A Primer on Teaching the Law of Wills, Probate, and Basic Estate Planning Documents to Business Law Students

By Read, David W.; Bailey, William A. | Southern Journal of Business and Ethics, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

A Primer on Teaching the Law of Wills, Probate, and Basic Estate Planning Documents to Business Law Students


Read, David W., Bailey, William A., Southern Journal of Business and Ethics


I. Introduction

II. Literature Review: Legal Studies Textbooks and Scholarship

III. Overview of Estate Planning in the U.S.

IV. A FRAMEWORK FOR TEACHING WILLS, PROBATE, AND BASIC ESTATE PLANNING Documents

a. Probate

b. Wills

c. Basic Estate Planning Documents

V. Case study for a one-hour class

VI. Teacher's Note

Practically all business students will face an estate planning issue at some point in their lives.1 This article addresses what American business students are currently taught about the law of wills, probate, and basic estate planning documents; it also addresses the pedagogy scholarship in legal studies regarding these estate planning issues. This article runs on the assumption that one of the primary objectives of business school education is not just to accumulate wealth, but also to preserve wealth.

As of 2014, Americans held more than $9 trillion in retirement savings accounts.3 Much of this will pass on to heirs, along with other assets such as real estate, insurance proceeds, personal property, business holdings, etc. In honoring the commitment to teach the preservation of wealth, it is important to recognize that the maximum federal estate tax rate is currently 40%4 of the value of property an individual has at death (after certain exemptions of roughly $5 million5). The prospect of wealthy individuals above the exemption threshold losing up to 40% of an individual's accumulated wealth at death warrants that business schools should provide, at the very least, a basic study of the most common issues and planning techniques applicable to estate planning.6

There is a general consensus that the analysis and study of wills, probate, and basic estate planning documents are typically the foundation of any advanced estate planning study. This article, like the most common approach to wealth transfer rules in a business school's business law course, focuses on the foundational rules of wealth transfer.

I. Introduction

We first introduce the topic of wills, probate, and basic estate planning documents and why this article is currently needed. This article presumes that while most business law instructors have a legal education background, only a small portion of business law instructors have a significant degree of experience in probate and will matters or significant education in this area beyond a course or two in law school. We seek to provide a framework for the business law professor whose experience in matters of probate and wills is limited. We also recognize that such a framework should consider the limited time and space allotted in a business law instructor's semester long business law course and the resulting constraints on subject-matter coverage.7

In addition to offering a primer for the business law instructor in the area of wills and probate, this article adds to pedagogical research by extending the discussion of lesser-addressed topics in legal studies scholarship. Similarly, this article adds to and updates the sparse articles published on the topic of business school coverage of will and probate law.

Second, we introduce what is addressed in the 42 most visible business law textbooks regarding wills, probate, and basic estate planning documents. In our study, we have found a core set of topics that are covered by most business school business law textbooks. A business law professor in business school should be aware of these topics and how they related to each other.

Third, we provide an extended overview of will and probate law in the United States. This overview frames a case-study discussion and serves to highlight student application of key concepts in the area of wills and probate. Students are encouraged to read this overview section in preparation for the case study. We conclude with a proposed case-study involving wills, probate, and basic estate planning documents for a one-hour class designed for a survey course in business law for the undergraduate or MBA student. …

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