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Image From Algorithms to Altruism: Ryan Brown’s Path to Estate Planning

Professional Advisor Partnerships That Make Charitable Legacy Planning Possible

Life is full of unexpected turns and encounters that shape our paths in ways we might never predict. Just ask Ryan A. Brown, a computer scientist turned tax law and estate planning attorney, and founder of Arlington Law Group. As Ryan puts it, “I ended up in estate planning through a series of accidents, as is most of life.”

It all started in his undergraduate years while working for a company specializing in search engine technology and artificial intelligence, a groundbreaking field 25 years ago. During that time, Ryan successfully patented an idea, and he spent a summer working with a patent attorney on the process. This experience sparked his interest in law, but he ultimately decided to continue pursuing computer science at Johns Hopkins University.

Fate, however, had different plans for Ryan. “I met a nice girl, who is now my wife of twenty years,” Ryan shares, “and she happened to also be studying computer science…but she got a job working in Rosslyn.” As the heart often does, it left Ryan at a major crossroads: stay at Johns Hopkins or move to Arlington.

Lucky for Ryan, Arlington offered something that would combine his love for technology and his new-found interest in law: George Mason University School of Law. While he enrolled thinking he’d one day become a lawyer for a software company, once Ryan began his studies, he found he took a keen and unexpected interest in tax law. As he explains, “It turns out tax law is just algebra written out in long sentences. If you have a strong quantitative background, it really helps in tax law.”

After earning his Juris Doctorate Magna Cum Laude in 2006, Ryan stayed in Arlington where he established his own law firm, Arlington Law Group. “From the time I got started in 2007, our projects were about 50% business-related and about 50% estate planning, and it stayed that way, give or take, for a long time.”

That was until 2020, when the pandemic struck, and as with all of us, life took an unexpected turn for Ryan and his business. Most of the business-related activities slowed significantly, and suddenly, everyone wanted to get their estate plans in order. Even today, with the height of the pandemic behind us, the demand for estate planning remains significant. Through it all, Ryan sees a common thread uniting many of his clients: “When it comes to estate planning, it’s the quality of life for the people you leave behind that keeps clients up at night. You can’t take a U-Haul to heaven, so how do you make sure the people, places, and causes you care about in life carry on after your life is over?”

When it comes to estate planning, it’s the quality of life for the people you leave behind that keeps clients up at night.”

In Ryan’s experience, there’s no one answer to this question. As he puts it, “Estate planning can be like making an omelet: We’ve got all the ingredients, we just need to figure out which combination of ingredients work for your situation.” For some clients, particularly younger parents, they may prioritize ingredients that ensure their children are provided for should anything happen to them. For older clients whose children are grown and self-sufficient, the ingredients may include more charitable giving to the causes and organizations they value most.

In Ryan’s experience, charitable giving is one ingredient that many clients want to include, but often aren’t quite sure how to best make it fit into their plans. “It’s such a tough and personal decision,” Ryan emphasizes, “trying to figure out how much to leave to charity through estate plans.” That’s why Ryan’s advice is to flip the question on its head: “Don’t start by asking how much to give to charity. Instead, ask yourself how much is enough for the people you’re leaving behind… and then you can consider leaving the rest to charity.”

For Ryan, charitable giving is a topic that comes up very early in conversations with clients through an intake questionnaire. “We ask about it in the same way we ask about having life insurance,” he explains. “If the person doesn’t have it, or hasn’t thought about it, bringing it up on the questionnaire at least gets the ball rolling.”

Even if the client has the intention for charitable giving through their estate plan, they may not be sure exactly how to do it in a way that complements their other estate planning goals: namely, providing for those they leave behind. To answer these, and many other questions around charitable giving, Ryan partners with Arlington Community Foundation.

A central pillar of this partnership is client education. To illustrate this point, Ryan often uses the example of someone who plans on leaving a house and a retirement account in their estate. Both of these assets are taxed differently, so Ryan and the Community Foundation work with clients on figuring out which percentage of each asset to give in a way that provides for those they leave behind, while also maximizing charitable giving and minimizing taxes.

Ultimately, “Arlington Community Foundation makes my job easier,” Ryan says. “I can figure out the other aspects of estate planning and let Arlington Community Foundation do what they do best: maximizing a person’s charitable giving and intent while simplifying the process as a trusted intermediary.”

Christy Cole, Director of Philanthropy at the Community Foundation, echoes this sentiment. “We know that Ryan and the attorneys at Arlington Law Group are meticulously working through the details of the estate plan,” Christy says, “so then we can focus on helping the client align plans for a charitable legacy with their deeply held values, the impact they would like to make, and the way they wish to be remembered by future generations.”

“Don’t start by asking how much to give to charity. Instead, ask yourself how much is enough for the people you’re leaving behind… and then you can consider leaving the rest to charity.”

In Ryan’s own life, charitable giving (and charitable living) is rooted in a simple, but powerful, principle and an active faith: “Love your neighbor. And everyone is your neighbor – that is the essence of Christianity,” he says. “It doesn’t take much time to look around and see our neighbors in Arlington who have significant needs. To me, there’s a moral imperative to provide for other people. As the old saying goes, ‘To whom much has been given, much is required.’”

As Ryan volunteers his time and expertise to various organizations, such as Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church and the Arlington Corps of the Salvation Army, he’s grateful to witness firsthand the generosity of the Arlington community, of neighbors helping neighbors. Through his involvement, he’s come to realize that charitable giving knows no bounds—it transcends income levels and personal circumstances. People from all walks of life contribute what they can, whether it’s dropping change into the Salvation Army’s “little red kettle” while Ryan rings the bell and sings Christmas carols, or making substantial donations during their lifetime or as part of their estate plan.

As Ryan guides his clients in building legacies, he cherishes the opportunity to be part of a process that shapes lives and communities, both in Arlington and beyond. It may not be where he saw himself 25 years ago, but if you ever get the chance to talk to Ryan, you’ll be grateful – just as he is – for the “series of accidents” that brought him here.

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