Personal Finance: Ask the Experts

Get advice on money matters from The Bee's Claudia Buck and a panel of local experts

July 18, 2012
What about legal fees that are lower than typical fees?

Q. I noticed that an earlier Bee column stated that $1,500 - $4,500 is the going rate for a will and trust; however, I have family members that claim that they have attorneys that can do it for as little as $750. Why the huge difference? - Bryan, Sacramento, CA

A. I should point out that the prior answer you reference was about an estate plan for a single person with one major asset. Estate plans often cost more than the range given there, when there are more assets, multiple family members, tax issues to address, and other complications to consider. Estate plans are a true investment when they are done correctly, because they save your loved ones much more money than they cost.

You have heard that estate plans can cost less than the range I gave. First, be sure that you would be working with a licensed attorney. You can review an attorney's qualifications, primary practice area, years of experience, and any disciplinary proceedings on the State Bar's website. Also, you could search the attorney's name or law firm name on an online search engine.

It's hard to compare services or fees with other people because you don't know their specific circumstances. Fees can vary depending on where people live, and whether they are getting a partial or complete set of estate planning documents. A lawyer just starting out may charge less than the market rate to attract business. The lawyer's skill level and educational credentials affect the cost of legal services too.

Additionally, you want a lawyer who carries sufficient malpractice insurance, so that your family is protected if any mistakes are made. You want the lawyer's overhead to include that important insurance premium.

When legal fees seem "too good to be true," you need to look into the situation carefully. Sometimes the service provider (usually not a lawyer) is charging a low price to gain your trust and get access to your financial information. The State of California Office of the Attorney General has a section on its website about what are called "trust mills." Sales agents can pretend to be experts in living trusts but their real goal is to sell you financial products that may not be appropriate for you. They may be very friendly and helpful, and come to your house to make it easy to work with them. I recommend you visit the Attorney General's website for consumer tips about living trust mills. One warning given is to watch out for companies that try to sell annuities or other investments as well as living trusts.

In general, when it comes to estate planning, I would be cautious about working with anyone who is not an attorney or whom you do not meet in person.

If you meet with a lawyer but feel that his or her rates are too high for your budget, ask for a referral. Most estate planners want to be the right "fit" for their clients and are happy to provide referrals to well-regarded colleagues.

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Meet Our Financial Experts

Claudia Buck

Claudia Buck is The Sacramento Bee's personal finance columnist. Read all her columns here. Contact her at

Terri Carpenter

Terri Carpenter offers advice on job hunting, retraining and career counseling. Carpenter works at Sacramento Works Inc., the career and job training arm of the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency (SETA). With 15 years in the field, she has hands-on experience with everyone from first-time job seekers to career professionals seeking advice after a layoff or looking for a mid-career change. Ask her a question.

Carlena Tapella

Carlena Tapella is a partner in the law firm of Webb & Tapella Law Corp. in Sacramento. The firm specializes in estate planning and probate, such as estates, trusts, conservatorships and litigation. She is a past president of the Sacramento County Bar Association's Estate Planning & Probate Section. Ask her a question.

Kimberly Foss

Kimberly Foss, certified financial planner, is the founder of Empyrion Wealth Management in Roseville. With nearly 30 years in the financial industry, her clients include women in transition, small business owners, retirees and "pre-retirees." Ask her a question.

Jesse Weller

Gregory Burke, a CPA and tax expert with John Waddell & Co. in Sacramento since 1984, worked as an IRS tax auditor for six years. He’s a past chairman of the California Society of CPAs. Ask him a question.

Daniel Tahara

Daniel Tahara takes your questions about California taxes. Tahara, a spokesman for the state Franchise Tax Board, has 10 years of experience as a tax auditor. Ask him a question.

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