge So Much to Do a Simple Will?
Since this is coming from a lawyer, I think you should know my background and biases. My office is in Prince Frederick. In June, I started my 49th year of law practice. I do some estate planning but most of my work is dealing with estates and trusts after someone has died. Thus, I have two primary interests when I do estate planning documents: (1) to make sure my client’s wishes are in the documents and (2) to make sure that the documents will withstand a challenge – a will contest, a trust contest, etc.
I’m not opposed to people doing their own estate planning without a lawyer or to heirs handling the probate or trust administration without a lawyer. I’ve seen many examples where that has worked out fine. No lawyer was paid and lots of money was saved. On the other hand, I could tell you story after story about how things went horribly wrong. Much of my work over the years has resulted from mistakes made in estate planning documents.
Part of the reason I’m still doing this after so many years is that I love to tell stories and my work brings me a never ending flow of new stories. I will restrain myself and tell you just one about a mistake – a mistake by a lawyer with a simple Will.
In the mid 1990s, a man came to an Upper Marlboro lawyer to do a simple Will. He was a widower and had 4 children – 3 boys and one girl. If he were to die without a Will, his estate would go equally to his 4 children. His 3 sons had done well in life and he wanted his estate to go just to his daughter who was struggling. The lawyer prepared the Will – it was only 3 pages – had it signed and then delivered to the Register of Wills for safekeeping. 20 years later the father died. Maryland law requires that Wills have 2 witness signatures. The Will was removed from safekeeping and it was discovered that the lawyer who had prepared the Will had his partner sign as a witness but had failed to sign himself as a witness. Thus the Will had just one signature. The lawyer had dutifully written in his address but for some unknown reason did not sign. Maryland law requires that the witnesses sign in the presence of the person making the Will. So, even though the lawyer was alive he could not correct the mistake because the man who made the Will was dead.
Lawyer hourly rates are set by the lawyer and in southern Maryland range roughly from $200 to $400. Some lawyers do estate planning work on a flat fee basis and some do it on an hourly basis. An explanation of why rates are so high is too much for this post.
So now to the question above. Once I know what my client wants to do, it takes me at my computer and proofing the document about 20 minutes to prepare a simple Will. Years ago when I dictated everything, it took maybe 3 minutes of dictation and my secretary did the typing. Notice how I started that sentence – Once I know what my client wants to do. Some people come to me and say – I need a Will, I want to do X, and the Personal Representative will be Y. It’s a rare person who has it all figured out in advance. The average person needs to talk it over, evaluate options, sometimes decide on whether to use a trust, etc. It is in those discussions where the experience of the lawyer comes into play and it is there where the time spent can be significant. It’s not unusual for those discussions to take 1 to 3 hours and sometimes involve multiple communications or meetings. Then once the documents are ready, the meeting for signing typically takes about half an hour because there are almost always more questions.
Added to the mix is something else everyone needs to know. And, if you take nothing else from this post, take this. Wills come into play when someone dies. But what happens when someone is still alive but can’t manage their life – they were in an auto crash and are in a coma in a hospital and it’s gone on for 2 months and the doctors don’t know when or if she will wake. It is the standard of care for a lawyer doing estate planning to discuss two other documents that deal with the issue – a Power of Attorney and an Advance Directive. If these documents are not in place, what normally has to be done is a court ordered guardianship. When a guardianship case is filed, the court appoints a lawyer for the person in the hospital. So, now even in an agreed guardianship you have 2 lawyers involved and they are usually paid by the funds of the person in the hospital – think legal fees in the $5000 to $10,000 range. Most lawyers use standard forms for these two documents and it takes very little time to produce them and get them signed. In the overall scheme of time, add about half an hour although sometimes it can involve much more.
So, there it is – the time to actually prepare the simple Will is about 20 minutes but before we finish the overall time may be 2, 3, 4 or 5 hours or more. I’ve found that for a husband and wife the time involved in talk, preparation and signing of the 6 items – 2 Wills, 2 Powers of Attorney and 2 Advance Directives – is usually in the range 3 to 5 hours. Even for a new lawyer charging $200 per hour that is $600 to $1,000.