Savvy estate planning

A brief review of James L. Cunningham Jr.'s book Savvy Estate Planning: What You Need to Know Before You Talk to the Right Lawyer

Savvy estate planning
Photo by Karol Kaczorek

Estate planning has never been an item on my to-do list until a few years ago when a co-worker of mine gave a nice and succinct presentation about why it is a thing you should really consider. It was one of those enlightening moments, when you realize that there many things you assumed without any basis or understanding, and that there are even more things that you have not even thought about at all which could have all kinds of consequences and repercussions. Motivated by that experience, I got a recommendation from same person to read Savvy Estate Planning: What You Need to Know Before You Talk to the Right Lawyer[1] by James L. Cunningham Jr. I've read this book twice hence, once a few years ago and then again just a few weeks back as I'm finally beginning to work through my own estate plan. What follows is a brief summary of the book contents.

Let's start with what this book is not. It is not a self-help guide that will enable you to put together an estate plan, or which you can use in conjunction with an online service to compose an estate plan. As a matter of fact, this book will likely make you shy away from any online services and one-size fit all forms, unless you have the most simplest of situations. Don't get put off by the hefty 316 pages of content, as it is a really easy non-technical read. The second time around I was able to knock it out in less than a week with just a few evening reading sessions.

So what is the purpose of the book? In my opinion it is to educate the reader about all the major components of an estate plan, the major terms, some possible options that may apply to you based on your situations and variations thereof, and some of the most common mistakes people make and pitfalls they may encounter on the way. Yes, occasionally the book may read a little like an advertisement for using estate lawyers, but overall given the amount of information that it conveys it is well worth the read. Of course if you are absolutely determined not go the lawyer route then this book is most likely not for you. But if you are open to it, then when you finally go see a lawyer you will not end up in a deer in headlights scenario, as most items and terms with be familiar to you.

The topics that are covered include all the basic documents that are part of an estate plan including Power of Attorney for Property and Healthcare, HIPAA Authorizations, Living Will, Trust, Will, Guardianship Nominations, etc. Various possible Trusts are covered that can protect assets from lawsuits and creditors, protect heirs from themselves, reduce taxes and so forth. Education is provided about assets which generally do not go into Trusts such as 401Ks, IRAs, Annuities, Life Insurance, etc. On that note, retirement accounts are a particularly tricky subject and special care needs to be take to avoid huge tax implications.[2] Estate Taxes and Gift Taxes are addressed as well and various vehicles to minimize those are mentioned. The book finished with a long check-list of important items for identifying a competent estate lawyer and implementing a complete estate plan.

Overall I feel pretty good about engaging with a lawyer to get the estate plan done after reading this book. I've also found the blog section of the Cunningham Legal website fairly informative to read up on more recent tax changes. I suppose now the hard part begins of actually getting it all into writing - let's see how it goes.


  1. The link in the main text is a direct link to the book with no tracking. If you decide to purchase the book and want to toss a few cents my way for a coffee, consider using this affiliate link instead: https://amzn.to/3grHU7Y ↩︎

  2. The Stretch IRA advice provided in the current edition of this book is outdated: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/stretch-ira.asp ↩︎