How to Begin an Estate Plan in New York

Your attorney will—comfortably—guide you through the process

By Andrew Brandt | Last updated on August 12, 2022

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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 does finally begin the process, where do they start? We spoke with Kathryn Grant Madigan, an estate planning & probate attorney and past president of the New York State Bar Association, about selecting an attorney and putting clients at ease.

Have most of your clients 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.

Is expense a main concern?

We explain to them what the fees are upfront, so they know exactly what they can expect, what the hourly rates are. Many estate planners have fixed-fee packages, which a lot 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.

After knowing fees, and going through the intake process, do clients easily open up?

I find, sometimes, there are clients who are embarrassed to talk about things—whether it’s an addiction in the family, 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, 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, any health issues. It also requires full financial disclosure, because part of the process is reviewing all of the property and making sure everything transfers smoothly at the time of death.

What are some of the ways in which you can make clients feel comfortable?

We have one conference room in particular that is more home-like that 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 seniors, 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 there are times when 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. If you’re looking to update or create an estate plan, reach out to an experienced estate planning & probate attorney in New York. And if you’d like more information on durable powers of attorney, beneficiaries, living wills, estate planning attorneys, estate planning documents, last will and testaments, and revocable living trusts and irrevocable trusts, please see our overview on estate planning.

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