Legal Elite – Tax/Estate planning

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Tax/Estate planning: W. Curtis Elliott Jr. Culp Elliott & Carpenter, Charlotte

By Arthur O. Murray

Don’t tell anyone, but Curtis Elliott actually likes the Internal Revenue Service. In fact, he sympathizes with the people who work there. “We’re part of the system, too. We owe a duty to the public to uphold the integrity of the self-assessment system.”

Elliott, 48, and his Charlotte firm, Culp, Elliott & Carpenter, specialize in tax and estate-planning law. Much of the time, his clients’ interests run squarely into the IRS’s. “We try to help clients plan their affairs to minimize their taxes as much as legally possible while trying to stay within the spirit of the Internal Revenue Code, and we counsel our clients to do the same thing.”

He believes the agency is unfairly pilloried in many quarters. That empathy with his opponents, coupled with a commitment to his clients, makes him effective in his field, he says.

Unlike many lawyers, Elliott didn’t dream early in life of going into law. He grew up in Gastonia. His father was a cotton merchant and broker, and his mother was a housewife. Elliott attended the University of South Carolina, where he walked on to the golf team, playing for two years before winning a scholarship. He majored in business and accounting, and it wasn’t until his senior year that he decided to switch gears. “I just thought, I want to go to law school.”

He did. When he graduated, though, his undergraduate experience drove his career. He wanted to move to Charlotte to be near his family, and his accounting degree caught the eye of the local office of Deloitte and Touche. He practiced tax law there for two years and met future law partner Bill Culp. In 1982, Culp drove the next change. “Bill decided to start his own law practice specializing in tax and estate planning.”

Elliott wanted to join the practice but knew he needed more training. He went to George Washington University and earned a master of law in taxation in 1984. “Having a full-time job for two years and going back to school made it a little easier. I just approached it like a job.”

He joined Culp’s firm, where he is now a senior partner. Among his clients are Gastonia-based textile maker Parkdale Mills, Charlotte-based drywall maker National Gypsum and Charlotte developer The Crosland Group.

The other hangover from his undergraduate days is golf. He is a 2-handicap, a member of Carolina Golf Club in Charlotte and a fan of traditional courses. His favorite is Pinehurst No. 2.

He also has a traditional, conservative approach to tax law. “We try to give clients an honest assessment of what they can and cannot do.” That’s not because he lacks courage. “Tax law is very complex, and we have to be careful. If an issue is in a gray area, we have to be careful to exercise a high level of integrity and judgment.” He tries to stay out of the courtroom, settling most cases before they come to trial. Others are decided within the IRS’ appeals division. But he will pursue a case further if need be.

Duke Kimbrell, chairman of Parkdale and former CEO, has watched Elliott develop over the years. “His daddy was a real good friend of mine. I’ve known him all his life.” Kimbrell says Elliott helped set up both the company’s retirement program and his personal retirement.

They still get together every few months. “I can ask him anything, whether it’s smart or dumb, and get by with it,” Kimbrell says. “He doesn’t help us just to make a dollar. I think he’d do it for nothing if we didn’t have the means.”

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