The Virtues of Estate Planning & Estate Planners Part 1 of 3: Estate Planning—A Job or a Calling?

Jun 25, 2024 | Charitable Planning, Diversity, Equity & Inclusivity, Family Law, General Estate Planning, International T&E, Podcasts, T&E Administration

“The Virtues of Estate Planning and Estate Planners: Part 1 of 3,” that’s the subject of today’s ACTEC Trust and Estate Talk.

” that is the subject of today’s ACTEC Trust and Estate Talk.

“The Virtues of Estate Planning and Estate Planners is a three-part special:

Transcript/Show Notes

This is Kurt Sommer, an ACTEC Fellow from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Welcome to a special lecture featuring ACTEC Fellow Turney Berry from Louisville, Kentucky. One of the privileges of being ACTEC President is selecting the presenter for the Annual Joseph Trachtman Memorial Lecture. I chose Turney Berry to deliver the Trachtman earlier this year during ACTEC’s Annual meeting in Phoenix, Arizona.

Turney is a thought leader in trust, estate, and charitable planning. When I received Turney’s CV to review, I was astonished at the list of activities, contributions to the profession, and all the work he has done.

We have broken Turney’s 90-minute lecture, “The Virtues of Estate Planning & Estate Planners,” into three episodes. Today, we share Part 1, in which Turney shares what drew him to law school and estate planning.

Turney Berry: Thank you, President Kurt, for giving me the great honor of being in this long line of wonderful, wonderful speakers and thinkers and such. And thanks to all of you for coming early in the morning to listen. It’s a great privilege to be here and a great honor to look out and see, to see so many of you. I don’t really do set speeches. I haven’t given a set speech since I was in College. I teach CLE, and if I teach Sunday school, I do it like CLE. So, you’re just going to hear me talk like I would for CLE, for better or worse.

I had another talk that would be fun to deliver someday. I was doing it in honor of our next President, Susan Snyder. It was a history of needlepoint and other sewing crafts. And then somebody said, “Well, it’s the 75th Anniversary. You can’t do that. You’ve got to talk about ACTEC.” And it’s like, okay, well, I’ll shelve that talk, and I’ll try to say something about ACTEC. And what I’m trying to do a little bit is follow, not that it’s their fault, but follow in the footsteps of Ron’s (The Calling of the Counselor in Counseling Families) two addresses in recent years in particular and Bruce’s last year. And so that’s where I’m really trying to get to now.

It’s early, and all of you have lots of other things to do. So, I’m going to try to give you in a nutshell, in case you want to just disappear or check your email or do whatever, all that’s okay. Let me tell you what I’m trying to say here.

Is Estate Planning a Job or a Calling?

My argument is really pretty simple. Being a lawyer for rich people is a job. That’s all it is. It’s a job. It’s not an adventure. It’s not a calling. It’s not a profession. It’s a job. If you want a profession, if you want a calling, if you want something that is really simple and important to everybody everywhere, then estate planning becomes doing something else, I think, and I describe it as pursuing and helping with the orderly transmission of wealth in all forms among the generations, for all people. That’s what I think we are really trying to do and that’s what I think ACTEC can help us with. And I think that’s a worthy calling.

Now, you don’t have to agree with me about that, that’s okay, but that’s my premise: when you really get down to that, we’ll see whether you really buy into that or not. Estate planning, in my judgment, is essentially re-founding, restarting civilization over every generation with every person and every family because what we have is a heritage that we’re going to transmit to the next generation. And that, it seems to me, is really what civilization is all about.

Virtues and Estate Planning

Now, what’s the title here? How did we get to this crazy title? Virtues – something about virtues and something about civilization. Let’s talk about virtues first. And to get to that, and I apologize in advance for a little bit of autobiography, but you have to understand about the virtues piece, that I never wanted to be a lawyer. I never wanted to go to law school. I say those separately because I never wanted to be a physician, but I always wanted to go to medical school. I would still like to go to medical school. As a matter of fact, if I won the lottery today, I might go to medical school. But I didn’t want to go to law school.

In fact, I graduated from law school, and I started practicing law on August 1, 1986, I still didn’t want to be a lawyer. Had no interest in being a lawyer at all, much less an estate planner. I mean, I liked estate planning. I didn’t want to be an estate planner. I wanted to become an estate planner on October 3rd, 1986. That was the day that I went to New York City, to the old unrenovated Plaza Hotel, and I heard Dan Hastings in the morning talk about then new disclaimer regs. I’d read the regs, and I could kind of keep up. I couldn’t have said all that. I didn’t think about all that, of course, but I kind of caught on. That was okay. It wasn’t all that exciting. But it was okay.

And then in the afternoon, the great man, the people were there to hear, was going to speak. And it got moved up and it got moved back because he was busy, et cetera. And finally, the great man appears in a room like this in a basement, dark. He doesn’t have a jacket on, he’s wearing a short-sleeved shirt. I think it’s lime green. He’s eating crackers from the podium. Historians tell me that it wasn’t lime green, it was white, the light was bad, and that they were mints and they weren’t crackers. But I was an eyewitness there. I’ve got the testimony, and I’m in the front row because illegally, I’m supposed to be taping this lecture to have it transcribed. And I have a little tape recorder given to me by my then boss, who I think it was last used by G. Gordon Liddy. And you kind of sit in the front and you beam it in any event.

And so, the great Dick Covey- now aged 95, still alive on the Jersey shore- appears, and he says, “We have a new generation-skipping transfer tax. The whole statute is in the definitions, and you simply have to get in there and figure out what they’re trying to do.” That’s what he said. And then he talks for another three hours, and I don’t understand a word he says. That’s not his fault. It’s that I don’t understand a word he says. But what I get, and it’s a miracle, is I get a sense that this is kind of fun, and this could be kind of interesting, and this could be worth getting in there and figuring out what they’re trying to do.

And I remember going to the unrenovated LaGuardia as well, about the same shape as the Plaza Hotel, and coming back on the airplane and thinking, “Huh, well, maybe this being a lawyer thing is something I could try for a while.” And here I am, still waiting to go to medical school. And that’s the deal. I will say to you just as an aside, because it’s important to me. I’ve had a chance to say that in person to Dick, and I’ve had a chance to say that in public, and I’m glad I can say it today. Very meaningful.

I got to Vandy, the law school, where I didn’t want to be about an hour away from my house. I didn’t want to go to law school. I didn’t want to go to that law school. I don’t think I could ever become famous and important enough for anybody to care about that story. So, we’ll leave that to one side. But suffice it to say, fall in 1983, I’m plopped at Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville. And fortunately for me, because I had no interest in law school, there was a fellow there who was a world-renowned philosopher there for a very short time, serendipity, a fellow named Alasdair MacIntyre from Scotland. Interesting sort of guy.

There are ACTEC Fellows who know about Alasdair MacIntyre, because I’ve got notes from some of them, which is great fun. Alasdair MacIntyre was there, and he was something very odd, he was an Aristotelian-Thomist. Well, what in the world is an Aristotelian-Thomist? Well, there’s an oddity. Most people parse that. They say, “Well, it has something to do with Aristotle.” That doesn’t ring good. We’re not happy with Aristotle. Aristotle, don’t we remember? He was like, kind of thought we had natural slaves and thought women should stay back in the house and cook lamb and make mint jelly or something like that. And we’re not thrilled with Aristotle and Thomism, we don’t know about that, but anything that begins with a saint, if you’re kind of a southern Protestant, like I grew up, well, you think saint, you think inquisition. You know, we’re not happy with St. Thomas. That was a different era but we kind of think that.

But what MacIntyre does, and he doesn’t buy into all that stuff about Aristotle, you have to correct all that he believes. And that’s the part about St. Thomas. What MacIntyre does is say that we look at the world in a way that is mistaken because of our environment. Let me tell you a little bit about that.

MacIntyre wrote a book in 1981 called “After Virtue,” in which he has three great examples of what he calls interminable debates. What he says is that we as a society- and he means all of us, left, right, up, down, Democrats, Republicans, all of us, whether you’re French or Indonesian, or in the US, all of us- fight about certain things with no ability to persuade others. And he gives us three examples.

  • He says, war: we can’t figure out and persuade others when it’s fair to fight and when it’s not.
  • And he says, redistribution of wealth: we don’t have any arguments to persuade others why some people should be rich and some people shouldn’t, and we should take money from some and give it to others. We just talk about this. This is 1981.
  • The third one he gives might ring. You might have heard of this issue, abortion because we have no way to resolve interminable disputes between people who want to talk about the mother’s rights and people who want to talk about the unborn’s rights.

These are interminable debates, he says, and the response to interminable debates, so says MacIntyre, is, look, half the people say, “Well, philosophers will keep talking about it, and maybe I’ll quit talking to people who disagree with me.” That’ll be fine because we all agree that’s half the people. And the other half of the people say, “You see, we can’t decide on these things. There’s no right and wrong, it’s just opinion.”

And, of course, 2500 years ago, Greek philosophy began with the notion that, no, no, it’s not just opinion because if it’s just opinion, the people with the longest spears win. It can’t just be opinion. MacIntyre says the problem we’ve got is we are hunting for the answers in the wrong way, not the wrong place, but in the wrong way. He says we want to think of these things as almost like a geometry problem. We want to come up with an independent, neutral standpoint that we can all agree on, and then we’ll just reason our way down and we will agree on these other things. And he says that’s impossible and it’s impossible because there are no independent, neutral standpoints. That’s what he says.

Now you can agree with that, you can disagree with that, but the diagnosis, I think is pretty handy and it’s very abstract and that sort of thing I think you would understand. But if you think about the fact that we really do have these interminable debates, then I think you realize maybe that there we are.

But I’ll direct you to another little book that’s very short by a fellow named Fishkin, James S. Fishkin, called Justice, Equal Opportunity, and the Family, written at the same time, 1983, I think he was a professor at Yale. And he said, “Look, here’s our problem, we have a society and we have three values we want to maximize: justice, equal treatment, folks, equal opportunity, and family and personal autonomy.” And he says, “In any given situation, any given fact pattern, we can pick two of those to maximize, but not all three.” Read the book. It’s a fun book. It’s a lot easier than MacIntyre. It’s a fun book and you can just see if you think that turns out to be true.

Now, what does MacIntyre say the solution to this is, and that’s what’s semi-relevant to this. MacIntyre says the solution is not to look for the independent standpoint but to look to people that we think are getting it right and see what they’re doing, see what they’re thinking and compare them to the people we think are getting it wrong and see if the folks who are getting it right can explain why the people who are getting it wrong, are getting it wrong and see if we can come up with traditions, as he calls it, of inquiry that are a little better than others, not perfect, not final, but are a little better. Now, that’s very abstract, almost impossible to understand. And so, we have an example.

Virtues of a Craft

The example I’m going to use is bricklaying — doesn’t come from MacIntyre at all, it comes from another fellow named Stanley Hauerwas, who was a friend of MacIntyre’s, is a friend of MacIntyre’s. They’re all still alive. MacIntyre is also 95, both born in 1929, along with Dick Covey. Hauerwas is a mere 83. He’s a child. He’s a mostly retired theologian over at Duke. Time magazine says he’s America’s best theologian. I don’t know how they know, but whatever. Hauerwas is a fun fellow and his father was a bricklayer outside of Dallas, Pleasant Grove. I looked it up just for you Texans. Pleasant Grove, which is apparently now some suburb of Texas, but 70 years ago, I assume, was out in the middle of nowhere.

Dad was a bricklayer and Hauerwas was an apprentice bricklayer for a good while before he escaped and ended up at Yale and became a theologian. And he said, if you’re a bricklayer, there are better ways and worse ways of laying brick. There are virtues you have to have: you have to have patience, you have to have organization. At times, you have to be meticulous. At other times, you have to go really fast. These are virtues and every bricklayer knows it. And a really good bricklayer will be able to look at work done by other bricklayers and say, “Oh, here’s what they did over here. Here’s what happened over here.” And a not quite-so-good bricklayer will know that some other bricklayer is a little better, even if they can’t quite do it.

In the same way that I think a great violinist can talk about why an almost great violinist is not quite so good, and the almost great violinist can say, “Yeah, what I can’t quite do is this other, whatever it is,” there since I can’t do either one. I don’t quite know, but that’s what Hauerwas and MacIntyre say. And I think that’s directly related to estate planning because I think we know as we look around the virtues, the skills, the requirements of being better and worse estate planners. And we think about that mostly intuitively, but not entirely and so shining the spotlight on that maybe informs a little bit about what we are trying to do. I think maybe.

Kurt Sommer:  This concludes one of three in our special ACTEC lecture: The Virtues of Estate Planning & Estate Planners. Please join us for the next episode in the series where Turney continues his lecture and gets to the heart of being an estate planner and protecting wealth for future generations.


Additional Trachtman Lectures in the ACTEC Trust and Estate Talk series:

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