A good estate plan helps individuals and families with some of their most complex challenges: planning the preservation of hard-earned financial assets, assuring the future care of a loved one, resolving the future direction of a family business, and ensuring that the plan is properly carried out according to the decedent’s wishes. Matt Ahearn, Shareholder in Dean Mead’s Orlando office and a member of the firm’s Board of Directors, has earned the confidence of clients throughout Florida as he meets these challenges with skill and sensitivity.
“Basically my estate planning and business succession planning practice divides into two broad categories: helping clients plan to manage their assets during life, and helping them with post-mortem planning that involves probate and asset administration,” Matt explains. He joined Dean Mead in 1998 after getting his JD degree from Stetson University College of Law in St. Petersburg and his Master’s degree in tax law from the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Matt has been with the firm his entire career.
“Some people may have the preconception that an estate planning lawyer should be a grey-haired senior lawyer,” Matt notes, but that is not an issue in his practice. “At 41 I’m relatively young for someone practicing in the field, but I have 14 years of experience and being Board Certified in two areas – Wills, Trusts & Estates Law and Tax Law – by The Florida Bar Board of Legal Specialization emphasizes that my whole focus is on this area of the law,” he says. “My clients understand that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to estate planning issues and they rely on me because of that knowledge.” FewFloridalawyers have both these prestigious certifications, and they are definitely a major distinction for Matt in his practice.
Clients and Communication
A wide range of clients consider Matt to be a trustworthy counselor who understands all aspects of the planning and management process, and who can adapt them to family situations as needs and plans evolve. “I primarily represent doctors, company executives and small business owners, but there are basic estate planning issues that I consider for all clients,” is how he puts it. “Above all the key issues is asset protection planning, and that is so fundamental that it shouldn’t be compartmentalized. Of course, there are unique considerations as well: for business owners their companies are an asset different from what other people have, and there may be additional complexities involved when the business is that of a physician or other professional.”
“It’s a fact of life in this kind of practice that, while I have a broad range of clients, in general they tend to have a higher net worth,” Matt continues. “For these people my tax expertise is especially important, because many lawyers who do estate planning do not have a background in tax law. In particular I do a lot of transfer tax planning that focuses on the special issues involved in gift taxes and the tax implications of generation-skipping gift planning.”
Clients of all kinds frequently tell Matt that they appreciate his ability to communicate complex financial and legal issues clearly, providing full insight into all the implications of the planning process. “The art of doing this job well comes down to communication,” adds Matt, “It’s not enough to understand the technical issues in tax and estate law; there has to be a practical ability to convey those issues to the people I work with in a way that they understand.”
Areas of Emphasis
In the two broad areas of Matt’s practice – estate planning and post-mortem planning – the legal and practical issues are inter-related. Clients rely on him to respect their unique concerns and wishes and to ensure that they are met within the context of the legal requirements for executors, trustees, guardians, heirs, and beneficiaries. The combination of Matt’s Master’s degree in tax law and his Board Certifications is crucial, because they enable him to better handle not only business planning issues but also transfer tax concerns.
In estate planning, he says, “I work with many large families with multiple generations of family members. While my own client may be the family patriarch or matriarch, the younger generations are definitely involved in the process and I regularly meet with them to ensure they understand what we’re doing.” Because of the complex issues involved, his primary source of new clients is referrals from local financial professionals, such as trust officers at banks and life insurance agents. “I also have positioned myself as a thought leader in the community by giving estate planning educational presentations at Bar organizations and Dean Mead sponsored seminars targeted to local professionals with a focus on issues like Florida’s New Power of Attorney Act.”
In contrast to estate planning during a person’s lifetime, post-mortem estate planning issues can be emotionally difficult, particularly when its a client who has passed away. Sometimes a client has set up an estate plan that their surviving spouse or children may not be familiar with, and Matt must communicate clearly with them about the implications involved and why things were set up the way they were.
“I approach post-mortem planning in a way that helps people anticipate the process,” as Matt describes it.” We start with a 30,000-foot viewpoint that establishes the broad purpose of what we’re doing. Then we drill down and look at the specifics of assets and liabilities. Often there are contested matters involving either family members or individuals outside of the family. That could involve some sort of problem in the estate plan itself, or a disagreement with what the decedent did or didn’t do, or there may simply be a bad actor causing a problem. Whatever the issue, my job is to help the family consider its options and make decisions, with settlement short of litigation if possible.” Most of these cases are resolved prior to litigation, and Matt says: “I’m not a litigator myself, I’m a tax lawyer who focuses in estate planning, not on the courtroom. If a problem can’t be resolved, I turn to one of my litigation partners to represent the client in court, with my guidance on the tax and estate issues involved.”
Different estate and post-mortem scenarios illustrate how Matt’s clients benefit from his experience and counseling. In one estate planning matter he represented a family that has been Dean Mead clients before he even began his career at Dean Mead. “They had done a transaction for tax-planning purposes that needed to be unwound because I determined it simply would not accomplish the tax objective they had in mind,” Matt says. “We used specific solutions available in a “failed transaction” situation to move a substantial portion of family wealth into a trust that was protected from creditors of the beneficiaries.” In another family that he assisted, the matriarch had passed away and the patriarch was gravely ill. Here, Matt says, “We needed to do advanced planning that could reduce the tax burden and keep all provisions of the estate running smoothly, particularly as they involved children from different marriages.”
On the probate side, Matt in one instance represented a very large estate for an individual who had advanced estate planning techniques put in place by several law firms. The estate’s diverse assets were in a number of different jurisdictions, and there were also conflict issues in the family about them. Matt explains, “My focus was to develop a game plan that would handle the post-mortem tax issues involved in the estate administration, which included reconstructing a planning technique put together by an attorney who had passed away before he could complete everything. It was a very complex situation, and resolving it was quite satisfying.”
To such practice accomplishments Matt has added a diverse range of other successes. In February 2012 he was one of three Dean Mead shareholders elected to the firm’s Board of Directors. “I’ve always done quite a bit of administrative work within the firm and joining the Board was really a culmination of this,” he says. Board members oversee the general direction of Dean Mead, from major financial issues to making decisions on staffing and technology purchases. “My background advising business clients is very useful in making decisions on such issues, and working with them also helps broaden my own practice skills,” Matt notes.
He also lends his leadership and management skills to the Orlando Ballet as a member of its Board of Directors since 2009 and as the organization’s Treasurer for 2012-13. “My wife is very artistically inclined and she as well as other people I know encouraged my participation with the Ballet,” Matt says. “They are tremendously talented people and it’s very rewarding to help sustain their financial and management strength in a way that supports their artistic goals.”
Another important part of Matt’s communication skills is his role as a pioneering and prolific blogger for Dean Mead, focusing on estate planning issues. “For years we had issued traditional client alerts and written articles on these topics, so I thought blogging was a natural extension of this – one that would reach even more people,” he explains. “It’s a good way to reach out to all diverse elements of the community, but especially to sophisticated professionals.” Matt’s innovative and informative blog posts are well regarded within the legal profession, and often are picked up by blog aggregators like LexMonitor. They are available to anyone online at https://www.deanmead.com/category/trusts-estates/. Readers will see how Matt approaches providing personalized estate planning solutions that are carried out as the way his clients intend, maximizing financial benefits while minimizing taxes and fulfilling all fiduciary responsibilities.