FAQs About Starting the Estate Planning Process in New York

Demystifying end-of-life planning and the attorney-client relationship

By Andrew Brandt | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on December 11, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Kathryn Grant Madigan

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Whether it’s due to fear of death or simply fear of getting older, setting up a will or trust is something many put off. When someone finally begins the process, where do they start?

We spoke with Kathryn Grant Madigan, an estate planning and probate attorney at Levene Gouldin & Thompson in Vestal, New York, and past president of the New York State Bar Association, about selecting an attorney and putting clients at ease.

What if I’ve Never Worked With an Attorney Before?

I find that, for many, the only experience they’ve had with a lawyer was when they purchased their home. Usually, that’s been a pretty good experience. With elder and estate plan lawyers, they get really dressed up—men in their 70s or 80s will come in with their coat and tie. But if you can quickly put them at ease and help demystify the process, then you can see them visibly relax.

A lot of people find meeting with a lawyer can be somewhat intimidating, so many estate planners and elder law attorneys have an intake process: They have a staff member that talks with them, explains how we bill for services, and the kinds of things they need to bring with them to the meeting.

What Attorney’s Fees Are Involved in Estate Planning?

We explain to them what the fees are upfront, so they know exactly what they can expect, and what the hourly rates are.

Many estate planners have fixed-fee packages, which many of our clients find very attractive to assure them that the process doesn’t have to be expensive—unless, of course, they have estate tax issues or other issues that may require some additional work.

With estate planning, it’s really important that you provide the attorney with a lot of information that can be very sensitive: information about your family and any health issues. It also requires full financial disclosure since part of the process is reviewing all of the property and ensuring everything transfers smoothly at the time of death.

Kathryn Grant Madigan

Can I Discuss Sensitive Topics with my Estate Planning Lawyer?

I find, sometimes, there are clients who are embarrassed to talk about things—whether it’s an addiction in the family or whatever it may be. I’ve learned that there are really no functional families; every family has a level of dysfunction. It’s heartening for clients to learn they’re not alone, and that it’s a common issue and experience.

With estate planning, it’s really important that you provide the attorney with a lot of information that can be very sensitive: information about your family and any health issues. It also requires full financial disclosure since part of the process is reviewing all of the property and ensuring everything transfers smoothly at the time of death.

What Does the Attorney-Client Consultation Look Like?

We have one conference room in particular that is more home-like and has a small table. The décor is comforting, and it doesn’t put people off. It makes them feel comfortable, almost like they’re in a living room. And that works very well with older adults to feel comfortable. The other key to making clients feel comfortable is that you don’t want to be on the other side of a big desk. That is off-putting for this type of client.

But sometimes you meet with a client, and either they don’t feel comfortable, or the attorney feels it’s not a good match. And we always tell clients that they should feel free to terminate their representation or not engage the attorney if they feel it’s not a good match for them.

When you’re dealing with trust and estates, there’s a relationship there that develops. It’s not like a one-and-done. You really need to review documents periodically because your life changes.

Find an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney

If you want to update or create an estate plan, visit the Super Lawyers directory to locate an experienced New York estate planning & probate attorney for legal advice.

See our overview of estate planning for more information on this area of law, including:

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