In just two years, Akerman Senterfitt's office in Naples has earned a reputation for its international trust and estate-planning work on behalf of ultra-wealthy people.
You've probably never heard of the tiny island of Nevis, but it could be a big destination for estate-planning attorneys and their clients.
Jonathan Gopman, the managing shareholder of the Naples office of Akerman Senterfitt, is helping to revise the Caribbean island's trust laws to make them useful for ultra-wealthy people who seek asset protection.
The revision to the island's trust laws puts Nevis in the league of other island nations in the Caribbean, and it has helped establish Gopman as one of the top experts in the field of complex international trust-and-estate planning.
Since opening an office in Naples two years ago with just two attorneys, Miami-based Akerman will have 14 lawyers in Naples by the end of the year, making it the largest trust- and estate-planning group in town, Gopman says.
As the Nevis project illustrates, Gopman's estate-planning work helps U.S. clients take advantage of the best locations in the world for asset protection. That's because the U.S. can't claim that advantage anymore.
Governments' tax policies have to take into account that people can plan for their assets virtually anywhere in the world. “Technology has really changed the playing field,” says Gopman.
Fact is, people can move their money more easily than ever before to tax-friendly countries where privacy is respected. “Governments have to be very careful,” says Gopman. “You can choose where you want to live.”
While Gopman established Akerman's office in Naples, just 20% of his clients live here. “We don't see geographic boundaries,” he says.
Clients are scattered all over the U.S. and many of them have interests overseas. Gopman recently returned from a trip to France where he met with some U.S. clients, for example. “Your partners are everywhere, your business is everywhere,” he says.
Gopman, formerly an attorney with Cummings & Lockwood in Naples, says the trust-and-estate planning business has changed in recent years because of changes in the tax laws. Because of higher exemptions, the need for complex estate planning isn't as great for those with small estates.
However, clients with $100 million in assets or more need more sophisticated advice to diversify globally. “You need the resources of a large firm,” Gopman says.
For example, to effectively plan for estates of these very wealthy people you need experts in areas ranging from corporate taxes to international tax and compensation. “We need to start focusing on wealth preservation,” Gopman explains to clients. “It's assisting people with global tax efficiency.”
Attorneys who can corral a team of experts in various fields of taxation, international law and corporate trust work will win the business. “Every lawyer knows how to leverage and use a large firm,” Gopman says. “You can't be parochial.”
Akerman has more than 550 lawyers spread out among 19 offices and is known for its corporate work. The firm has an office in every major city in Florida, including Tampa, Orlando and Tallahassee.
Expanding the firm
From offices in the posh Mercato development in Naples, Gopman continues to build a team of attorneys with local and international roots.
For example, Elizabeth Morgan recently joined the firm from Austin, Texas. Morgan is a well-known expert on expatriation, helping wealthy Americans obtain second passports, move overseas and spread their assets globally to diversify risk.
Morgan says Akerman's cutting edge work for ultra-high-net-worth clients drew her to join the firm. “A lot of big law firms don't like to venture out of their comfort zone,” says Morgan, who has had her own practice for 15 years.
Locally, Joe Cox also joined the Akerman practice recently. Cox has represented individuals and banks in the Naples area for more than four decades in areas of estate planning, insurance, trusts and taxation.
Naples is home to some of the richest people in the U.S., according to Forbes magazine. Three billionaires in Naples made the Forbes 400 list recently. “There's a lot of wealth down here,” says Gopman.
Wealthy people in Naples are the financial backers of ventures throughout the world. “There are a lot of deals that start in Naples,” Gopman says.
Together with law partner and litigator John Clough, Gopman started the office with a global perspective. “We knew there was a void no one was filling,” says Gopman.
Most people continue to flock to the U.S., but a growing number of people are heading out.
Helping them find an exit is Elizabeth Morgan, a shareholder in the Naples office of Akerman Senterfitt. She's one of the few attorneys whose specialty includes helping ultra-wealthy people expatriate themselves and their assets.
Morgan says more Americans started asking her for ways to mitigate the risks of holding U.S. citizenship exclusively. She says ultra-high-net-worth people are worried about confidentiality in light of accounts of government spying on citizens, civil unrest as a result of movements like Occupy Wall Street and natural disasters such as hurricanes, the dollar's devaluation, terrorism and aggressive government regulators.
“They're looking at risks on all sides,” says Morgan. “We look at a whole host of options. If one situation goes bad, there's a host of others.”
The concern varies by region. “People in New York feel really threatened,” Morgan notes.
For example, wealthy Americans are looking for ways to obtain a second passport or residency in another country, such as the Caribbean island of Nevis or the Central American country of Panama. “The Bahamas has rolled out the red carpet,” Morgan says.
Some Americans can obtain second passports from their parents' countries of origin. In some cases, Americans are renouncing their U.S. citizenship.
Some of Morgan's expatriation clients served in the U.S. military. “The majority of these people are patriots,” she says. “They leave with tears in their eyes.”
Morgan says clients view this strategy as diversification, much like one might diversify one's stock portfolio by asset class. In some cases, expatriates come from families that were impacted by past atrocities such as the Holocaust. “Each client has their own view,” she says.