Lesson learned: Attorney believes in value of mapping a plan for 'life'


 By Tom Kirvan

Legal News
Michael Witzke has a book in mind. The title is “Plan to Live.”
Its premise can be traced to a quote from one of history’s more quotable types, Winston Churchill, who has been credited with the line, “He who fails to plan is planning to fail.” The quote, which was uttered by Churchill during the throes of World War II, has applications for young and old, rich and poor, and the savvy and not-so-savvy alike.
Witzke is the founding partner of Witzke, Berry & Carter, a Bloomfield Hills firm that specializes in estate and tax planning as well as elder law. His focus is on “helping clients grow, protect, and transfer wealth efficiently.” It helps if they “plan” or, at the very least, consider the idea, he acknowledged.
“Nobody can predict when their time is up or when they might become incapacitated,” Witzke said. “Those are not pleasant topics to discuss. But as an attorney who specializes in the areas of ‘death and taxes,’ I tell all my clients that we don’t plan to die, but we can plan to live life to its fullest.”
It’s a message that Witzke, a 1989 alumnus of Wayne State University Law School, regularly delivers to audiences around the metro area. He speaks frequently to groups of retirees, financial planners, CPAs, and to fellow attorneys attending continuing legal education programs. His professional credentials include designations as a Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU) and Chartered Financial Consultant (CFC), in addition to holding the Retirement Planning Specialist title from the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He also is a member of the Probate and Estate Planning Sections of the State Bar of Michigan.
All this for someone who didn’t exactly relish the idea of becoming an estate planning lawyer.
“In law school, I probably got my worst grade in trusts and estates,” Witzke said with a smile. “But my interest in the subject started to grow following graduation when I was in private practice.”
While in law school, Witzke clerked for an insurance defense firm in downtown Detroit, but he eventually landed with an estate planning firm that included Jack Couzens among the partners.
“He was a tremendous mentor and role model for me,” Witzke said of Couzens. “I learned a lot from him and it was great place to build my knowledge and base of clients.”
In 2000, Witzke was courted by Butzel Long to join its Wealth Management Group as a senior attorney. A year later, he was named leader of the group, a position he held for three years until deciding to form his own firm.
“It was a great experience with Butzel Long, but my passion was not in managing attorneys, but rested with the practice of estate planning instead,” Witzke said. “A number of my clients were entrepreneurs and it was always in the back of my mind to branch out on my own someday. In a sense, they inspired me to make the move to my own firm.”
Chris Berry became a partner with the firm in 2007 and John Carter joined the legal letterhead earlier this year. Attorneys Patrick McCarthy and Gordon Snavely are Of Counsel to the firm, which recently relocated its offices to 2550 S. Telegraph, Suite 255, Bloomfield Hills.
“We’ve developed a niche as a boutique firm that handles estate planning, elder law, business succession planning, and veterans’ benefits,” Witzke said. “We even help set up trusts for the care of pets. This is a practice where we tend to get hugs from our clients.”
A native of Port Huron, Witzke grew up in Troy, graduating from Troy Athens High School in 1982. From there, he enrolled in the James Madison College at Michigan State University, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1986.
“My mother graduated from MSU, as did my sister and my brother, so ‘green’ is in the family blood,” said Witzke, who is the youngest of five siblings.
His parents, Barbara and Edward, live in Gladwin. His father, a Navy veteran of World War II, retired from a career with Detroit Edison. 
“I got my dad’s hairline and I hope that I have his longevity genes,” Witzke said of his 89-year-old father. 
His mother, who grew up in West Branch, was a homemaker, principally responsible for raising the couple’s five children, David, Diane, Rick, Mary Lou, and Michael.
Witzke and his wife, Mary Kay, met while they were students at MSU. The couple has three children, Harry (16), Jack (15), and Sam (11), all students in Clarkston Schools.
“Not to be boastful, but they are great kids and they keep my wife and I hopping with all of their school and extracurricular activities,” Witzke said. “We tell each one of them to find their passion in life and to pursue it to the best of their abilities. Fortunately that is what I have found in my career. I love the practice of estate planning, helping people with their legal and financial needs. As they say, ‘It’s not a job when you love what you’re doing.’ That is the case for me. They will probably have to wheel me out of here when my time comes.”