Estate planning is a broad practice area encompassing personal, family and financial issues related to control and transfer of property and to end-of-life decision making. It includes helping clients address life-planning and management of their property to satisfy their personal needs and the needs of their family or business —during their lives, during a period of disability, and after death.
Clients at all income levels and with all kinds of families have estate planning needs. Estate planning varies greatly depending on each client’s individual requirements. The estate planner will focus on the client's overall estate-planning objectives and how best to accomplish them with wills, trusts, powers of attorney, long-term health care, end of life care, life insurance and other planning vehicles. Those representing high net-worth individuals or business owners must have in-depth knowledge of tax and business law, since they may use sophisticated planning vehicles such as specialized trusts, family-limited partnerships, limited liability companies, and private charitable foundations to facilitate succession planning and reduce potential taxation.
Some estate planners focus particularly on the needs of the elderly. Elder law is a growing field that overlaps with estate planning. Lawyers practicing elder law handle estate planning issues, but focus on issues that many elderly people face, such as asset preservation when a spouse enters a nursing home, Medicaid and Medicare claims and appeals, conservatorships and guardianships, long-term care placements, disability, elder abuse, and fraud recovery.
Estate planning attorneys bring more to their practice than legal expertise. They are familiar with the real life concerns of traditional and blended families, the elderly and disabled, and families with a wide range of net worth. Estate planners often work directly or indirectly with social workers, psychologists, religious advisors and other professionals who provide support during times of important decisions and challenging events.
Estate planners work in law firms of all sizes, the trust departments of financial institutions, and in development offices of nonprofit organizations and foundations. Estate planners, no matter who their clients are, must have good people skills, enjoy attention to detail, and a have a sophisticated understanding of family dynamics and how those dynamics affect legal outcomes.
These are the basic courses that — at a minimum — employers expect a student interested in this specialty to have.
- Trusts and Estates
- Introduction to Estate Planning
- Law and the Elderly
- Taxation I: Federal Income Tax
- Estate and Gift Tax
Students interested in this practice area should consider including one or more of the following courses as electives. These courses are also part of the Estate Planning Concentration offered at the Law School.
- Selected Topics in Estate Planning: Estate & Trust Administration and Dispute Resolution
- Marital Property
- Uses of Trusts in Estate Planning
- Selected Topics in Estate Planning: Financial Planning and Asset Management
- Client Counseling and Interviewing
Students expecting to work with high net-worth clients and those with business interests should consider the following courses as well. Several of these courses are also part of the Estate Planning Concentration
These courses deepen or broaden the skills and substantive information that a lawyer in this field needs and may also provide advanced courses for students interested in a specialty within this area of practice.
Note that whether a particular course is scheduled depends on faculty availability and student demand. For particular Estate Planning/Elder Law curriculum questions, contact Professor Howard Erlanger.
Second and third-year law students can earn academic credit, through the Law Externship course, for externship work at government agencies and non-profit organizations, such as the Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources and the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging, that will expose them to elder law and estate planning issues. Contact Externship Director Jane Heymann for additional information.
Student Organizations and Related Activities
In addition to our full-time faculty, the Law School's adjunct faculty members — prominent practicing lawyers — bring their specialized knowledge and experience to the classroom.
Jennifer Annen (JD, Wisconsin, 1999) is a principal in Annen Roetter, LLC, where she practices in the areas of estate planning, elder law, special needs trusts, medical assistance planning, guardianships, and real estate. She is a member of the Elder Law Section Board of the State Bar of Wisconsin.
Christine Rew Barden is a shareholder in Reinhart Boerner & Van Deuren’s Trusts and Estates Practice. She has extensive experience in assisting her clients in the development and implementation of estate planning and transition strategies intended to preserve family wealth as well as maintain and foster relationships across generations. Christine’s practice includes estate planning, family business planning, retirement planning, marital and prenuptial agreements, post-divorce estate planning, probate and trust administration, charitable giving and fiduciary counsel.
Michelle Behnke (JD, Wisconsin, 1988) is the principal of Michelle Behnke & Associates where she practices in the areas of estate planning, business acquisition and formation, and commercial real estate. She is a past president of the State Bar of Wisconsin and has been very active with the State Bar and the ABA.
Janice Bensky (JD, Wisconsin, 1983) is a partner with the law firm of Stafford Rosenbaum LLP, where her practice includes estate planning, probate, marital property agreements, and family law. She is a member and past president of the Wisconsin Planned Giving Council, a member of the Madison Estate Council, and a member of the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Sections of the American Bar Association and the State Bar of Wisconsin.
Susan Collins (JD, Wisconsin, 1995) Susan Collins is a senior vice president and fiduciary law senior counsel for Associated Bank, where she provides legal advice to management and staff on personal trust and other fiduciary matters. Before joining Associated, she was in-house counsel at BMO Harris Bank and a partner at Boardman Law Firm, LLP, in Madison, focusing her practice on estate and gift planning and estate administration.
Jennifer R. D’Amato is a member of Reinhart Boerner & Van Deuren’s Board of Directors, chair and shareholder in the firm’s Trusts and Estates Practice, chair of Reinhart’s Trust Services and co-chair of the Fiduciary Litigation Service Group. Jennifer’s practice includes business succession planning, estate and trust administration, gift techniques, generation-skipping transfer tax issues, executive compensation, will, trust and tax controversy matters as well as fiduciary litigation. Her clients consist of closely held business owners, wealthy families, private foundations and public charities.
Jeffrey Goldman (JD, Wisconsin, 2002) is an attorney at DeWitt Ross & Stevens S.C. His practice focuses on estate planning, complex trust and estate administration, and trust and estate litigation. Prior to returning to Wisconsin to work at the DeWitt firm, he practiced in the trust and estate practice groups of firms in Seattle and New York City. He is licensed to practice in Washington State and New York as well as Wisconsin.
Jessica King is a shareholder in Reinhart Boerner & Van Deuren’s Trusts and Estates, International and Tax-Exempt Organization practices. Her practice is devoted to advising closely held business owners, executives, professionals, and wealthy families on estate and tax planning. She regularly advises clients on estate planning, business succession planning, estate planning for non-US citizens, foreign trusts, estate, gift and generation-skipping tax issues, prenuptial agreements, family limited partnerships and LLCs as well as estate and trust administration.
Paul Schmidt (JD, Kansas, 1990) settled in Madison after clerking for former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice William Callow. He practices with the Boardman & Clark law firm, where he concentrates his practice in the areas of estate planning, probate law and elder law, and he speaks and writes extensively in the areas of estate and tax planning.
Andrew Seaborg (MS in Finance, Investment & Banking, Wisconsin) is a founding partner of The Capital Group in Madison, where he focuses on investment portfolio design and advanced estate planning techniques.
Laura Skilton Verhoff (JD, Wisconsin, 1997) is a partner with the law firm of Stafford Rosenbaum LLP. She practices in the areas of estate planning, probate, guardianship and litigation, including probate litigation, and is a member of the Madison Estate Council and the Forum for Women Estate Counselors.