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Will Powers: Meet The Top 22 Estate Lawyers in the Area

Bethesda Magazine includes W. Shepherdson “Shep” Abell, Charles S. Abell, Julia L. O’Brien, and Philip L. O’Donoghue on its list of the area’s top estate lawyers.


They’re the last—but hardly least—attorneys you’re likely to need.

Estate lawyers like to tell a joke that goes something like this:
The most boring college graduates go to law school.
The most boring law school graduates become tax lawyers.
The most boring tax lawyers become will and estate lawyers.

Admittedly, they’re not the ferocious litigators seen on TV, but will and estate lawyers do deal with their share of drama. Even when there is no conflict to avert, there can be unusual situations to negotiate.

Dealing with such complications can require a professional. The airwaves and Internet are awash with advertisements for online programs to write a will and set up estate plans—often for less than $100.

Brian Liu, co-founder and chairman of, an online legal document service, acknowledges that anyone whose estate is subject to the death tax penalty should see an attorney. But, he says, “for the large percentage of Americans who have a net worth of under $100,000 and just want to leave things to their spouse and children…making a will is very straightforward.”

The federal estate tax, which expires at the end of 2012, applies to individuals with more than $5 million in unprotected assets and to couples with $10 million. State inheritance taxes can be less forgiving. Virginia has no estate tax, but Maryland and the District of Columbia both tax inheritances after the first $1 million.

Top estate lawyers in Montgomery County charge $375 to $450 an hour. One way to lower that cost is to request the involvement of paralegals or associates, who charge as little as $175 to $200 an hour. You can also ask to pay a flat fee, often the equivalent of 10 hours at the lawyer’s hourly rate.

Based on interviews with more than two dozen Montgomery County lawyers, here are 22 of the top estate lawyers in the area.

W. Shepherdson “Shep” Abell and Charles S. Abell

W. Shepherdson Abell co-founded this 36-year-old firm, which specializes in estates, wills and trusts in Chevy Chase. “Shep” still takes new clients, lectures extensively on estate law and is an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law, from which he graduated in 1970. Abell, who served as a linguist for the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, is considered by many to be the dean of Montgomery County estate attorneys.

His son Charles Abell is a graduate of both Princeton University and the University of Virginia School of Law. The younger Abell worked at the prestigious Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., before joining the family firm in 2000.

The senior Abell has seen a lot of change over the years. “The assets people have are different today,” he says.“Wealth is much more likely to be in a house, pension or retirement fund, not in a nest egg.”

Julia L. O’Brien

A graduate of The Madeira School in McLean, VA., Julia O’Brien was in the first female class at Princeton. After graduating in 1973, she earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Maryland and took a job with the D.C. court system, working with child victims of abuse and neglect. Her interaction with lawyers and the judicial system prompted her to attend night school at Georgetown Law.

After graduating in 1984, O’Brien went to work at Furey, Doolan & Abell. Her first day on the job, she arrived on crutches from an accident. Now she is considered especially knowledgable about creating trusts for children with disabilities who will require special care after the loss of a parent.

Philip L. O’Donoghue

Philip O’Donoghue’s father, Daniel, was a D.C. legend in trust and estate law before his death in 2003 at age 96. His grandfather, also named Daniel, was appointed a federal judge by President Herbert Hoover and served from 1932 to 1946. Following in their footsteps, O’Donoghue went to Georgetown Law after getting his undergraduate degree from Notre Dame. A 1976 law graduate, he worked in the trusts and estates division at Covington & Burling in D.C. before joining Furey, Doolan & Abell in 1982.

O’Donoghue has a direct and reassuring manner that many say instills confidence in wealthy clients. Along with Nancy Fax and Stephen Widdes, he is probably one of the three most highly regarded estate and trust experts in the county.