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Is a Career in Estate Planning Law Right for You?

Career and educational development is a journey. You may have started by investigating colleges with law programs and are now well on your way to graduation, but the process of self-assessment doesn’t end there. There are many different types of law careers to choose from, as well as ways to enhance your current career with a law degree. Discovering the work that suits you best is worth investigation. 

As a law student, you may have entered school knowing the exact field of law you’d like to specialize in, and you foresee yourself staying true to that calling. On the other hand, you may be waiting to choose which area of law to practice until you learn more about how each field aligns with your personal and professional goals, passions, values, and interests. Whichever category you fit into, one thing is for sure — a career in law can be extremely fulfilling when you choose the right path for you!

While estate planning law is not exactly flashy or electrifying on a day-to-day basis, if you’ve never considered it, we’d like to suggest there’s a chance it could be a great fit for you.

First, A Story: Aretha Franklin’s Handwritten Wills

The basic guiding life principle of planning for the future seems like a no-brainer. But surprisingly many people fail to consider what will happen to their assets and the inheritance they wish to leave behind, should their health decline. The recent story about Aretha Franklin’s wills is one such example.

According to The Guardian, three handwritten wills were recently discovered in her suburban Detroit home after she lost her nine-year battle with pancreatic cancer in August 2018. The most current of the three wills is dated March 24 and consists of hard-to-read instructions pertaining to what she wished to leave to different family members.

At least she had a will, right? Not exactly. 

The matter of legality concerning these wills is still an open question. That means that Aretha’s 80 million dollar estate is in disbursement limbo. It’s not uncommon for wills like these to be challenged by children or individuals who stand to inherit a portion of the estate. But, had she hired an experienced estate planning attorney before she passed away, her precious assets and rich legacy would have had clear and legal instructions for administration. As a result, the estate would not currently be tied up in court.

What is Estate Planning Law?

The practice of estate planning includes an extremely wide range of topics, from probate to tax law and trust administration. Estate planning involves anticipating the future needs and expenses a client might face. It also involves ensuring that clients and their immediate loved ones are provided for in the case of disability or eventual long-term care. And it includes making plans for the protection and transfer of their estate after they pass away.

Estate planning law is relevant to every single person with assets to their name and loved ones who stand to inherit those assets. For that reason, setting up an estate plan is one of the most important steps a person or family can take to ensure their financial and healthcare wishes are honored, and to make sure their loved ones will be provided for in their absence.

What Does an Estate Planning Attorney Do?

There are a variety of estate planning vehicles available that can comprehensively meet the specific needs and wishes of an individual or family. The job of the estate planning attorney, then, is to take into consideration all aspects of a family’s estate and how it will be distributed after their death. From there, they design the appropriate estate plan for each client.

Unique estate plans are crafted based on the size of the estate, the nature of the assets, whether the estate holds debts, whether a family member has special needs, whether a family is blended, and so on.

Specific duties of an estate planning lawyer include:

  • Creating living trusts or wills
  • Minimizing potential taxes and fees upon the estate
  • Planning for long-term care and end-of-life medical directives
  • Organizing the transfer of assets from the estate to beneficiaries in a manner that won’t compromise the assets being distributed and will protect the beneficiaries from issues like divorce, lawsuits, or even from their own irresponsibility.

What Makes a Good Estate Planner?

A satisfying career in law means understanding your personality and strengths. For example, if you’re passionate about justice, you will probably make a better prosecutor than a criminal defense attorney. If you love facts and figures, a career in tax law might be right for you. The following are a few qualities that define a great estate planning attorney.

  1. They Think Long-Term
    An estate planner must have a good idea of the long-term needs and goals of an individual or family. In addition, it’s not uncommon for beneficiaries and subsequent generations to continue working with the same attorney, once the original creator of the trust dies. But clients do not always have this kind of foresight, so it’s the responsibility of the estate planning attorney to offer guidance and insight into a generational family estate plan. 
  2. They are Personable and Kind
    The business of an estate planning attorney is delicate. Their job is to discuss what will happen when a client falls ill or dies. As indicated previously, it also may include figuring out how to protect beneficiaries who cannot be trusted to wisely handle an inheritance, or helping clients set up medical directives, should they become incapacitated — or any number of other difficult subjects. The best estate planners know how to navigate these uncomfortable conversations with empathy and compassion. 
  3. They Find Enjoyment in Helping Others
    The highest function of an estate planner isn’t just to dot all the i’s and cross the t’s. A great estate planning attorney recognizes that their job can make all the difference for their clients’ loved ones when the time comes. They understand that their planning input just might be the key that assures the legacy being passed on is a blessing and not a curse.
  4. They Enjoy Financial and Taxation Issues
    As an estate planning attorney, a large part of the job is dealing with numbers. A thorough estate plan includes the value of property, investments, insurance and other avenues of income or wealth. Estate planners also need to have a good understanding of state and federal tax laws that relate to estate planning. And since tax codes are constantly changing, they will need to make certain their clients’ estate plans are kept current through regular updates. Finally, a good estate plan allows the clients and their beneficiaries to avoid taxes, court costs, fees and probate whenever possible.

How Much Does an Estate Planning Attorney Make?

Of course, you want to practice a field of law that is meaningful and fulfilling. But you also want to know you’ll be able to pay off your student loans in a timely manner and make a comfortable living in the long run. So how much can you expect to make with a career in estate planning law?

A number of factors impact the average salary of an estate planning lawyer, including experience, the size of the law firm, and the city of practice. According to PayScale, the median salary for an estate planning attorney is $100K, with a high end of $199K+ and a low end of $35K. When bonuses and profit sharing are taken into consideration, you can expect to take home more at the end of the year.

Is Estate Planning Law Right For You?

Helping an individual or family consider issues related to their future and creating for them a well-thought-out estate plan are the greatest gifts you can give them in terms of successfully passing on their financial legacy. When choosing if estate planning law is right for you, we highly recommend speaking with an experienced estate planning attorney. Take the time to learn about what a potential career path would look like and whether it falls in line with a future you envision for yourself.

About the Author
James Phelps is managing partner at Phelps Law in Arizona. He developed a passion for the practice of law at a young age when he worked alongside his father (who is also an estate planning attorney) for many years before attending law school. James has been practicing law since 1999 and devotes his law practice exclusively to estate planning and trust administration. He enjoys helping clients achieve peace of mind by preventing “fires” instead of having to put them out.

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