8 Questions With Kelley Scrocca - What Is An LLM And Why Should You Care If Your Estate Planning Attorney Has One (Or Doesn't...)?

Kelley Scrocca from Swier Law Firm is the only attorney in South Dakota to have earned an LLM degree from the University of Miami Law School's internationally-renowned Heckerling Graduate Program in Estate Planning.

Swier Law Firm Heckerling Estate Planning Institute

Here Are 8 Questions With Kelley About Her LLM And Why You Should Care If Your Estate Planning Attorney Has This Specialized Degree

What is an LLM?

An LLM is a Masters of Law (Legum Magister in Latin). Essentially, it involves an additional year or more of education after law school. This additional training focuses on a specific area of law, such as international law, business law, tax law, or estate planning. In other words, an LLM is an intensive program that provides "laser focus" into the intricacies of a very specialized area of the law. 

Why don’t more attorneys have an LLM?

Most attorneys do not pursue an LLM after law school. This is can be for any number of reasons - (1) they don’t know what they want to focus on; (2) they already have a job offer; (3) they don’t have the time to devote to more education; (4) there is not a program in their area of law near them; or (5) they can’t afford it.

Earning an LLM is expensive. A one-year LLM program can cost $50,000 or more. That’s a lot of additional financial commitment after paying for an undergraduate degree and a law degree.

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Why did you decide to earn an LLM?

I earned an LLM for a number of reasons. When I graduated from law school the job market was terrible. I could have settled for a job somewhere, but that didn’t seem ideal. I had been a public defender and worked at a clinic providing civil legal services to prisoners during law school. I loved the client contact I had, but didn’t see myself doing this type of work long-term.

I really enjoyed my estate planning course in law school and invited one of my professors to coffee to discuss pursuing an LLM. This was a big decision. The one-year LLM program in estate planning would cost as much as all three years of law school! However, she had many good things to say about pursuing the degree. I applied to the only estate planning LLM program in the country at the University of Miami. The program accepts only about 15 students each year. When I was accepted, I knew it was meant to be!

What did you learn while earning your LLM?

The LLM program at the University of Miami is the only program in the nation dedicated exclusively to estate planning. The program starts with a semester of courses covering the core concepts of estate planning like corporate/partnership tax, wealth transfer tax, income tax for estate planning, income tax of trusts and estates, and introduction to probate. The second semester is divided into one-week sessions which focus on advanced topics. Each week is a different topic and each topic is taught by the top attorneys in the nation who take a week out of their schedules to share their expertise.

Some of the topics included asset protection, elder law, fiduciary administration, investment planning, disposition of family businesses, insurance planning, generation-skipping tax, investment planning, international estate planning, planning for distributions from retirement accounts, tax procedures, and tax valuations. This also includes attending the Heckerling Institute on Estate Planning, a week-long conference held every January focusing on cutting-edge estate planning topics and techniques.

Was earning your LLM worth it?

Absolutely! Many attorneys say they practice estate planning. However, does your attorney really understand estate planning? Unfortunately, some attorneys simply purchase a software program that spits out wills and different trusts by plugging your information into a form and having you sign what is produced. This may be adequate in some situations, but often it is not.

Estate planning is not easy. It has a huge learning curve and is constantly changing. It has intricacies that touch every facet of a person's life and encompasses many different areas of the law - tax, contracts, partnerships, real estate, retirement, investments, international issues, etc.

My LLM program introduced me to the nuances of these issues, showed me pitfalls where people can go wrong, traps people fall into, and secrets most attorneys don't know. It taught me a wide array of planning techniques that apply to unique planning situations. Estate planning is not a one-size-fits-all solution. 

I also learned specific techniques in how to best visit with clients, the most important questions to ask, and why estate planning is one of (if not the) most important legal decisions my clients will ever make.  

Is your LLM still relevant today?

Without a doubt! I earned my LLM in 2003. Since that time, I have worked exclusively in estate planning (despite many military moves with my husband). I have worked at very small firms and a very large firm. I have worked with clients with net worths of less than $50,000.00 and net worths in the billions of dollars. I have also worked with banks, trust companies, non-profits, and private foundations throughout the United States. I continue to learn something new almost every day!

In addition to estate planning being my exclusive area of practice, I also attend the Heckerling Estate Planning Institute at least every other year. Since 2003, I have attended the conference eleven times and maintain a wide array of professional contacts throughout the nation. I also am constantly reading professional articles, legislation, case law, private letter rulings, and other materials relating to my practice. I stay up-to-date on federal and state aspects of estate planning that impact all of my past, current, and future clients.

What’s the big deal? Haven't wills, trusts and estates been around forever?

That's correct - wills, trusts, estate planning, and probate are traditional techniques, but how these techniques are used is always evolving. These evolutions involve taking advantage of trusts for different personal situations – irrevocable trusts for asset protection, special needs trusts to preserve federal or state benefits, grantor-retained annuity trusts to help pass assets tax-free to future generations, etc.

Your attorney needs to know what type of trust is best for you, but even more important, what type of trust won't work for your situation. I have seen the estate tax fluctuate wildly during my time in practice. Each fluctuation brings different planning needs for different clients. States are quite competitive with their trust laws, and South Dakota is one of the best. Knowledge of how a state law can help clients is imperative to comprehensive estate planning.

Estate planning is not a simple area of law and should not be left to someone who just bought a drafting program and can print you a will. Comprehensive estate planning must also be able to incorporate retirement accounts, insurance planning, and planning for low-basis assets. 

What does a client really need to know about the importance of an LLM?

The purpose of this is to show that an attorney who earns an LLM has a dedication and passion for a specific area of law. My LLM in estate planning has proven to be invaluable, providing my clients with insights that they wouldn’t have otherwise obtained.  

You've worked hard your entire life to leave a legacy to your loved ones. I take pride in the wealth of knowledge and experience that I provide to my clients to establish an estate plan that is specifically tailored to their individuals needs and desires.

Do You Need To Speak With A Lawyer About Estate Planning?

If you need to speak with an experienced estate planning lawyer please contact us online or call our office directly at 888.864.9981. We will be happy to discuss your legal options!