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Trusts & Estates

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The practice of Trusts & Estates has rich facets. Because the Trusts & Estates lawyer often has close contact with clients, it tends to be a satisfying practice in the human sense. But the practice is also intellectually satisfying, incorporating wills, trusts, estate planning, estate administration, lifetime gifts, guardianships for children, taxes, medical directives, life estates, powers of attorney, powers of appointment, and elder-law. Trusts & Estates attorneys also tend to handle other personal matters for their clients, such as real estate transactions, adoptions, and prenuptial agreements. Litigation can arise in any of these areas, and Trusts & Estates practitioners either handle litigation themselves or refer it to litigators.

An attorney who knows Trusts & Estates can work in a law firm or in the Surrogate’s Court, in a trust company or wealth-management firm, in an accounting firm, in the state attorney general’s office or public administrator’s office, and in the Internal Revenue Service. Non-profit organizations such as universities, hospitals, museums, animal-rights groups and opera companies regularly use attorneys in their fundraising departments. Large law firms generally have small Trusts & Estates departments, often to accommodate their corporate clients, and positions in those firms are hard to get. However, because new generations of clients constantly need counsel in Trusts & Estates matters, the flow of work is steady for the attorney who chooses this field. It is hard to break into the field without experience, so externships and internships are crucial.

The Trusts & Estates field includes four kinds of work:

Estate Planning

The attorney finds out what a client possesses and what he or she wishes to do with the property during his or her lifetime and at death. Each case is different and provides its own joys and challenges. If a person is married with children, for example, the plan may involve prenuptial agreements, Uniform Transfers to Minors, trusts for the children, and “529 accounts” (education planning). If the client is wealthy, it may involve lifetime gifts plans to reduce the client’s estate taxes. If the client has a disabled child, a Supplemental Needs Trust can relieve the parents’ anxieties about the child’s long-term care. If the client is charitably inclined, the attorney can help the client execute lifetime and testamentary gifts that do real good in the world and also reduce income and estate taxes. If the client expects a will contest from disgruntled family members, the attorney can help him or her avoid it or optimize his executor’s chance of winning it. The attorney guides the client through the sometimes confusing legal aspects of estate planning and helps him organize his affairs. It is meaningful and satisfying work.

Estate Administration

When a person dies, his affairs will be settled by the terms of a lifetime trust if he had one, and in the Surrogate’s Court if he died with or without a will. The attorney probates the will and helps the executor or the administrator to administer the estate, to pay the decedent’s creditors, collect the insurance, annuities and other death benefits, to sell the house or property if necessary, to file the estate taxes (federal and state) if taxes are due, to prepare an accounting, and to distribute the assets to the decedent’s beneficiaries. Attorneys who practice in the Surrogate’s Court tend to be a civilized and cohesive group. Helping families who are trying to deal with the death of a loved one is gratifying.

Estate Litigation

This may include such actions and proceedings as will contests, contested accountings, proceedings to recover property that belonged to the decedent, and proceedings to surcharge a fiduciary for wrongdoing. The Surrogate’s Court is governed by the rules of civil practice that apply in other civil courts except to the extent that the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act has a different rule.

Elder Law

With the aging of the “baby boomers” born after the second World War, attorneys for the elderly have plenty of work. Attorneys practicing Elder Law work on in wills, trusts, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, powers of attorney, living wills, health-care directives and proxies. Guardianships under Mental Hygiene Law Article 81 have burgeoned as the population ages, and a lawyer may be the guardian for an elderly person or may be the court evaluator appointed to review the guardian’s annual accounting for the elderly person’s assets. Elder Law practice is intensely people-oriented. The client is often the elderly person, but the lawyer often has to deal also with the client’s children.


The Trusts & Estates lawyer is often the family lawyer, so he or she should have a broad legal education that includes Business Organizations, Evidence, Personal Income Tax, Creditors’ Rights, Family Law, Estate and Gift Tax, Conflicts, Real Estate Transactions (and Advanced), and UCC courses. He or she (like every lawyer) also needs to be a good writer, so students should take as many of the drafting and writing courses as they can. If a student expects to be at a small firm, he or she should concentrate her writing courses on family law, real property law, and criminal law. Because the practice is fact-driven and the clients are often frightened and vulnerable, he or she should take courses in interviewing, counseling, negotiating, and mediating. If the student expects to litigate estate matters, he or she should also take the trial advocacy and pre-trial advocacy offerings. The student should extern or intern in the Surrogate’s Court and in Trusts & Estates firms or departments.

To learn the law needed specifically for Trusts & Estates, a student should take all of the following:

Foundation Courses
All are strongly recommended and should be taken early in the upper-level years.
Advanced Courses
Advanced coursework that will build your substantive knowledge in this pathway.
Writing Courses
Coursework to hone your writing skills and develop a portfolio of practicing writing in your field.
Skills Courses
Courses that will develop your oral advocacy, ADR, and other skills necessary for practice.
  • Trusts & Estates
  • Tax: Estate and Gift
  • Estate Planning
  • Elder Law
  • Estate Administration
  • Estate Administration Litigation
  • Drafting: Wills and Trust Instruments
  • Advanced Interviewing and Counseling
  • Mediation
  • Negotiation (Intensive)
  • Trial Advocacy

Course Descriptions


Externships place students in a wide variety of not-for-profit, government, public interest, and private organizations and firms, where they work directly under the supervision of a practicing attorney. The external placements are bolstered by an in-school seminar in which students analyze their practical experiences and gain skills necessary for the profession. Sample placements in this pathway include:
  • Capell Barnett Matalon & Schoenfeld, LLP
  • City Bar Justice Center-Elder Law Project
  • Surrogate’s Courts
  • Public Administrator’s Offices
  • Surrogates Courts
  • Sweeney, Gallo, Reich & Bolz LLP


Students should seek out connections with practitioners and other students, both internally and externally. Adjunct professors can be an excellent resource both for guidance and for employment opportunities. The professional bar associations also welcome student participation and offer reduced membership rates for students. Some bar sections and committees look for students to provide research or other assistance on projects. St. John’s faculty are also an essential resource. Students should make an effort to get to know faculty who teach and have experience in their chosen areas. Finally, students should connect with other students who share similar interest through student organizations and attendance at Law School events.

Professional Organizations

NYC Bar Association Committees:

Suffolk County Bar Association

Nassau County Bar Association Committees:

  • Elder Law, Social Services & Health Advocacy
  • Surrogate’s Court Estates and Trusts

New York State Bar Association Committees:

New York County Lawyers’ Association Committees:

  • Estates Trusts Section
  • Elder Law

American Bar Association Committees:

American Association of Trust, Estate and Elder Law Attorneys

Suggested Path

Part-time students should spread out the suggested path below to account for their expected date of graduation.

Year Fall Spring Summer
  • Required courses
  • Pro bono
  • Required courses
  • Pro bono
  • Externship or job in Trusts & Estates
  • Trusts & Estates
  • Electives
  • Clinic or externship
  • Continue pro bono work
  • Estate and Gift Tax
  • Electives
  • Clinic or externship
  • Continue pro bono work
  • Externship or job in Trusts & Estates
  • Drafting Wills and Trust Instruments
  • Estate Administration or Estate Planning
  • Electives
  • Complete SWR paper in Trusts & Estates
  • Continue pro bono work
  • Clinic or externship
  • Elder Law
  • Estate Administration Litigation
  • Electives
  • Clinic or externship
  • Graduation
  • Bar Exam

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