Estate Planning & Business Succession Planning: Spotlight Practice Area

Greg Marler, attorneyInterview with Greg Marler, Attorney—

Greg Marler has been practicing law for over 27 years and is licensed in both Florida and Michigan. He graduated from James Madison College at Michigan State University in 1986 with a B.A. in Political Theory and then received his law degree (J.D.) from Wayne State University Law School in 1989. He returned to Wayne State to earn a Master of Laws (L.L.M.) in Corporate and Finance Law in 1997.

Greg’s practice serves Florida from our Fort Myers office where he focuses exclusively, on estate planning, business succession planning, and probate and trust administration. He began his legal career with a medium-size real estate, business and estate planning firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan and later worked with law firms in Plymouth and Novi, Michigan before relocating to Naples, Florida in 2005. In addition to estate planning, Greg’s legal experience includes business planning, finance, mergers and acquisitions, and real estate transactions, all of which help him to understand and assist clients with many of the broader issues that affect estate planning.

How did you become interested in Estate Planning? What path brought you here?

I have always preferred planning and avoiding conflict over litigating and arguing. Early in my career I had the opportunity to work in several areas of the law and was most impressed by the professionalism and abilities of the estate planning attorneys at my firm. It was clear that they were doing something that was highly valued by their clients. With estate planning, in addition to the challenge of mastering and applying the technical provisions of the law, I get to help people address some of the most difficult aspects of life and give them the peace of mind that they have taken care of their families.

What is Estate Planning?

Most people think of estate planning simply as preparing some legal documents to deal with their property at death. Those documents are certainly an important part of estate planning. But in many ways, they are just the final piece of a larger process. To increase the likelihood of having assets to transfer at death, and to transfer those assets efficiently, there are several things that should be done during life, including:

  • organizing finances, arranging assets and doing financial planning to meet goals
  • planning for current or possible future incapacity or disability
  • protecting assets against creditors
  • maintaining appropriate insurance policies including life, property, liability, and long-term care
  • making lifetime gifts and implementing strategies to reduce or avoid taxes

Then, a will or trust can be prepared to guide the distribution of property to the persons, and in the manner, desired. For example, trusts for minor children can ensure that their inheritance is properly managed by qualified persons, and used for their best interests. Even for adult beneficiaries, trusts are often advisable to protect them from creditors, divorce, or sometimes from themselves. Specific instructions and wishes can be communicated to guide a trustee to act as the deceased might have acted if still living. Such trusts can be created during life, or written into a will to be established after death. Very importantly, estate planning documents allow for the selection of specific, qualified persons to serve as the guardian of a child, the guardian of yourself if you become incapacitated or disabled as you age, and the personal representative of a probate estate or trustee of a trust.

To prepare a good and meaningful estate plan, it is necessary for the client to do some work, and likely make some difficult decisions. I believe that is why many people, understandably, avoid the issue. But the reward is worth the effort. In the end, a good estate plan is a gift to surviving family members that makes their lives easier immediately after a death, and preserves assets for their benefit long after that death.

What is Business Succession Planning?

It may be obvious from the name, but the goal of business succession planning is to preserve and pass on the value of a business that is owned in whole or in part by a key person. Eventually, that key person will leave the business either due to death, retirement or resignation. Unlike personal estate planning, which can usually be started and implemented in a few weeks or months, planning for business succession might require a plan that is executed over several years.

When there is only one active owner, successors must be identified, whether they are children, key employees or an outside purchaser. Then, ideally, a tax efficient plan to sell or gift the business is implemented that might need to account for the different levels of involvement of multiple children of the owner. There may be a need for purchasers of the business to pay the purchase price over time. In some cases, that payment is dependent on the continued success of the business, and that fact requires the seller to stay involved for a period of time, sometimes years, to ensure that success.

Alternatively, if there are multiple active owners, a “buy-sell” agreement can be executed which establishes the rights of the business partners if one leaves, sets a valuation method and provides for payment terms. Life insurance is sometimes used to fund any required buyout. Even after completing an agreement, a long-term plan also should be put in place for the day that all of the current, active owners leave.

Like personal estate planning, business succession planning also can be difficult for founders and owners to confront. Most founders and long-time owners of successful small businesses feel a strong, personal connection to the business and are very concerned about what will become of their business when they leave. But again, the rewards of implementing a plan can be great because it will preserve the value of what is often a life’s work, and will make things much easier for family members after the owner’s death.

What are you known for professionally? What do you have a knack for?

I listen carefully to each client. If I recognize an issue from what a client tells me, or even if I detect a concern that is subtly or sometimes sheepishly expressed, I will follow up and explore that further. With little additional effort, even relatively simple estate plans can be personalized to be more effective. I want my clients’ families to have the benefit of a thoughtful estate plan that meets their particular needs, since that is likely the reason a client hires me in the first place. It would be a disservice to my clients and their families to think that their situation calls for the exact same solutions and documents as a previous client with similar assets and family relationships.

What’s the one problem you solve best for your clients? What do your ideal clients say about you?

My goal is to provide assurance and peace of mind for my clients that they have done what they can do to preserve their assets and take care of their families. One way I do that is by using plain language and reducing sometimes complex legal concepts to understandable explanations. It is also important to quickly forge a good relationship with clients and let them know that I am just a regular person. This helps clients share their concerns and wishes more freely. Regrettably, lawyers or maybe the complexity of the law, intimidate some people, and that fear might contribute to them not preparing an estate plan. They might mistakenly think that a lawyer only wants to work with millionaires. But that is not the case, and I would hope that my clients say that I made them feel comfortable and ultimately confident in their estate plan.

Hewson & Van Hellemont, P.C. is equipped to assist clients in Michigan and Florida with their estate planning, business succession planning, and probate and trust administration needs. In addition to Greg Marler, Attorney Bruce Rice works from our Oak Park, Michigan office practicing Probate and Estate Planning law, and Attorney Tim Kaufmann also works from our Oak Park office practicing business planning and real estate law.

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