In the Saddle with Estate Planning LL.M. Student Jeffrey Ferguson

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L.M. student Jeffrey FergusonIt is still dark out as I meet up with Jeffrey Ferguson outside the tiny Coral Gables cottage that is his home until May. The sky is clear and promises heat even though all of Miami watches the progress of Tropical Storm Erika to its south.

He mounts his bicycle, wearing a flag-themed bike shirt that commemorates the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  He heads south; a tiny beam lights his way as the sky is kissed with pink, the first rays of sunrise.  An earworm of Metallica’s Welcome Home is bouncing around his head as the first blocks of a 100-mile ride pass under his wheels. Home is a fluid concept to the military-judge-turned-LL.M. student.

The 46-year-old retired Lieutenant Colonel came to Miami Law because the Heckerling Graduate Program in Estate Planning  is the only full-time law school based program leading to an LL.M. in estate planning.

The military provides some basic estate planning services “but it is extremely limited,” he says. “On base you don’t have an attorney from every jurisdiction. We are pretty limited in what we can do and over the years I’ve seen military people who need a little more than a basic will. 

“I know a lot is made about military pay but when it comes to officers and senior enlisted folks, you’ve got people with rental properties all over the country, and those who have invested wisely and are doing quite well,” he says. “They could use more than just simple documents and I hope to step into that gap. I could work with retirees and everyone, but my hope is to specifically help military folks. We would like to live near a very large military community, like Tampa, Jacksonville, or somewhere like that.”

Ferguson, his wife, and two children are used to moving around following Air Force assignments. As a child, Jeffrey had lived in four cities – Okinawa Japan; Fort Walton Beach, Florida; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Salt Lake City, Utah – before the age of eight, when his parents divorced. He, his sister, and their mother settled in Jackson, Mississippi, where both of his parents grew up. Ferguson stayed put through high school – joining the math club, throwing himself in theater tech, and working for a landscape company, building the lean muscle mass he still carries today.

He started college in Jackson, then “halfway through my spring semester, I dropped out,” he says. “My father had returned from overseas on his way to his next assignment. I decided that I wanted to leave Mississippi and I went to California with him,” he says.

“It was good being around an Air Force base and Air Force culture,” he says. “I got a first-hand view of what I was about to get into, and I was excited about it.”

His idea to join the Air Force was genetic; his father was a 28-year veteran and a Chief Master Sergeant, specializing in communications systems.

Ferguson returned to Mississippi, and as an Air Force ROTC cadet, graduated from Mississippi State with a degree in math. Nine months later, he was stationed at Falcon Air Force Base (now Schriever Air Force Base) near Colorado Springs, Colorado. 

“I started looking around at career fields and talking to people. Ferguson says. “Satellite operations sounded interesting; you had to have a math or science or engineering degree.

“The squadron’s job was launch and early orbit. We would take control of a GPS satellite after it separated from the rocket and put it into its final orbit. Then we would hand it off to the squadron that was responsible for day-to-day operations. When they broke, or something went wrong, they would give them back to us and we would fix them,” he explains.

A year in, he met a bubbly and energetic blonde from Madison Heights, Virginia. They were assigned to the same satellite. Four months later, he and Karen were talking marriage; a year later they tied the knot, he says.

Law came by another avenue. “I had a high school calculus teacher that pulled me aside one day and recommended it,” he says. “He said he thought I’d make a good lawyer. So it always just stuck in my head.”

At 26, he separated from the Air Force to go to Florida State University for law school. “Karen got an ROTC instructor position at Florida State so we were there together,” he says. “That is not always the case. The mantra of the Air Force is the needs of the Air Force come first.”  Their first child, Hallie, was born in Tallahassee.

While still in law school, Ferguson applied to rejoin the Air Force. As soon as he had passed The Florida Bar, he entered the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps. “Karen and I were both assigned to Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. “ Their second child, Justin, was born there.

From there, the young family lived in Washington, D.C., where Karen was assigned to the Pentagon as a planner – working on budget issues for space systems – and Ferguson was assigned to Bolling Air Force Base. He says he must have given a briefing that impressed someone, because he was then sent to Japan in the summer of 2004. Karen wasn’t able to get reassigned so she left the Air Force. The family was all together again by Christmas and spent the next three years in Japan.

“The kids loved it,” he says. “They loved everything – the people, the food, and we traveled a lot. They met probably their best friends for the rest of their lives there. They still ask when we are going back.”

Next the family lived in the Azores, a group of nine islands 800-miles off the coast of Portugal; then Las Vegas – though Ferguson went to Korea for a year while the rest of the family stayed in Nevada. Last stop was Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland before Ferguson’s retirement.

Ferguson has been one of the Air Force’s five senior prosecutors, a defense council, and a military judge. He has done everything from larceny cases to premeditated murder.

“In the Azores, I was in charge of a legal office there,” he says. “I did mostly international law, working with the Portuguese Air Force under the treaties we had with Portugal. In Las Vegas, I was a military judge, and in Korea I was the deputy legal advisor to the commander of all the air forces in Korea.”

 By the time we turn into the courtyard of the bungalow just north of the Biltmore Hotel, the temperature has climbed into the 90s and the skies are threatening and rumbling, belying the news that the storm has weakened into a tropical trough.

As we hose road dirt off our bikes, Ferguson is already focusing on the rest of his day.

“School is pretty intense,” he says, neat stacks of books and yellow legal pads are visible though the bay window.  “But it’s all helpful toward my future.”

I think I hear strains of Metallica’s Fade to Black wafting in the air as I pull out of the driveway, or maybe it is just a fitting tribute to the day.