A person’s estate is considered the net worth of a person at any point in time. Net worth can be summed up as a person’s assets (property of any kind, legal rights, interests) less liabilities. To plan for the disposal of an estate, wills, trusts and power of attorney are typically established. Doing so reduces uncertainties about the estate’s distribution and helps maximize the estate’s value by decreasing taxes and other expenses.
The first step in the legal process of administering a deceased person’s estate is the receipt of probate. It is the probate court’s role to validate and approve a person’s will. If necessary, the probated will, now a legal document, can be enforced in a court-of-law.
In order to practice law, one must receive a law degree (a juris doctorate) from an accredited law school and pass the bar exam in the state where law will be practiced. Typically, during the second and third year of law school, a student has more flexibility in their course load, allowing them to specialize in fields of their choosing. Estate law classes include topics like asset management, estate planning, family law, taxation, real estate law, and trusts.
In addition, several law schools offer certificates or masters of law degrees (LLM) in estate planning or in the broader topic of taxation. This can mean an additional one to two years of coursework, depending on the program and the subject. Another practical way of obtaining further specialization is through a mentorship and simply more on-the-job experience. An estate law attorney must also be trained in Uniform Probate Code, which imposes rules and limits to wills and trusts.
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Estate law attorneys help their clients determine the specific distribution of their estate. They also provide counsel for those seeking to establish a trust where assets are set aside for a future beneficiary. Drafting wills, trusts and other estate planning documents is a large part of their job. Estate law attorneys also advise about retirement plans, life insurance policies and charitable contributions. If a case goes to probate court, an estate law attorney would be involved in litigating the case.
In order to be most effective, estate law attorneys must have a thorough grasp of state and federal tax laws, trusts, wills, property and real estate. They collaborate with financial managers and insurance specialists. Therefore, good communication, teamwork and strong organization skills are critical. Financial knowledge, such as how to manage a balance sheet, will allow them to better assist their clients with prudent estate planning. An estate law attorney must stay up-to-date with the ever-changing tax laws that could affect the value of clients’ estates.
An estate law attorney’s salary is dictated by experience, location and the size of legal firm by which they are employed. Estate law attorneys earned a reported median annual salary of $64,054 in 2011. Self-employed individuals who worked in estate planning had the highest earning potential, making a yearly median wage of $95,000. Another highly paid specialization was estate law attorneys who worked for a foundation or trust. They earned a median income of $91,375 per year.
In uncertain financial times, people may postpone using estate law attorneys to plan for their estate’s future. However, currently, with the large retirement population, estate law attorneys are highly-sought-after. Attending a prestigious law school and graduating with good grades as well as scoring high on the bar exam will make anyone an attractive candidate for employment.
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