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Estate Planning Law


Estate planning attorneys provide legal assistance to clients in order to arrange for the efficient transfer of client wealth during life and following death. Estate planning attorneys may be called upon to draft wills, trusts, powers of attorney, health care directives, and prenuptial agreements, along with other planning documents.

Estate planners may also structure and prepare necessary documents relating to the creation, operation, and restructuring of closely-held family businesses. The responsibilities of these same attorneys could also include preparing, reviewing, and filing the appropriate income and wealth transfer tax returns. Estate planners may work in law firms, accounting firms, banks, trust companies, insurance companies, and brokerage firms.

This subject overview covers the main types of issues that estate planning attorneys might face and the necessary skills that estate planning attorneys will need to develop. Additionally, it reviews related subject matters that may benefit students seeking a career in estate planning. Finally, the subject overview offers several discussion points for students potentially seeking to pursue careers in estate planning as solo practitioners.   

Main Areas of Practice

The “estate planning” label is often used as a shorthand description of a field that encompasses several different stages of wealth transfer during life and following death.

Clients regularly seek estate planning attorneys’ assistance to draft wills. A will is a document individuals create to determine who should receive their assets after they die. A common misconception is that estate plans are only for the wealthy or those who are elderly. This is not the case. While some clients will have significant financial portfolios, many do not.

The scope of a client’s financial portfolio impacts the content of the documents an attorney will have to draft. For small and moderate estates, attorneys will need to know how to draft basic wills to enable clients to provide for their survivors. Even for modest estates, however, unusual family situations and other considerations might require more elaborate estate plans.

Estate planning attorneys are often called upon to recommend alternative arrangements to minimize the amount of wealth that their clients pay to the government. The means to minimize such payments, however, can become increasingly complex with larger estates. As such, attorneys handling larger estates must have a thorough knowledge of tax law. The advanced tax courses listed on the accompanying pathway are meant for those who plan to handle larger estates in practice.

Regardless of the size of clients’ estates, estate planning attorneys may also have to create trusts. A trust is an arrangement that permits a third party to hold assets on behalf of one or more beneficiaries. The trusts may be created during lifetime transfers and testamentary transfers.

For clients with large estates, it is important for attorneys to understand the tax implications and potential benefits of trusts. For clients with more moderate assets, attorneys are most likely to be asked to create a trust when clients have minor children or a child with disabilities. In both circumstances, the clients want to provide for children whom the clients do not think can effectively manage the assets on their own.

Estate planning attorneys have several responsibilities after the death of a client. These responsibilities fall under the rubric of estate administration. They include advising and gathering the assets of the estate, paying the debts of the estate, and distributing the remaining assets of the estate after settling all outstanding debts.

Often, the most contentious of these three responsibilities is the distribution of the remaining assets. To distribute the assets, the attorney must be able to discern—based on the law and any controlling documents—which parties are entitled to parts of the estate and the amount, specifically, to which each party is entitled.

Required Skills

The practice of estate planning is largely transactional. Attorneys must develop competence drafting wills, trusts, and other types of documents. Standard forms and document templates are available through many sources, such as the internet and form books distributed at CLEs.

Estate planning, however, is not a form-based practice. Attorneys need to understand the type of information and terminology that go into these forms and documents. South Texas College of Law Houston offers many transactional skills classes; however, Administration of Estates & Guardianship provides students with specific drafting skills in the estate planning field, along with multiple sample documents.

Although the practice of estate planning is largely transactional, a small percentage of cases do require litigation to be resolved. This may happen when one or more of the parties contest the distribution of assets from an estate. Unsurprisingly, the likelihood that a party will contest the distribution of assets increases as the size of the estate increases. Litigation may also arise if the government challenges a federal gift or estate tax return.

Prospective estate planning attorneys who do not plan to focus their practices on large estates need not develop litigation expertise prior to graduation. There are attorneys and firms that do specialize in contested wills and tax controversies; however, attorneys do not commonly take on this specialty directly out of law school.

Moreover, even when one or more parties choose to contest the distribution of an estate’s assets, the case may never go to trial. Instead, the parties attempt to use alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to resolve the matter. As such, students pursuing a career in estate planning would benefit from ADR-related courses, such as Representation in Mediation.

Regardless of whether will contests make up none or a small percentage of an estate planning attorney’s portfolio, there are certain types of court filings with which estate planning attorneys must become familiar because they do come up regularly. Specifically, estate planning attorneys must be well-versed in motions practice because many probate matters are resolved in court upon the filing of motions. The particulars of an estate planning attorney’s motion practice are covered in Administration of Estates & Guardianship.

Estate planning attorneys should also understand the interviewing and investigation components necessary to ensure that the documents they are drafting accurately portray the client’s entire financial portfolio. For interviewing, attorneys should keep in mind that clients do not always understand the significance of all their financial obligations and debts, so it is up to the attorney to ask the questions necessary to flesh out the pertinent information. For investigation, estate planning attorneys must know the network of individuals that they might need to consult with to understand their clients’ financial platforms.

Particularly for larger estates, estate planning attorneys might have to work closely with clients’ accountants, life insurance agents, bankers, trust officers, and financial planners to craft an estate plan individually tailored to the particular client’s situation and circumstances.

Subjects Relevant to the Practice of Estate Planning

Estate planning often intersects with family law. In fact, many family lawyers are probate lawyers as well. Wills and probate require attorneys to know when the law characterizes property as marital and how marital assets get divided. For this reason, while prospective estate planning attorneys would benefit from the Family Law class offered at South Texas College of Law Houston, the subject matter of Marital Property & Homestead is particularly important.

As the above discussion makes clear, estate planning attorneys need to be familiar with tax law. At least for those who plan to represent wealthier clients, several advanced tax classes are advised.

An examination of federal estate, gift, and generation-skipping transfer taxes provides a foundation for proper tax planning for larger estates. For these clients, estate planning attorneys should know the fundamental principles of corporate taxation and the income tax treatment of partners and partnerships (including the taxation of limited liability companies and other entities treated as partnerships for income tax purposes). The advanced tax courses provide the prospective estate planner with the needed tools when planning and evaluating alternatives for a client’s closely-held business interests and investment assets.

Students, of course, will have a hard time understanding the tax treatment of business entities about which they are unfamiliar. For this reason, the accompanying pathway recommends coursework in Corporations and Agency & Partnership, particularly for those who plan to represent clients with larger estates.

Solo and Small Firm Practice

Estate planning is a particularly ripe area of law for students interested in setting up their own firms or working in small firms. This subject overview and the accompanying pathway are meant to serve as a guide to help students become as ready for practice as possible. Nevertheless, even students who do follow the curricular pathway for estate planning will likely face unfamiliar or challenging issues in practice.

For this reason, students interested in setting up a solo practice in estate planning would benefit from developing mentor relationships with more experienced attorneys. Cultivating these relationships prior to graduation would be advantageous. Students can do so by attending CLEs and other events and symposia related to estate planning. For additional information on setting up a solo practice, please consult the Solo & Small Firm Practice Subject Overview and Pathway.

This curricular pathway provides a progression of courses offered at South Texas College of Law Houston that are relevant to estate planning law.

Core courses
Recommended courses
BARRelevant bar examination topic
REQRequired course for all students

Stage 1

Relevant bar examination topic.

Three semester hours credit. Normally offered three times each academic year. 

A study of the execution and revocation of wills, intestate succession, will contests and will substitutes; creation and administration of private express, charitable, resulting, implied and constructive trusts; duties, powers and responsibilities of trustees; and the basics of estate administration.

Crossover bar examination topic.

Three semester hours credit. Normally offered three times each academic year.

This is an introductory course in the fundamentals of federal income taxation designed to prepare students, as lawyers, to recognize and appreciate the impact of income tax consequences on transactions and events they encounter in the general practice of law, including family law, dispute settlement, real estate, investments of various types and small business counseling. Areas of coverage include the definition and characterization of income, exclusions from income, deductions, and the determination of gain or loss from property transactions. With an emphasis placed on the Internal Revenue Code and Treasury regulations, students are introduced to essential legal skills of learning to read and understand the language of statutes and regulations as well as judicial interpretations and administrative pronouncements.

Stage 2

Consider earlier courses plus one or more from below

Relevant bar examination topic.

Two semester hours credit. Offered periodically.

Prerequisites: Wills, Trusts & Estates.

A skills-based, practice-focused study in the area of wills and estate administration including guardianship representation, basic estate planning, creditor claims, client development, fiduciary responsibility, and the role of the personal representative in decedents’ estates.

Crossover bar examination topic.

Three semester hours credit. Normally offered once each academic year.

Prerequisites: Federal Income Taxation; Wills, Trusts & Estates.

An in-depth examination and analysis of the Internal Revenue Code, regulations, rulings, and case law governing intervivos and testamentary gratuitous transfers, and the interrelationship among the federal gift, estate, and generation-skipping transfer tax statutes.

Two semester hours credit. Normally offered three times each academic year. Maximum of eight students.

Prerequisites: Students must have successfully completed a minimum of 45 semester hours and must have taken or be concurrently taking Wills, Trusts & Estates or a Probate Clinic.

This hands-on civil practice clinic targets skills development in client interviewing and counseling and transactional document drafting. These cases tend to be balanced between client counseling and intensive document drafting. There is some limited skill development in legal research, file documentation and maintenance, legal and case theory development, and professional development. The beginning of the course will teach students basic interviewing skills using classroom lecture components, simulations, a live-client file, and a supervised live-client interview in which students interview a client with modest estate planning needs. Subsequently and within the contextual setting of each client’s articulated needs and goals, students draft the appropriate array of seven potential estate planning documents.

Stage 3

Consider earlier courses plus one or more from below

Three semester hours credit. Normally offered once each academic year.

Prerequisites: Federal Income Taxation; Wills, Trusts & Estates; Estate & Gift Taxation.

Deals with practical aspects of estate planning, with the following major objectives: first, necessity for counsel to possess thorough understanding of client’s objectives relating to family and property, size and composition of client’s assets and liabilities, and for counsel to address practicality of drafting instruments to accomplish those objectives under state law; second, planning of testamentary documents for net estates expected not to exceed the applicable exclusion amount; third, planning of testamentary documents for larger estates, including use of bypass trusts and marital deduction trusts as well as including generation-skipping planning, and use of charitable gifts; fourth, consideration of reduction of size of probate estate through intervivos transactions designed to accomplish objectives of client; fifth, use of postmortem options; and sixth, review and consideration of selected types of transactions currently in use by the practicing bar.

Debra Berman

Director, Frank Evans Center for Conflict Resolution
Professor of Law

Representation in Mediation

Josh Blackman

Professor of Law

Property I
Property II

Richard R. Carlson

Professor of Law

Family Law

Phil Fenley

Adjunct Professor of Law

Family Law Clinic–Advanced

Matthew J. Festa

Professor of Law

Property I
Property II
Wills, Trusts & Estates

Pamela E. George

Professor of Law

Family Law
Marital Property & Homestead
Advanced Marital Property Seminar

Emilio Longoria

Assistant Professor of Law

Property I
Property II

Joseph K. Leahy

Professor of Law

Agency & Partnership

Bruce A. McGovern

Professor of Law

Federal Income Taxation

Shelby A. D. Moore

Professor of Law

Property I
Property II
Wills, Trusts & Estates

James W. Paulsen

Professor of Law

Family Law
Marital Property & Homestead

Jeffrey L. Rensberger

Professor of Law

Property I

Val D. Ricks

Professor of Law

Agency & Partnership

Darlene Smith

Adjunct Professor of Law

Administration of Estates & Guardianships

Crystal Washington

Adjunct Professor of Law

Guardianship Clinic
Probate Clinic
Property Transactions

Kevin M. Yamamoto

Professor of Law

Corporate Taxation
Estate & Gift Taxation
Federal Income Taxation
Taxation–Advanced Income

STCL Houston – Sponsored Resources


Visit the Career Resource Center to learn more about its services. Students can reach the CRC in person or online. The CRC is designed to assist students at any time during their journey through law school. It should be an integral part of every student’s Pathway to Practice. 

Clinics/Academic Internships

South Texas College of Law Houston offers numerous direct representation clinics and internship placements for credit. 

Direct representation clinics offer students the opportunity to work on real-life issues and achieve resolution of a matter for actual clients. Some clinics are litigation-based and others are more transactional in nature. Students can hone lawyering skills that transcend a specific practice area. Additionally, students can learn about an area of practice, experience what it is like to appear before certain courts, and gauge whether they are truly interested in pursuing a career in a particular field. 

Academic internships also offer students the opportunity to learn about practice in state and federal courts, governmental agencies, public interest groups, and non-profit and other non-governmental organizations. Additionally, academic internships can provide students with networking opportunities. 

Clinics/Academic Internships relevant to this practice area include:

  • Estate Planning Clinic
  • Guardianship Clinic
  • Probate Clinic
  • Judicial Process Clinic I/Academic Internship
  • Judicial Process Clinic II/Academic Internship

Fellowship Opportunities through the Clinical Program

South Texas College of Law Houston sometimes has fellowship opportunities. Recent graduates or alumni who have been practicing for several years are encouraged to apply when their experience and interests coincide with the job description.


South Texas College of Law Houston has a nationally renowned Advocacy Program that has won more competitions than any other law school in the nation. Participating in one of the numerous mock trial and moot court competitions is certainly beneficial for anyone seeking a career in litigation. Many competitions concern problems in specific fields of practice that are particularly useful for students interested in pursuing a career in that area. More broadly, competitions provide students with an opportunity to further refine their research, writing, and analytical skills, which are relevant to practice in general.

The Frank Evans Center for Conflict Resolution coordinates many competitions each year in the areas of negotiation, mediation, and arbitration. The program has developed a consistent track record of winning both domestic and international competitions, with more than ten first-place finishes in recent years. Students would benefit from participating in these competitions in the numerous fields of practice where alternative dispute resolution is regularly employed.

The Transactional Practice Center also coordinates several student competitions. These competitions are specifically geared to students who want to gain experience negotiating and drafting contracts, and learn about business transactions in general.


Law reviews and journals provide tangible benefits on two fronts: acquiring skills and attaining employment. As to acquiring skills, law reviews and journals provide students with an opportunity to further refine their research and writing ability. Law reviews and journals can also help students secure employment because they serve as signaling devices for perceived research and writing skills—this is particularly true for large law firms, the judiciary, and certain government agencies. The student publications relevant to this practice area include:


South Texas College of Law Houston has numerous student organizations that focus on specific areas of law. Participation in a student organization allows students to learn more about the subject matter of the field and about employment opportunities. The student organizations relevant to this practice area include:

External Resources


Databases and links that focus on providing information about employment in this practice area:


Bar associations and organizations—local, state, and national—provide students with many services. Most offer access to information about the relevant areas of law. At the local level, students can also benefit from the opportunity to attend events and conferences. Importantly, these events and conferences provide students with chances to network in the profession, which may lead to employment opportunities. These organizations also provide information on continuing legal education (CLE) programs that may be relevant to practice in different areas of law. The bar associations and organizations relevant to this field include:

Bar associations also provide students with opportunities to attend programs and network for free. Some bar associations have formal student sections that are free to join or they provide significant discounts to students. The relevant student pages include:


A listing of websites that provide information pertaining to this practice area, often from a practice-oriented perspective:

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