There are only seven attorneys in Memphis certified with the state of Tennessee as specialists in estate planning.
Five of them work for the firm of Wyatt Tarrant & Combs LLP, and Mike Adams is one of those lawyers.
To be certified, an attorney must have passed a test and been peer reviewed while 80 percent of his continuing legal education must be in the area of estate planning. It’s training and a distinction that is important to Adams, a 1997 graduate of the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, and which compelled him to further his studies.
“Right after law school I decided I wanted to really focus on, and specialize in, estate planning, so I went to one more year of law school down at the University of Miami,” the only law school in the country at the time offering a Master of Laws in the subject, Adams said.
It was a personal experience that ignited his interest in this area of law. His grandfather died just before Adams began law school and he was able to help his grandmother through a lot of the transition.
“I was kind of exposed to what having a good will can do and what it means to go through court, and so forth, and then helping her update her plan afterwards while I was in law school just piqued my interest more,” he said.
From Miami, Adams came back to Memphis to work with Bogatin Law Firm PLC until 2005 when he moved to Williams McDaniel PC, which merged with Wyatt, one of the region’s largest law firms, earlier this year.
Adams cannot stress enough the importance of having a plan in place should the unexpected, or even the expected, occur. Adams said there are three major events that warrant such planning: the birth of a child, a death in the family and traveling abroad.
All can cause people to look forward and consider pitfalls and possibilities, and many can be fraught with emotion, as in the case of the death of a loved one, which is why it is imperative to put a plan in place beforehand when calmer, cooler heads might prevail.
“A lot of it can be avoided if people plan early,” Adams said. “If you don’t plan at all then no one really knows what you wanted and different people recall different things about what mom said. One of the things we try to do is be very specific about what their intentions are, about what they want for their children or their family.”
A lack of planning, Adams said, is “one of the reasons why we’re seeing an increase in litigation the last six or eight years, we see a lot more litigation in trusts and estates area.”
“At the end of the meeting ... they walk away happy, they feel much better about it, they can sleep at night and you just see the smiles on their faces and the relief in their faces.”
While the entanglement of emotion is one labyrinth an estate planner might have to navigate, the tax code itself is another.
“You go to school, you do it for a while and have some exposure, and eventually figure out the complicated stuff, and just when you think you’ve got it, they come and change the law,” he said.
It’s a maze that is always changing, a roadblock thrown up here, a new statute there. If Congress doesn’t act by the end of 2012, the federal estate tax exemption will go from $5 million to $1 million, an event that is prompting people to make gifts this year or put the money into trusts while the exemption is still active. It’s the type of unknown that keeps estate planners like Adams on their toes.
“Probably the most frustrating and challenging part of our practice is keeping up with the laws,” Adams said.
To help mitigate such challenges later in life, Adams advises young people just beginning their careers or marriages to get a good, basic set of documents in order, including financial and health care powers of attorney, and a basic will. Once children come along, set up a trust and chain of custody should something unforeseen happen.
The rewards of his profession far outweigh any frustrations and the hoops necessarily jumped through as Adams is able to work closely with families to give them peace of mind.
“When you’re able to meet with someone before there’s a death and you hear what their goals are and what they want to accomplish, and then you’re able to help them implement that so that they can accomplish those goals,” he said, “at the end of the meeting, when it’s all signed, they walk away happy, they feel much better about it, they can sleep at night and you just see the smiles on their faces and the relief in their faces.”