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Are these the End Times for estate attorneys?

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It was a droll observation that produced a few laughs from a tough audience — a roomful of estate attorneys who gathered this morning in New York for a session on last December's federal tax law revisions.

Jeremiah W. Doyle IV, senior vice president for BNY Mellon Private Wealth Management, noted that when the estate tax exemption was last at $1 million in 2003, just 2 percent of estates were subject to the tax. When the exemption rose to $3.5 million in 2009, the share of affected estates dropped to one-quarter of 1 percent. Under the current $5 million exemption, it's just one-sixth of 1 percent. The IRS expects to receive just 2,800 estate returns for 2011.

Doyle drew a few chuckles with his suggestion that a good career move for estate attorneys would be to shift over to income tax practice.

A Massachusetts native with the dropped Rs to prove it, Doyle has a personal stake in estate tax revisions. A Boston Red Sox fan, he noted that the late owner of the despised New York Yankees, George Steinbrenner, would not be obligated to pay estate taxes because he died last year when the tax had expired. There's some thin satisfaction for Boston here; Steinbrenner's heirs would get no step-up in basis on the assets in the estate if it elected not to pay taxes on George's billions.

The tax program was sponsored by the New York County Lawyers' Association and Trusts & Estates magazine.

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