Tax Insider

A tribute to Byrle Abbin: A legend of the estate and trust world

By Eileen Reichenberg Sherr, CPA, CGMA

Byrle Abbin, CPA, J.D., a respected, knowledgeable, and outspoken mentor to many estate, gift, and trust tax professionals, died on March 19, 2019. He was 87. He joined the AICPA in 1960 and continued to contribute his intelligence, ideas, efforts, and time to the profession and to many professionals for almost 60 years.

Memorial plans

His family is planning a memorial for Byrle Abbin on Monday, May 13, 2019, at 1 p.m., at Washington Hebrew Congregation (www.whctemple.org), 3935 Macomb Street NW, Washington, DC 20016-3741. There is street parking only. The parking lot has only about 40 spaces.

Memorial donations can be made to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (michaeljfox.org) or the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (ushmm.org).

He shared his wisdom

Byrle was always thinking and sharing his ideas. He was one of the most knowledgeable people I have known and worked with, and he was willing to share his great knowledge and thoughts with others — even when what he had to say may not have been a popular or common view. He was direct and not shy. He told you what he thought.

Many practitioners learned from him and sought his advice on complex issues others could not address. He had high expectations of himself and others; he was always generous with his time to give advice and answer questions — as long as you did not waste his time or make him do all the thinking and work. He expected others to be as prepared as he was and put in the same amount of thought that he would.

Byrle also had a great ability to see the bigger picture. He realized the practicality and politics of situations. He knew what was realistic and what would likely never be possible to do or even attempt. He kept up to date on everything — mostly for updating his book on the income taxation of fiduciaries and beneficiaries. He provided me with good insights, and he was good at focusing on the key point and explaining technical issues in practical terms. He was a great writer and speaker, too.

Byrle welcomed opportunities to engage on estate and trust topics. He continued to stay involved, emailed and called, and worked well into his “retirement years,” amazing me with his constantly staying up to date and his dedication and drive — more than many people half his age.

I had the privilege to work with him for the past 24 years. Soon after I started working at the AICPA, he reached out to me on a trust Sec. 469 project that is still not yet resolved. I was in touch with him throughout the years. He volunteered for many (or was talked into a few) task forces. He continued until very recently to come to, and participate actively in, the AICPA Trust, Estate, and Gift Tax Technical Resource Panel meetings and discuss estate and trust tax issues with our members and liaisons from the American Bar Association, American Bankers Association, and American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. He was always willing to offer his thoughts and advice to Treasury and IRS officials, and congressional staffers, too. Many practitioners feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with, and learn from, him.

He received a number of awards

Byrle was a role model for the profession. It is interesting (but not surprising) to find out that he started off right from the beginning when taking the CPA Exam — Byrle was awarded the Elijah Watts Sells Gold Medal by the AICPA for writing the best examination in the nationwide CPA Exam in November 1959.

Later in his career, I was glad that he was able to see others recognize him for his many efforts. In 2001, he won the AICPA’s Arthur J. Dixon Award, the accounting profession’s highest award for tax service, recognizing a “Career of Service with Distinction in the Field of Taxation.” In 2004, he received the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils’ (NAEPC’s) Distinguished Accredited Estate Planners award for his contribution to the promotion of estate planning expertise nationally. In 2008, the NAEPC presented him the Hartman Axley Lifetime Service Award in recognition of distinguished service to the estate planning profession.

AICPA volunteer involvement, publications, and contributions

Byrle was an active member of the AICPA Tax Section and served on many of its committees for 40 years, from 1978 until recently.

As chair of the AICPA Consumption Tax Task Force, he helped draft the AICPA study Flat Tax and Consumption Taxes: The Guide to the Debate, which was issued in 1995 and was updated into the 2005 AICPA study Understanding Tax Reform: A Guide to 21st Century Alternatives, and the 2009 AICPA study Tax Reform Alternatives for the 21st Century. He also was vice chair of the AICPA Estate Tax Reform Task Force and helped develop and write the chapter on a comprehensive income tax and accessions tax in the AICPA Study on Reform of the Estate and Gift Tax System, which was issued in 2001. His leadership resulted in a multidisciplinary group of the AICPA, American Bar Association, and American Bankers Association drafting simplification and relief legislation for the generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax that was enacted into law by the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, P.L. 107-16.

In addition to his leadership efforts on the AICPA Consumption Tax Task Force and the AICPA Estate Tax Repeal Task Force, he also served on the following AICPA committees and task forces:

  • Charitable Remainder Trust Task Force;
  • Editorial Advisory Board for The Tax Adviser;
  • Estate Tax Expatriate Task Force;
  • Family Office/Private Trust Companies Distribution Committee Task Force;
  • Foreign Trust Task Force;
  • Income Taxation of Estates, Trusts, and Beneficiaries Committee;
  • Legislative Affairs Committee;
  • Relations with the Bar Committee;
  • Section 67(e) Task Force;
  • The Tax Adviser and Other Tax Publications Committee;
  • Trust Accounting Income Task Force;
  • Trust, Estate, and Gift Tax Committee/Technical Resource Panel; and
  • National Conference of Lawyers and CPAs (a joint effort of the ABA-AICPA).

Byrle served in many organizations in his field. He was a member of the Illinois Institute of CPAs and the American Bar Association. He also served as a director of the American Council for Capital Formation, Tax Council, and the NAEPC, and as chair of the Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation. He was on the editorial advisory board of Estate Planning and Tax Management’s Estates and Gifts and Trust Journal — two of the major tax journals emphasizing estate planning.

A well-known author and speaker

If you worked in the estate and gift tax field, you probably knew or had heard of Byrle Abbin. He had a tremendous reputation for serving his clients, as well as one for being a prolific author and speaker.

He received his B.B.A. with Distinction from the University of Michigan and his J.D. from Harvard Law School. He also served in the U.S. Army. He worked much of his career as a partner at Arthur Andersen, where he was managing director, Tax Competence (firmwide) twice. After retiring in 1993, he went on to be a founder and managing director of the Office of Federal Tax Services as managing director at Andersen Tax. He continued working until a few years ago.

He was a nationally known authority and legend in gift, estate, and GST taxes, and income taxation of fiduciaries and beneficiaries.

He was well known for the books and treatises that he wrote and continued to keep updated throughout many years. He was author of a successful tax treatise: Income Taxation of Fiduciaries and Beneficiaries (Panel Publishers/CCH), which includes 35 case studies with filled-in Forms 1041, U.S. Income Tax Return for Estates and Trusts, which is updated annually — the most recent edition was published in June 2018. He also co-authored and edited a two-volume treatise: The Corporate AMT (CCH). He also was a co-author and editor of Tax Economics of Charitable Giving (Warren, Gorham & Lamont).

Byrle wrote over 60 papers featured in major tax journals, as well as tax conference and institute proceedings. He also served on editorial advisory boards for numerous major tax journals, including as a longtime member of The Tax Adviser’s editorial advisory board, where he contributed numerous articles, including his first contribution to The Tax Adviser in its second issue, in February 1970, when he wrote an article titled, “Why Not? Make the Donee Pay the Gift Tax!” He was a frequent contributor to The Tax Adviser for the next 31 years, including writing the “Significant Recent Developments in Estate Planning” update for many years. His most recent contribution to The Tax Adviser was in the March 2001 issue, when he was a co-author of “AICPA Members Respond to Estate Tax Survey” (he was then vice chair of the Estate Tax Repeal Task Force).

Byrle appeared on more than 150 occasions as a guest speaker at all major tax and estate planning conferences, with an emphasis on 30 presentations before the American Law Institute-American Bar Association (ALI-ABA) large estates course, and a number of presentations and workshops at the Heckerling Institute on Estate Planning, the premier estate planning conference in the United States, and on whose advisory board he was active for 28 years. He also spoke at two prestigious tax policy meetings: the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and the Brookings Institution Conference on Tax Policy in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he spoke at myriad local and regional estate planning council meetings, AICPA and state CPA tax conferences, and training seminars.

He was one of the original speakers in 1978 and several years after, and again in the past decade, at the AICPA Advanced Estate Planning Conference. His knowledge and support helped to get the AICPA Advanced Estate Planning Conference underway as he was a draw for attendees.

Memories and thoughts of Byrle Abbin

In putting together this tribute to Byrle Abbin, several professionals provided their thoughts that are included in their exact words (with their permission):

Aside from being extremely sharp and at the top of his game, he was also happy to share his wisdom. If you asked his advice, though, you had to have done your homework first — he needed to know that you were as committed and dedicated as he was. You would always learn a lot from him because he always kept you on your toes. After he retired, he would love to travel, and we all enjoyed seeing the photos from his trips — a highlight of which was the big cats from his safari. He was also a dedicated family man, proud of his family, and happy to show you pictures. We will miss his wry humor as well as his dedication.

— Evelyn Capassakis, J.D., former chair of the AICPA Trust, Estate, and Gift Tax Technical Resource Panel and former member of the AICPA Tax Executive Committee.

I consider it an honor and a privilege to have known Byrle. He had one of the best minds in our profession that I had the opportunity to work with among so many other great peers. He reviewed my first TTA tax article. He will be missed by all of us.

— Larry McNamara, CPA, TEP, former member of the AICPA Trust, Estate, and Gift Tax Technical Resource Panel, member of the AICPA Foreign Trust Task Force, and a former member of the AICPA Trust Accounting Income Task Force.

I had the privilege of working with Byrle back in the Arthur Andersen days. They don’t make them like him anymore. I have wonderful, yet terrifying, memories of working with him. I suspect others may have had similar experiences.

Byrle was a luminary with a formidable and intimidating technical mind. When we had a particularly difficult technical issue or were stuck and looking for a fresh or creative perspective, someone would eventually recommend reaching out to Byrle. By the way, Byrle had the stature where he was known by only one name (think Prince, Bono, Madonna, etc.).

Regardless of how much time you had spent researching and thinking through the issue, you would do more — just to make sure you were prepared to interact with Byrle. This was the terrifying part. He would challenge you. If you weren’t sufficiently prepared, he would let you know. If you were prepared, he would graciously guide you through the issues and options. He would advise on technical issues, but also and more importantly, he would guide you through the related client and ethical issues.

His books, memos, writings, etc. added so much to the profession over his long career. Aside from his tax matters, if you could get him talking about his travel and world experiences, you would be treated to another great educational experience. A deep-thinking person with unique perspectives and opinions on the state of the world.

A great teacher and mentor.

— Joseph Fischer, CPA, former member of the AICPA Trust, Estate, and Gift Tax Technical Resource Panel.

I recall his saying that anyone who asked for a [private letter ruling] other than to resolve a dispute should be “shot” — Byrle was very opinionated! I also loved his courage to tackle tough issues such as whether a partnership recognizes gain when distributing an in-kind asset subject to liabilities in excess of basis and how the tracing rule applies for purposes of [IRC Sec.] 642(c). I keep Byrle’s book on taxation of trusts at my desk and refer to it always. It is wonderful.

— Ellen Harrison, J.D., ABA RPPTL Section and ACTEC liaison to the AICPA Trust, Estate, and Gift Tax Technical Resource Panel.

We appreciate all that Byrle Abbin did for the AICPA and are glad that he offered his talents and wisdom to many practitioners and was part of the AICPA. He contributed a great deal to our efforts. We will miss Byrle. We know that his wife, Lily, daughter, Lisa, son, Marc, and granddaughter, Susanne Kramer, will miss him, too.

Eileen Reichenberg Sherr, CPA, CGMA, M.T., senior manager–AICPA Tax Policy & Advocacy and AICPA Liaison to the Trust, Estate, and Gift Tax Technical Resource Panel and its task forces.

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