Estate lawyers like to tell a joke that goes something like this:
The most boring college graduates go to law school.
The most boring law school graduates become tax lawyers.
The most boring tax lawyers become will and estate lawyers.
Admittedly, they’re not the ferocious litigators seen on TV, but will and estate lawyers do deal with their share of drama.
“It can be like divorce sometimes,” says Marcia Fidis, who used to try divorce cases before settling in at Bethesda’s Pasternak & Fidis, one of the area’s top estate practices. “You can get the same raw emotions,” she says, “but instead of a husband and wife, you get an emotional situation between siblings.”
Dena Feeney of Feeney & Kuwamura in Silver Spring remembers a case in which two brothers battled over who would get the copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that their mother read to them when they were small. (They ended up sharing custody, with each getting the book for six months at a time.)
Even when there’s no conflict to avert, there can be unusual situations to negotiate. Jay Eisenberg of Shulman Rogers in Potomac remembers one client who had him add a provision that his cat be euthanized and cremated after the client’s death. “Then he wanted both his ashes and the cat’s ashes intermingled and shot into space.”
Eisenberg also had a client who went on a golf trip with nine close friends every year. “He had me set up a trust so the golf outing could continue after his death, fully paid.”
Dealing with such complications can require a professional. The airwaves and Internet are awash with advertisements for online programs to write a will and set up estate plans—often for less than $100. But “you get what you pay for,” says Feeney, who has been writing wills for 40 years. “I had a case where, because a husband tried to write his own will on the computer, his spouse not only had to sell the business, she had to go to work in it.”
Brian Liu, co-founder and chairman of LegalZoom.com, an online legal document service, acknowledges that anyone whose estate is subject to the death tax should see an attorney. But, he says, “for the large percentage of Americans who have a net worth of under $100,000 and just want to leave things to their spouse and children…making a will is very straightforward.”
The federal estate tax, which expires at the end of 2012, applies to individuals with more than $5 million in unprotected assets and to couples with $10 million. State inheritance taxes can be less forgiving. Virginia has no estate tax, but Maryland and the District of Columbia both tax inheritances after the first $1 million. “I have told clients,” Eisenberg says: “‘Your best move is to Virginia.’”
Top estate lawyers in Montgomery County charge $375 to $450 an hour, with a somewhat complicated will costing as much as $4,000, according to Frank Baldino of Bethesda’s Lerch, Early & Brewer. One way to lower that cost is to request the involvement of paralegals or associates, who charge as little as $175 to $200 an hour. You also can ask to pay a flat fee, often the equivalent of 10 hours at the lawyer’s hourly rate.
Based on interviews with more than two dozen Montgomery County lawyers, here are 22 of the top estate attorneys in the area listed in alphabetical order.
W. Shepherdson “Shep” Abell and Charles S. Abell
Furey, Doolan & Abell, Chevy Chase
W. Shepherdson Abell co-founded this 36-year-old firm, which specializes in estates, wills and trusts in Chevy Chase. “Shep” still takes new clients, lectures extensively on estate law and is an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law, from which he graduated in 1970. Abell, who served as a linguist for the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, is considered by many to be the dean of Montgomery County estate attorneys.
His son Charles Abell is a graduate of both Princeton University and the University of Virginia School of Law. The younger Abell worked at the prestigious Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., before joining the family firm in 2000.
The senior Abell has seen a lot of change over the years. “The assets people have are different today,” he says. “Wealth is much more likely to be in a house, pension or retirement fund, not in a nest egg.”
Lena S. Barnett
Lena Barnett & Associates, Bethesda
A graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law, Lena Barnett is one of the best-known estate attorneys in the Bethesda area. She has been a lecturer and speaker for many years, and has appeared on local and national TV. Barnett has been in private practice for more than 20 years, and usually charges a negotiated flat fee.
Mary Beth Beattie
Law Office of Mary Beth, Beattie, Rockville
A native of Valparaiso, Ind., Mary Beth Beattie attended George Washington University’s National Law Center, then clerked for a judge on the federal tax court. After nearly a decade with two Baltimore-based firms, she hung out her shingle in Rockville in 1996. Beattie doesn’t have so much as a secretary, and works out of a second-story, single-room office in an old frame house. Her stated fees are about $100 less an hour than most of her competitors, but she generally will quote a flat fee.
Frank S. Baldino
Lerch, Early & Brewer, Bethesda
A native of Hackensack, N.J., Frank Baldino is a graduate of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., and attended law school at Seton Hall University in Newark, N.J. Baldino is a prodigious writer about estate and tax law developments, and is both businesslike and approachable. He tends to favor the planning side of the estates practice, and is well-versed in gift tax laws and options for creating charitable trusts. His recent articles are listed on his website. An ironclad Baldino-written will can cost about $4,000.
Deborah A. Cohn
Paley Rothman, Bethesda
A Philadelphia native, “Debbie” Cohn attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and George Washington University’s law school, graduating in 1978. Cohn is an expert in cases involving foreign nationals or foreign interests. She has written wills for World Bank employees and foreign-born employees of the National Institutes of Health. Cohn also has experience with Shariah law and Orthodox Jewish customs, including burial practices. “Writing each estates plan is like writing a script,” she says, “with the family members and the client as the actors.”
Eric M. Core
Lerch, Early & Brewer, Bethesda
A native of Clinton, Iowa, Eric Core has both undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Iowa. He had his own firm in Clinton for three years before moving to Washington, D.C., in 1980 to get an advanced degree in taxation from Georgetown University. His brother, radio personality Chris Core, was already living in the area.
Core teaches real estate taxation at Montgomery College, mostly to CPAs and real estate brokers who provide many of his referrals. While his partner, Frank Baldino, focuses on estate planning for mostly affluent clients, Core prefers probating estates, administering trusts and helping clients with tax issues related to estates. His Midwestern roots and small-firm experience are intrinsic to his success. “This is a personal service practice,” he says. “It’s not a mill.”
Jay M. Eisenberg
Shulman Rogers, Potomac
Jay Eisenberg, chairman of the trusts and estates department at Montgomery County’s largest law firm, knows what it’s like to deal with the death of a parent at an early age. He was only 10 when his father died. Eisenberg attended the University of Delaware as an undergraduate and has a law degree from George Washington University and a master’s in taxation from Georgetown.
Formerly a litigator in a small, all-purpose firm, Eisenberg has specialized in estate planning at Shulman Rogers for 11 years. He no longer enjoys legal combat, and when a case goes to court he is likely to refer it to his litigation partner, Kim Fiorentino. “My goal in the estates practice is to work with people,” Eisenberg says, “instead of creating something that is going to later pit people against each other.”
Nancy G. Fax
Pasternak & Fidis, Bethesda
When colleagues say Nancy Fax wrote the book on estate and probate law, they mean it. A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center with a master’s in taxation, Fax is the principal author of the annual Maryland Estate Planning and Probate Laws Annotated, considered the bible by Maryland estate attorneys. Her understanding of the law and her approachable manner have made her one of the most highly praised estate lawyers in the area.
Fax bills herself as an expert in trusts and wills for “nontraditional” domestic partners, including same-sex couples, unmarried partners and blended families. “The different makeup of a family can create some very technical differences in how the laws are applied,” she says.
Dena C. Feeney and Diane K. Kuwamura
Feeney & Kuwamura, Silver Spring
Known for her trademark beret, Dena Feeney has been teaching estate law at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., longer than many of her colleagues have been practicing it. A 1963 graduate of Catholic’s Columbus School of Law, Feeney worked at the IRS for eight years before getting a master’s in taxation at George Washington University’s National Law Center in 1971. In roughly four decades of practice, she has trained future competitors, as well as her current partner, Diane Kuwamura.
Born in Brazil, where her father, a Defense Department employee, was stationed, Kuwamura earned her law degree from Catholic’s Columbus School of Law in 1994. She has been Feeney’s law partner for more than 15 years and recently was elected president of the Washington D.C. Estate Planning Council.
The Feeney & Kuwamura website is full of information on probate, powers of attorney and life insurance planning.