Volume 8, Issue 1
The Wealth Counselor
Don’t Let the Tax Tail Wag the Dog: Client Concerns, Not the Estate Tax, Should Drive Estate Planning
Washington’s negotiations about 2013 tax laws are getting lots of press. As estate planning professionals, we are often asked our opinions about what the 2013 estate tax laws might be and the resulting implications for our clients. But for the vast majority of Americans, what the estate and gift tax laws will be in 2013 is really irrelevant. Those who could make large gifts have probably done so in 2012, and the 2013 estate tax exemption is only relevant to those who have a 2013 death.
Yes, it is important for us to be aware of the state of the tax law. We can keep our ear to the ground for warnings of change emanating from Washington, but nobody has any kind of a handle on what the law will be in 5, 10, 15 or 20 years! What we all need to do is redirect our clients’ inquiries to their real concerns: protecting their families and assets; preserving the family business; making sure their children are provided for, educated and motivated; seeing that their loved ones have enforceable rights where the law may not grant them; and making sure their plans do not self-destruct for lack of proper maintenance. These are the enduring issues that drive estate planning, regardless of what the estate tax law may be at any given time.
In this issue of The Wealth Counselor, we will take another look at one of those client concerns — asset protection. With our increasingly litigious society, asset protection planning has become more important and is often a key motivator for clients who need other estate planning, too.
What is Asset Protection Planning?
The best and most effective time to implement asset protection planning is before a claim arises, when the client is merely worried that someday there may be claims founded on possible events that have not yet happened. But even after a claim has been made, some opportunities (such as making a contribution to an ERISA qualified plan or doing a Roth conversion) may still be available to shield some assets.
Types of Client and Asset Risks
Planning Tip: A professional is liable for the consequences of his or her own negligence and everyone makes mistakes. Therefore, a professional’s liability protection should begin with adequate malpractice or errors and omissions insurance coverage.
Entrepreneurs and Executives
A client’s child who engages in risky or antisocial behavior creates a risk of future unnecessary dissipation of a family’s wealth; often leaving the child destitute with no one to turn to once the parents are gone.
Levels of Asset Protection
Level 1: Exemptions
Below we discuss each of these seven levels.
Planning Tip: The plan presented should include levels above those that the client will probably choose. This gives the client appropriate control and decision making responsibility and also avoids the risk of the client legitimately complaining that particular strategies were not offered.
Level 1: Exemptions
Federal exemptions include ERISA which covers 401(k) and 403(b) plan accounts, pensions, and profit-sharing plans. Creating and funding qualified retirement plans for clients can provide excellent shelters against creditors’ claims. Typically these plans must also include one or more non-owner employee participants in order to be covered by ERISA. Skillful pension actuaries can be very helpful with this.
While the federal Pension Protection Act protects up to $1 million in IRAs and Roth IRAs for bankruptcy purposes, the level of non-bankruptcy protection afforded by the states to their citizens’ IRAs varies widely.
For a client who lives in a state with weak IRA protection, it might be best to move unprotected IRA assets into an ERISA qualified retirement plan which is unreachable by third-party creditors during the pay-in period (some portion of required minimum distributions may be reachable by creditors). For the client who lives in a state with strong IRA protection or who has not used all of the IRA protection available in their state, converting a traditional or roll-over IRA into a Roth IRA and paying the taxes with non-IRA funds can be an excellent asset protection strategy that is easily and quickly implemented.
Planning Tip: With today’s low interest rates, defined benefit plans are becoming popular again. Instead of the required annual fixed contributions of the past, the IRS now allows almost as much flexibility with defined benefit plan contributions as it does with profit-sharing plans. Contributions can also be increased dramatically to allow for the use of life insurance within the plan. Life insurance can be an especially valuable asset because death benefits are not subject to income or capital gain tax, and if the policy ownership and control is done right, the death benefit is not part of the insured’s taxable estate.
Planning Tip: Sometimes it is possible to convert non-exempt assets into exempt assets. For example, cash (a non-exempt asset) can be used to pay down a homestead mortgage and increase exempt home equity. This is a strategy for clients who live in states with a large or unlimited homestead exemption.
Planning Tip: Because home mortgages and home equity lines of credit are currently hard to get, a qualified personal residence trust (QPRT), established as an ongoing trust to benefit younger family members, can also be used. However, because it is a self-settled irrevocable trust, some states have limitations that can reduce a QPRT’s effectiveness for asset protection. Also, putting an unprotected home asset into a QPRT when there is a known or anticipated claim could be held to be a fraudulent transfer.
Planning Tip: The exemption level asset protection strategies may even be available to the client who has already been sued.
Level 2: Transmutation or Tenancy by the Entirety Agreements
Converting jointly held property into tenancy by the entirety can make it inaccessible to an at-risk spouse’s creditors while the other spouse is living. Transmutation agreements allow clients to convert community property assets into the separate property of the spouse not at risk. Make sure the client is aware that property once transmuted stays separate property unless and until another transmutation agreement converts it back to community property. Separate counsel for each spouse may be needed to make a transmutation agreement binding. Plus, there may be enhanced risk of loss of property in case of a divorce.
Level 3: Professional Entity Formation (PA/PC/PLLC)
State laws will vary on this. If available, a PLLC is usually more desirable because of the charging order limitations that prevent a professional’s creditor from seizing any assets from the entity, limiting the creditor to only receiving distributions that would have been made to the affected debtor-member. In addition, the creditor may have to pay tax on any income that is distributed under a charging order. This is often enough to discourage a creditor from pursuing a claim or to make settlement on a favorable basis possible. Establishing the entity under the laws of a state that has the charging order as the sole creditor remedy, when that is possible, should also be considered.
Level 4: LP/LLC to Own and Lease Practice Assets
Planning Tip: Creating an LP or LLC to own practice assets also allows for good estate planning by providing the opportunity for gifting or sale of LLC/LP interests to irrevocable trusts established for the benefit of children or other family members.
Level 5: FLP/FLLC to Own Non-Practice Assets
Level 6: Domestic (U.S.-Based) Asset Protection Trusts
The time between creating the DAPT or placing an asset in the DAPT and the DAPT affording protection to that or all DAPT assets varies from state to state, with the shortest time being two years. In like manner, the states have different lists of creditor or claim classes to which the DAPT’s asset protection does not apply. The most popular states for DAPT formation are, in alphabetical order, Alaska, Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming.
In Level 6 planning, the client establishes a DAPT in the selected jurisdiction and funds it with non-practice, non-leasing LLC assets.
Each DAPT state has its own rules that will need to be satisfied for a DAPT established under its laws to be effective. For example, the state’s DAPT law may require that a trustee have an office in that state or that some of the trust assets be held there. Associating local counsel in the chosen DAPT jurisdiction may be appropriate.
Planning Tip: Because clients today are often living into their 90s, it is wise to build flexibility into a DAPT or other irrevocable trust to accommodate changes in a client’s needs and family over several decades. To do this, the trust can be made changeable by an independent third party of the client’s choosing. This role is commonly referred to as the “Trust Protector.”
Planning Tip: A trust can be designed so that transfers to it are, for gift and estate tax purposes, completed or incomplete gifts. Incomplete gifts are included in the grantor’s estate for estate tax purposes and get a basis adjustment at death. The opposite is true for completed gifts that are not brought back into the grantor’s estate under what are called the “string” sections of the Internal Revenue Code (26 USC §§ 2035-38 and 2042). Be sure to determine what is best in each case.
Level 7: Offshore Asset Protection Trusts
Planning Tip: An offshore asset protection trust should not hold assets in the United States over which a U.S. court could exert jurisdiction.
Implementing the Asset Protection Plan
Protecting the Advisor Team
Tempering Expectations and Documenting the Agreement
We very highly recommend that a detailed written asset protection engagement agreement be signed in all cases. The agreement should spell out the plan goals, limitations and potential risks and negate the idea of there being any guarantee of success.
Avoiding Fraudulent Transfer Exposure
The key to the advisor team members avoiding exposure to a claim of abetting fraudulent transfer is to make sure to gather financial and objective information and to build a relationship with the client before designing or implementing the asset protection planning. Once the facts are known, no matter how bad they are, some level of asset protection planning can probably be done. Without knowledge of the facts, the asset protection plan designed by the advisors is likely to fail.
Planning Tip: Because the natural tendency of many is to procrastinate, often the client who seeks asset protection planning already has a claim pending or impending against them.
Planning Tip: Because asset protection planning is most attractive to those who have a higher than average risk of being sued, it is critically important to determine early in the planning process how much information the client is willing to share and should share with various members of the advisor team. For example, it may be vital to preserve attorney/client privilege about some things and therefore not share specific risk information with non-attorney advisors who could be subpoenaed. Short of being sued, there is not much worse for an advisor than to be called to testify against a client!
Planning Tip: Clients may misrepresent their legal difficulties, and none of us wants to subsidize a plaintiff’s claim through the use of our own malpractice insurance because of not asking the right questions or doing a thorough discovery. An excellent practice is to have in your file a solvency certificate from your client in which the client represents to you in writing that their net worth is a positive number and that the planning they are going to do will not render them insolvent. In some instances it is useful to obtain permission from the client in order to do due diligence and independently investigate to make sure you know the information provided is accurate.
Law Offices of J.R. Hastings • 1003 Third Street, San Rafael, California 94901 • 415-450-6692