TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Friday, July 9, 2004

Jack Kent Cooke Estate Fiasco Illustrates Decline of Estate Planning in Law Schools

Friday, July 9, 2004

Today's Wall Street Journal has a fascinating front page story about the difficult administration of former Redskin owner Jack Kent Cooke's $1.3 billion estate. The will spawned enormous conflict, with litigation at every turn and the seven (seven!) co-executors claiming over $37.6 million in fees. Yale Prof John Langbein attributes part of the blame to the decline of estate planning in the law school curriculum:

In many states, including Mr. Cooke's home state of Virginia, the systems for handling wills are archaic, unnecessarily complex and "extremely wasteful," says John H. Langbein, who teaches a course in wills and trusts at Yale Law School. Even rich people are having a hard time finding lawyers who know how to navigate the system, he says. Many major law schools have stopped teaching estate planning. "Few law students find the field interesting anymore," says Mr. Langbein.

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In my corporate, business, real estate practice I enjoyed working out the tax aspects. While I had to address estate planning, particularly for corporate executives, it was not an area I enjoyed, primarily because the discussions with clients had to consider deaths, with the many "what ifs" and alternatives to be considered, including the order of death of a married couple. In addition, the children of my clients many times were trying to direct the form of the estate plan to benefit them as the eventual beneficiaries, which may have conflicted with what the parent clients wanted to do with their estates. Another concern had to do with the fee to charge for an estate plan, especially since the plan would have to be changed from time to time because of changes in circumstances and the many, many changes in the tax laws.

In my semi-retirement I do a little estate planning from time to time. But I do not enjoy it, especially now that I am beyond three score and ten.

I had a reform proposal several years ago for estate planning simplification that would provide for a carryover from the first spouse to die of unused unified credit to the surviving spouse, so that a married couple could have simple "I love you" estate plans without the need for complicated credit trusts. However, I could not stir up sufficient interest.

Of course, the "death tax" may cease to exist at some point, either temporarily or permanently. But I'm with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates' dad on this.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Jul 9, 2004 2:56:31 PM