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What’s more education mean for your estate attorney?

Estate Plan Edge: Taxes change and regulations evolve. Here’s what to ask your estate planning attorney — and why it matters.

Curt Ferguson

March 8, 2023

4 Min Read
rural farmland scattered with farmsteads
Holly Spangler

As a reader who cares a lot about your farm and family, you likely spent serious time and not insignificant money to plan your estate over the past few years. Maybe you actually took care of this 10 or 15 years ago. You engaged the services of Attorney Allen, a trusted lawyer in your community. Chances are, your estate planning objectives include tax savings, protection of assets from outside claims or catastrophes, and division of assets among your heirs in specific ways that are appropriate for your family. You want this to all go smoothly when the time comes.

Did you know that attorneys are required to spend several days each year in continuing education? Insurance, investment and accounting professionals face similar requirements. What do you suppose your estate planning attorney is learning when he or she attends those sessions? After a few decades practicing law, I believe there are two primary purposes of continuing legal education (CLE).

2 reasons to keep learning

First, attorneys learn about new laws that apply to the kind of work they do. When he attends CLE, one of Allen’s purposes is to learn about new laws affecting estate plans like yours. To provide his next estate planning client competent legal advice, he needs to know the current laws. This will affect how he drafts every trust agreement or will. His next client also wants to minimize taxes, protect assets and divide the estate. Allen has to write the documents to serve those objectives based on current law, not the law as it was a few years ago.

Second, attorneys learn about new strategies for applying existing laws to accomplish better results for clients. Allen’s purpose might be to learn from experts who have thought of more creative or innovative ways to plan within existing laws. The law — especially as it relates to transfer of property from one generation to another — is too complicated for anyone to know all of the implications. Three quick examples might help illustrate this:

1. Minimize taxes. It is easy to focus on avoiding estate tax and fail to notice income or gift tax implications of the plan. A CLE speaker who has studied that issue explains it so Allen can make sure he is advising clients properly of all tax implications, and minimizing all taxes.

2. Protect assets. The objective of avoiding probate might be achieved without noticing the best way to protect assets from claims and catastrophes.

3. Divide assets. Even if the law is black and white, families are complicated. Although the governing law hasn’t changed in many years, Allen may be learning different ways the property might be divided to maximize the benefits for any given family.

Looking forward

So, it’s great to think that Attorney Allen’s next clients will have the benefit of the new laws and the latest strategies. But how about the documents he wrote for you five or 10 years ago?

Estate planning documents typically are designed to cause certain things to occur at future points in time, particularly upon your disability or death. Yours were drafted based on the law in effect years ago, to address what happens if you died or become disabled then. Years have passed and you haven’t died or become disabled yet. Your documents haven’t had the opportunity to produce the intended results. If Attorney Allen wrote your documents now, after his most recent continuing education, they would be different. Laws have changed and he has new insights.

Is there any process in place to assure that your plan from years ago will do as much good as it would if Allen wrote your documents for you today? Is Allen expecting you to call him and ask for updates? Or are you expecting him to call you and offer to rewrite your plan with the latest laws and his best-ever insights? If he did contact you offering to update your plan, what would your response be?

Many people might actually resist Allen’s suggestion to come in for an update. But if your family wouldn’t benefit from an updated plan, why does Allen have to keep going back for all that CLE?

As you work with an estate planning attorney, ask: “What is your process for regularly updating my plan so I get the benefit of your mandatory continuing legal education?” The kind of professionals you want to work with will have a satisfying answer.

Ferguson is an attorney who owns The Estate Planning Center in Salem, Ill. Learn more at

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