Estate law practice remains 'vibrant and interesting'

Lifetime exemption amounts for gift and estate taxes keep on rising.

Just six years ago, an individual could leave $1 million to heirs and pay no federal estate or gift tax.

This year, after regular annual increases, that amount is up to $5.45 million, and a married couple can shield $10.9 million from federal estate and gift taxes.

“To me, that’s the most significant thing that’s happened,” said Jonathan Michael, a shareholder with Chicago-based Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella. “With the increase in the estate tax exemption amounts, there’s likely been a decrease in the estate tax planning for clients, although there will always still be a need to perform more fundamental estate planning for clients.”

Though the pool of clients has decreased somewhat, Michael said there will always be a significant number of clients with assets in excess of the exclusion amount.

“The practice remains vibrant and interesting,” he said, adding that for good lawyers, there will always be jobs available.

Attorneys who want to work in estate planning need a strong foundation in the Internal Revenue Code, said Michael, an adjunct professor in the LL.M. program at The John Marshall Law School. He has developed and currently teaches courses in estate planning and business succession planning.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a student needs an LL.M. in estate planning to enter the field. Michael said he got his start with an LL.M. in taxation, which allows for a broad understanding of tax codes.

Either way, estate planning is a specialty area that requires attorneys to focus solely on it, and not practice in more than one area, Michael said.