Trusts and Estates

We work with individuals and families to ensure their wishes and desires for the future are carried out through the appropriate channels.

Time’s passing compels each of us to make important decisions about our own financial security and that of our family. In the realm of income, gift and estate tax planning, appropriate guidance from a trusted legal professional could result in tremendous savings in both time and money during a time of difficult transition.

The attorneys in our Trusts and Estates Practice Area have the skill and experience to assist in the legal management and protection of our clients’ assets. We view ourselves as counselors to individuals, families, closely held businesses, and tax-exempt institutions. We have been honored to serve many of our family clients for several generations, enabling them to derive significant benefits from the long-term planning that such extended relationships allow.

We try to temper our professional advice with personal friendship and understanding. Our past experience with wills, trusts, inheritances and estates makes us excited about the client benefits that result from good planning and close relationships. With over a century of service behind us, we can be counted on to provide our clients and their loved ones with the guidance they need–now and in the future.

Wills, Trusts and Family Legal Services
Working together with the client, we develop a sensible plan for the disposition of family assets. Wills are the principal documents that guide this planning, although in appropriate cases, revocable and irrevocable trusts are the vehicles to ensure that the needs of our clients are met. Many of our clients do not currently have federal estate tax exposure, but nevertheless recognize the need for careful and experienced advice in the disposition of their assets. We encourage flexible planning that will not only deal with normal retirement and life expectancy, but will also accommodate a premature death and its hardship on surviving family members. Total lifetime planning is encouraged, including such important elements as asset management for the elderly, institutional care, and life support decisions. Particularly in these highly personal and sensitive areas, we find ourselves acting as friends as well as advisors to our clients.

Estate and Trust Administration
Our team approach to estate and trust administration utilizes the skills and experience of both lawyers and paralegals in delivering a high level of service for our clients at a reasonable cost. Our professionals provide counsel and guidance to executors, administrators and trustees in the many decisions to be made in both planning and administering an estate. Frequently, complex tax elections after death can provide substantial tax savings for beneficiaries. We have the comprehensive experience necessary to arrive at the best decisions. We probate wills, file tax returns, and settle estates. We provide service at all levels for the surviving family members, coupled with care and sensitivity.

Transfer Tax Planning
Asset transfers, whether made during lifetime or after death, require careful transfer tax analysis. For clients with substantial assets, this means that wills and trusts must not only be based on family considerations, but also on tax analysis to take advantage of tax-saving opportunities that arise in the structuring of wills and trusts. Where appropriate, we also counsel clients to consider lifetime transfers to increase tax leverage. Benefiting fully from these tax-saving opportunities requires complex analysis and careful drafting. We do not wait for the client to bring us the ideas; we are proactive in our relationships with clients and bring innovative proposals to the table. We respect that the final decisions are always that of our client, and we are sensitive to their tolerance for complexity and risk.

Wealth Preservation
Our high net worth clients can benefit from well-leveraged planning strategies designed to maximize preservation of family wealth. Designing such plans requires special experience in dealing with wealth concentrations, in-depth analysis of each asset, and a thorough understanding of our clients’ personal planning philosophy, as well as the role each family member is to play in carrying out the plan. We anticipate many discussions with our clients as the plan is developed and refined. There is a significant cost associated with customized planning, and for that reason it is not for everyone. However, since transfer taxes are imposed at rates higher than any other tax (as much as 55% or more), significant opportunities for tax savings are presented. In this very special niche, our services can provide significant “value added” rewards for our clients.

Closely Held Business Planning
A common denominator among many closely held businesses is a combination of significant value with very little liquidity. Many closely held businesses are family owned and require special focus in dealing with issues of ownership and management succession, cash requirements and family harmony. We strive to reconcile the needs, hopes, and aspirations of all interested family members, treating them as people, not simply as names on a genealogy chart. Our many years of experience in working with a broad array of family businesses uniquely position us to offer creative solutions.

Life Insurance Planning
We have had significant experience with life insurance concepts and products. Life insurance continues to receive favorable treatment under the tax law, and is widely used in our planning. Our understanding of the taxation of life insurance products enables us to implement plans that fully exploit the significant tax leverage that this asset can offer.  

Business Valuations and Tax Controversies
Although not professional appraisers, we have been involved in the art of valuing closely held business interests for more than 30 years. Our knowledge and experience permit a useful analysis prior to the time that a formal appraisal is required. We also assist our clients in selecting appraisers, and work directly with appraisers to make sure that our knowledge of the business and its value is fairly and fully considered in the appraisal process. Closely held business valuations are frequently the central focus of gift and estate tax audits. When a valuation tax controversy arises, we lead the clients’ audit team. Our credibility is well established with federal and state tax audit personnel. We always seek a reasonable and fair settlement of the controversy to minimize expense to our clients, but we have not gained our reputation through compromise. If appeals or litigation are required to obtain the right result, we do not hesitate to make this recommendation.

Charitable Gifts and Charitable Organizations
We assist our clients to achieve their charitable goals in a manner that will also bring the greatest income and estate tax advantages. Our recommendations range from outright lifetime gifts/programs, to the creation of charitable foundations and complex trust arrangements. We also work directly with exempt organizations to assist in developing and refining charitable investment vehicles, such as pooled income funds, to enhance their competitive appeal to prospective donors.

Compensation and Retirement
The federal and state taxation of compensation and retirement benefits is important to our clients before and during retirement. We have had extensive experience with both tax-qualified benefits arising out of retirement plans and non-tax qualified awards, such as deferred compensation, non-qualified stock options, stock bonuses, and phantom stock plans. Where clients have compensation options available to them, we work with them to make the best choices to achieve investment and retirement goals. At retirement, we chart a safe course for our clients through the complex rules and regulations governing the form and timing of distributions, using computer-assisted projections in order to maximize their net benefits. We also help fit our clients’ retirement benefits into their overall estate planning to produce the best after-tax results for their families.

Estate Litigation
In addition to conflict resolution services offered for tax controversies, our Trusts and Estates Practice Area often teams with our firm’s litigators to handle will contests, trust disputes, beneficiary claims, fiduciary liability claims, estate and trust mismanagement, and probate matters. In addition, our tax professionals assist with representing taxpayers, executors, administrators, and estate asset recipients in all estate and gift tax-related disputes with government authorities.

Income Taxation
Where we have other significant relationships with a client, we are happy to assist in the preparation of income tax returns. We also counsel clients on income tax questions, including planning and representation in tax audit controversies.

As income tax rates edge higher, and the spread between capital gains and ordinary income tax rates increases, advance planning with knowledgeable advisors takes on added importance. Our professionals keep abreast of tax law changes and are well equipped to provide our clients with meaningful income tax planning recommendations.

Our Clients

  • Individuals
  • Families
  • Closely Held Businesses
  • Tax-Exempt Institutions

Key Contact


This website presents only general information not intended as legal advice. Although we encourage calls, letters and emails from prospective clients, please keep in mind that merely contacting Harter Secrest & Emery LLP (HSE) does not establish an attorney-client relationship between us. Confidential information should not be sent to HSE until you have been notified in writing by HSE that a formal attorney-client relationship has been established. Information sent to us before then may not be treated as confidential by HSE or the court.

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