Preparing for the Final Journey: LL.M. Programs in Estate Planning

Estate planning lawyers must have a good bedside manner and an understanding of complex legal issues. But is an estate planning certificate worth it?

Death is a recession-proof industry. 

That’s why lawyers who specialize in estate planning will always have jobs.

“There’s always going to be death, and there’s always going to be the concern of how you transfer your assets upon death, and how you make sure you minimize taxes and have set up assets in ways that will reflect what you want,” says Patricia White, dean of LL.M. and international programs at the University of Miami School of Law.

Where other law schools offer estate planning certificates, the University of Miami is one of only a handful of schools in the country that offer LL.M. programs specifically in the discipline. Miami’s program, which has existed since 1975, currently instructs 21 students in income tax, wealth transfer tax, property laws, elder law and the myriad of other legal issues required to help people lay plans for what they leave behind when they are gone. 

Other schools that offer LL.M.s in estate planning include Golden Gate University, University of Missouri—Kansas City, Chicago’s John Marshall School of Law and Western New England University. 

Estate planning is an increasingly complex field of law, says White, partly because as people’s lives become more complicated, so do their plans for after death.  

“There are special rules and complicated rules associated with cross-border issues and international issues. Transnational families who have investments in different countries and marriages between people with different citizenships are clearly becoming much more common. There are also different rules and will continue to be different rules in different states,” White says. 

Fred Brown, director of the Graduate Tax Program at the University of Baltimore’s School of Law, says that increasingly complex tax laws are one reason his school decided, in 2008, to offer an estate planning certificate on top of its regular LL.M. and MS in tax law. 

“Tax law seems to be getting more complicated all the time, so I think that it’s a response to what’s perceived to be a need in the marketplace,” Brown says. One example, he says, is a provision of the 2013 American Taxpayer Relief Act, which created something called portability of unified credit, a regulation relating to how estate taxes work when one spouse dies but the other is still alive. 

Indeed, programs in estate planning tend to touch on a variety of technical aspects of the field. For instance, Georgetown Law’s certificate in estate planning—which launched in 2007 and can be pursued either by itself or as part of the school’s LL.M. program—covers a multitude of topics in issues from private wealth planning to generation tax, says Stafford Smiley, professor and faculty director of Georgetown’s Graduate Tax Center.

But estate planning lawyers’ skills must go beyond legal and technical prowess. Miami’s White says that estate planning lawyers must have enough emotional intelligence to help people deal with the sensitive issues surrounding family, illness and death.  

“You really are looking at people and asking them questions and learning about the things that are most important to them in their lives, as you might imagine, because it involves their families, how they relate to other people, what their hopes and wishes are,” White says, adding that lawyers often must work with clients who are terminally ill. 

Compared to other fields of law, estate law certainly requires a soft touch and a sensitivity to complex issues. That’s why Brian Mangines is currently pursuing a part-time LL.M. at the University of Miami. Mangines graduated from law school in 1990, worked in legal staffing and recruiting, and returned to law in 2009. But he had always been most interested in estate planning law, because he’s seen first-hand how complicated and sensitive family issues can be.

“I’m the youngest of eight kids,” Mangines says. “Growing up, I saw a lot of family dynamics. I’ve seen kids, I’ve seen divorces, I’ve seen family squabbles. I’ve seen a lot of it. I’ve always thought my temperament was well-suited for estate planning.”

Mangines runs his own law firm in Boca Raton, with the slogan “Protecting What Matters”—which is exactly what he wants to help his clients do. 

“I really think a little planning up front goes a long way towards protecting their legacy, assets and what matters most to them,” Mangines says. 

Tax LL.M.s or estate planning certificates? 

Brown, from the University of Baltimore, says his students usually go on to represent clients in private firms after graduation, although sometimes students with an interest in estate planning go on to work for the IRS.  

But he’s not sure if his students earn their jobs because of their estate planning certificates, or because of their tax LL.Ms. 

Baltimore’s “tax LL.M. is a tried-and-true program, around since the 1940s, whereas the estate planning certificate has existed for less than 10 years,” Brown says. 

Susan Rounds, a board member of the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils, says in the industry, LL.M.s are typically perceived as more rigorous and academically serious than certificates. However, she said that that reputation is not necessarily warranted.

“If you pick apart some of the coursework that could be required by some degree programs, you could see that the certificate is giving you more enhanced information,” Rounds says. 

Image: Ken Mayer / Flickr (cropped, brightened) - Creative Commons



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