What is an estate planning attorney?
An estate planning attorney advises clients on preparing for the future management and disposal of a person’s estate during their lifetime and post-death. More than simple will-drafting, the role involves far-reaching strategizing to ensure a smooth transition of assets, limiting liabilities such as taxes and probate court involvements, deciding on the power of attorney or guardianship issues, and protecting an inheritance from lawsuits. It thus forms a critical part of personal financial planning, providing clients with the safety net they need to protect their wealth and their loved ones’ interests.
The value of these attorneys becomes apparent when one recognizes that estate planning goes beyond creating wills. They bring a comprehensive, nuanced understanding of wealth preservation that self-help resources cannot replicate. Their legal advice, knowledge, and strategic planning are invaluable in handling complicated familial or financial situations and reducing legal and financial risks associated with estates.
Duties and responsibilities
As advisors, estate planning attorneys primarily meet with clients to discuss and document their estate planning requirements. Post-client consultations, these professionals draft necessary documents such as trusts, wills, power of attorney, living wills, or healthcare directives. They are responsible for regularly reviewing and updating these documents to reflect changes in the law or the client’s circumstances.
Another crucial responsibility is estate administration, including probate, which involves validating the deceased’s will, settling debts and taxes, and distributing the remaining assets to beneficiaries. They also help clients plan for potential incapacity and end-of-life decisions, which involves creating legal documents like durable powers of attorney and advance medical directives.
Estate planning attorneys typically work in a comfortable office setting. Meetings with clients might occur in conferencing rooms, and occasionally, they might need to visit clients’ homes or hospitals when conditions necessitate it. The digital age has also enabled consultations and document sharing over secure online platforms, thus making their work significantly flexible.
These professionals might work independently in private practice, as part of a law firm specializing in estate planning or other related legal fields, or in a corporate legal department. Unlike other law practices, this role does not usually involve courtroom appearances, making it a less adversarial and more collaborative legal field.
Typical work hours
Estate planning attorneys generally adhere to a regular nine-to-five work schedule like most other professions, with weekday work being the norm. Nonetheless, depending on the client’s availability and urgency of tasks, this could extend into evenings or weekends.
This field does not generally involve the same high-stress scenarios or last-minute trial preparations common in many other legal specialties. The nature of their work allows for some predictability and stability. Still, there can be periods of increased workload, especially when dealing with complicated estate matters or when a client’s conditions dramatically change, requiring immediate legal attention.
How to become an estate planning attorney
This career guide section outlines the steps to becoming an estate planning attorney. This profession requires a solid educational footing, relevant experience, certification, and soft skills suitable to the job.
Step 1: Complete a bachelor’s degree program
The first step is to complete a bachelor’s degree. It doesn’t necessarily matter what subject your degree is in, but pre-law or legal studies could give you an excellent basis. This typically takes four years of study and includes general education courses along with some courses in government, public speaking, and various types of law.
Step 2: Take the LSAT
Once you have your bachelor’s degree, the next step is to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). The LSAT is a standardized test that law schools use as a part of their admission process. It includes sections on reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, logical reasoning, and unscored writing.
Step 3: Obtain a J.D. degree
Passing the LSAT allows you to enter law school, where you will pursue a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. This three-year program provides an in-depth study of the legal system. During this time, you will need to focus on tax law and estate planning to achieve a specialization in these areas.
Step 4: Pass the bar exam
After graduating with a J.D. degree, prospective attorneys must pass their state’s bar examination to become licensed to practice. The bar exam is rigorous and might require additional study and preparation time. It often includes a written test and sometimes a character and fitness assessment.
Step 5: Gain experience through entry-level work or internship
Even though you’ve passed the bar and can legally practice law, most law firms prefer attorneys with some level of experience. Pursue entry-level positions at law firms that handle estate planning matters, or consider doing internships to gain experience.
Step 6: Pursue an LL.M. in taxation (optional)
This bonus step is optional but could give you an edge in the job market. A Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree provides additional, specialized education in tax law, which can be invaluable for these professionals. It could be a useful pathway if you want to work at larger, more prestigious law firms or aspire to a high-level position.
Step 7: Continually improve your knowledge and skills
Given the constantly changing nature of law—especially where taxes are concerned—continual education and personal improvement are integral to staying updated and effective. Attend conferences, take online classes or certification courses, and stay updated with your field’s latest legal journals and publications.
How much do estate planning attorneys make?
Compensation for estate planning attorneys varies by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Factors uniquely affecting their compensation include the complexity of cases, the clientele’s affluence, and specialization in related fields such as tax or business law.
Highest paying states
- California – $157,670
- New Jersey – $152,830
- New York – $150,890
- Massachusetts – $146,790
- Connecticut – $143,550
Types of estate planning attorneys
Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for estate planning attorneys. This section provides a fundamental understanding of the potential career paths associated with this legal specialization.
Specializing in preparing wills
Attentive to detail and accomplished legal professionals often choose this option. They draft these critical documents for clients who wish to express their desires regarding the dispersion of assets after death. This specialization requires deep knowledge of property law and nuances in family law.
Trust creation specialist
Focusing on the establishment of trusts instead of or in conjunction with wills, these professionals play an important role. They help clients control and protect assets during their lifetime and after. In addition, they create mechanisms for managing assets after death or in the event of incapacitation.
Expert in power of attorney arrangement
Helping clients establish a person or persons to make critical decisions on their behalf in case of incapacity often requires a delicate touch. Lawyers following this path create and manage the legal framework for this arrangement. They are well-versed in ethical considerations and protections for this legal agreement.
Specializing in elder law
This specialization involves a wide scope of duties, including aspects of estate planning and managing medical and other financial issues affecting the elderly. Lawyers in this field assist their senior clients with planning for their future legal and financial needs.
Tax planning advisor
Integrating the law with finance, these attorneys advise on legal methods to minimize tax obligations. They provide estate tax planning, including how to structure estates to reduce taxes for beneficiaries. With a strong understanding of the tax code, they make sure an estate is structured in a tax-efficient manner.
Top skills for estate planning attorneys
A career as an estate planning attorney demands not only a deep understanding of law and its application but also a broader range of skills and attributes.
Analytical and problem-solving abilities
In the complex world of estate planning, an attorney must have an analytical mind to understand the details and implications of each case. They need strong problem-solving abilities to find the most beneficial solutions tailored to the client’s unique situation and requirements.
A successful lawyer must have excellent interpersonal skills. This role often involves sensitive matters, and they must interact delicately with clients, projecting empathy, patience, and understanding. These skills are essential for effective negotiating and conflict resolution in family businesses and complex family dynamics.
Knowledge of tax laws
To help clients avoid unnecessary tax burdens and penalties in estate planning, an in-depth understanding of local, state, and federal tax laws is crucial. Being well-versed in evolving legislation and how it affects different asset types is a key aspect of this profession.
Attention to detail
Like other law disciplines, estate planning requires meticulous attention to detail. From reviewing contracts and financial documents to drafting wills and trusts, any oversights can have significant, potentially detrimental implications for the client.
Excellent communication skills
Clear and effective communication skills are fundamental in this field. These professionals must convey complex information in a straightforward and understandable manner to clients, courts, and other parties. Likewise, they should listen carefully to their clients to ensure full comprehension of their needs and expectations.
Ethics and integrity
Adherence to ethical standards and demonstrating integrity is paramount, as they often handle sensitive personal and financial information and must act with the utmost discretion and confidentiality. Clients must feel they can trust their attorneys both personally and professionally.
Estate planning attorney career path options
An estate planning attorney typically starts at a law firm or solo legal practice. As they gain experience and expertise, they may choose to specialize in specific areas within the field of estate planning, like trusts, wills, or elder law. Eventually, they might become a senior associate or even a partner within a law firm. There’s also the opportunity to establish their own practice and specialize according to their clients’ needs. Additional certifications like becoming a Certified Financial Planner or an Accredited Estate Planner could further enhance their career prospects and expand their clientele.
Another career path for an experienced attorney could be to move into academia. They may become law professors, teaching estate planning and related subjects at law schools. This route generally requires substantial experience in the field and often additional qualifications and publications on relevant topics. Similarly, some may opt to write and publish books or articles about estate planning, consolidating their reputation as industry experts.
Some estate planning attorneys may move into roles within the financial sector. Their comprehensive understanding of estate planning could allow them to provide financial advice, especially regarding inheritance and tax planning. Working for a financial institution, an investment firm, or starting their own financial consulting service are all viable options.
Similar job titles
Position trends and outlook for estate planning attorneys
One of the prominent trends in estate planning law is an increased focus on keeping up-to-date with laws regarding asset protection. The widespread digitization of assets has extended the scope of estate planning, and attorneys must now factor in digital assets, like cryptocurrency when crafting estate plans. They also foresee changes in tax legislation that may impact estate plans, so they are continually enhancing their knowledge to provide their clients with effective solutions.
Another trend is the growing emphasis on proactive and comprehensive estate planning due to an aging population. Professionals in this field are finding a rising demand for services as people seek ways to secure their estates and ensure a smooth wealth transition. The rise of blended families and the legal complexities they bring to the table, such as inheritance disputes, is another challenge shaping how this profession functions.
Employment projections for estate planning attorneys
Based on the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, employment for lawyers, including estate planning attorneys, is expected to grow by 10% through 2031. This is faster than the average for all occupations. As the population ages, more individuals will need legal services in healthcare and estate planning, creating more opportunities for these professionals.
Estate planning attorney career tips
Understand your clients’ needs
Every client you encounter will have unique circumstances and goals. In this role, relating to these unique situations and understanding the client’s needs is essential. Taking the time to listen to their concerns and desires will allow you to develop an estate plan tailored to their situation. Clients appreciate an attorney who not only understands the law but can also empathize with their particular circumstances.
Stay up-to-date on laws and regulations
Estate laws vary by state and can change often. It’s vital to keep yourself updated on these changes to provide the best service to your clients. Attend professional seminars, join discussion groups, and maintain a proactive approach to staying informed. This will improve your ability to provide sound advice and service to your clients.
Build a professional network
Networking with professionals in related fields can prove beneficial in providing comprehensive service to your clients. Tax advisors, financial planners, realtors, and other attorneys can all provide valuable insight into your work. Conversely, you might find yourself presented with new client opportunities through these connections.
- State Bar – Estate Planning Law Section
- The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC)
- The National Association of Estate Planners & Councils (NAEPC)
Engage in continuous learning
The field of estate planning is intricate and complex, making continuous learning a must. By regularly participating in professional development activities, you can stay ahead in your career and build your credibility among clients.
- Estate planning seminars
- Industry webinars
- Certificate courses in related legal areas
Deliver exceptional customer service
Client satisfaction is crucial in estate planning. Word-of-mouth referrals can bring in a significant proportion of new business. Strive to provide high-quality, personalized service to every client, ensuring they feel valued and that their needs are being met.
Consider obtaining certifications
Earning certifications can bolster your credibility among clients and make you more competitive in the market. Certifications such as the Certified Trust and Financial Advisor (CTFA) or the Certified Estate Planner (CEP) can demonstrate to clients and peers your commitment to the profession and your expertise in estate planning.
Where the estate planning attorney jobs are
- Estate Law Group
- The Harris Law Firm
- WealthCounsel, LLC
- LegalNature, LLC
- Diehl & Rodewald, Estate Planning Attorneys
- New York
Top job sites
What is the educational path to becoming an estate planning attorney?
You’ll first need to earn a bachelor’s degree, preferably in a related field like pre-law or political science. Following this, you must pass the LSAT and enroll in a law school accredited by the American Bar Association. Here, you’ll study core law subjects before specializing in estate planning, which may include tax law, trusts, and estate law. Once you’ve graduated, you’ll need to pass the bar exam to begin practicing.
What does a typical day look like for an estate planning attorney?
A typical day involves various tasks, including conducting client meetings, researching legal issues, drafting and reviewing documents, court appearances, and fulfilling ongoing legal education. You may spend time liaising with other professionals, such as accountants and financial planners, and you may also have to manage disputes about the estate plan.
What skills and traits make a good estate planning attorney?
A good attorney needs excellent communication skills, as they will be advising and interacting with clients frequently. They should be able to explain complex legal concepts in a way that clients can understand. Additionally, they must be analytical and have strong attention to detail to review legal documents thoroughly. Integrity and empathy are also essential traits, as clients entrust their personal family and financial matters to the attorney.
What is the most challenging part of being an estate planning attorney?
The most challenging aspect often involves handling sensitive family dynamics and delivering difficult news, especially when dealing with inheritance disputes or the death of a loved one. Staying current with constantly changing tax laws and regulations is also challenging. Despite these challenges, many find the role rewarding, providing a valuable service by helping individuals navigate the complex estate planning process.
What kind of clients does an estate planning attorney usually work with?
They typically work with individuals and families who want to plan for the future management of their assets or for issues that may arise after their death. This can include anyone from young professionals just starting to establish their wealth to high net-worth individuals with large estates and older individuals seeking to secure their assets for their heirs or long-term care.
Do estate planning attorneys go to court?
Estate planning is predominantly a planning and advisory type of law, so much of their work happens outside the courtroom. However, if disputes arise over wills or trusts they have contributed, they may represent their clients in court. They might also appear in court to help settle an estate or support clients in probate proceedings.
What is the job market like for estate planning attorneys?
The job market generally remains steady. With an aging population and increasing complexity in tax and estate law, demand for estate planning services continues to grow. However, like any profession, geographical location, the state of the overall economy, and specialization within the field can all influence job prospects and availability.
What is the difference between an estate planning attorney and a tax attorney?
While both estate planning attorneys and tax attorneys deal with aspects of a client’s financial affairs, they focus on different types of issues. An estate planning attorney concentrates on helping clients plan the future of their estate, including creating wills, setting up trusts, and establishing power of attorney. A tax attorney, on the other hand, specializes more broadly in tax law and provides services like interpreting tax codes and handling disputes with the IRS. However, there is some overlap as estate planning also involves dealing with estate taxes and understanding the tax implications of estate decisions.
Can estate planning attorneys help with guardianship issues?
Yes, they can certainly help clients address guardianship issues. This may be in the context of planning for minor children should a parent pass away or become incapacitated or for adults who cannot make their own decisions due to disability or other reasons. In such cases, they would guide clients through the legal process to establish a legal guardian in the estate plan.
What is involved in keeping up with changes in estate planning law?
Estate planning law is subject to changes over time due to new legislation, court decisions, and changes in tax law. As such, they must keep up to date with these changes to offer the best advice to their clients. This involves continual professional development through legal education, legal research, and participation in professional organizations. They may also attend seminars, webinars, and conferences specializing in estate planning law.