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Withhold payment from lawyer till extra fee is resolved

Jeanne Fleming
San Jose Mercury News correspondents

Q. When my father needed a trust, the attorney we spoke to offered to prepare one for a flat rate of $2,500. But now that the work is completed, he’s switched to hourly billing and has charged my father an additional $600. I feel this is unethical.

I have an email, sent by the lawyer at the time we hired him, saying that his $2,500 fee would cover a reasonable amount of discussion, the drafting of the trust document and the handling of the paperwork required to put Dad’s house in the trust. That’s all he did for us; we never asked for anything extra. What should we do?

A. To recycle an old joke, it’s only 99 percent of lawyers who give the rest a bad name.

Seriously, your attorney is not the first professional, contractor or tradesperson to try to bill more than an agreed-upon price. Their rationale is always the same: The job took more time than they’d anticipated. But if that’s your attorney’s position, he should have told you at the outset that his $2,500 fee was an estimate, not a firm offer. Moreover, an honorable person would have notified you when the time he’d imagined you were entitled to had been consumed, not sprung the extra charge on you in a final bill.

So write this guy a letter explaining why you won’t pay him the additional $600, and enclose with it a copy of the email in which he agreed to prepare your father’s trust for $2,500. And don’t pay him a dime until you receive a corrected invoice. Holding on to the $2,500 you owe him may be the best leverage you have to get your lawyer to correct his bill.

Q. For years I’ve given low-four-figure checks to my grandchildren on their birthdays. Now, though, I’d like to stop. It’s not that the kids, who are in their 20s and 30s, aren’t properly appreciative; they are. But they all have good jobs, and I think it’s foolish to be giving large checks to self-supporting adults. Also, while I’m financially secure, I am getting older and want to be certain I can pay for whatever care I might need in the future.

My plan is to discontinue the checks but give my grandchildren good wine, good football tickets or some other $100-$150 treat on their birthdays. What do you think? So you know, my family never discusses money. If I never hand them another check, no one will ever say a thing, even indirectly. Still, I don’t want to upset either my grandchildren or my children.

A. Your plan is a good one. Just be sure to let everyone know what you’re doing, and why. You wouldn’t want them to think that they had done something to upset you or that you had suffered a serious financial reversal. Just because a family doesn’t discuss money doesn’t mean they don’t think about it.

Jeanne Fleming and Leonard Schwarz are Palo Alto-based columnists and authors.