Think Twice Before Deciding to Act as Trustee

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If you have been asked to serve as a trustee, chances are you were initially flattered by the request. After all, it is quite an honor—a parent or other loved one thinks highly enough of you to entrust you with the management of a major portion of their life’s savings. However, before agreeing to serve as trustee, it is important to consider the responsibilities involved. Administering a trust typically involves all of the following duties, and sometimes many more:

  • Locating and protecting trust assets
  • Collecting life insurance policies, annuities, and retirement accounts that name the trust as the primary beneficiary
  • Coordinating settlement of the estate with the personal representative if a probate administration is necessary
  • Obtaining the values of all trust assets at the time of the decedent’s death. These assets include real estate and business interests
  • Ascertaining and paying off all of the decedent’s debts from funds remaining in the estate
  • Assessing income and estate tax liabilities
  • Preparing and filing all required income and estate tax returns
  • Paying the ongoing expenses of administering the trust until it can be terminated and distributed to beneficiaries
  • Raising the cash necessary to pay off debts, the ongoing expenses of administering the trust, and estate and income taxes
  • Investing and managing trust assets until they can be distributed to beneficiaries
  • Distributing all assets left in the trust after all of the aforementioned debts, taxes and expenses have been paid

Accomplishing all of these tasks is both time consuming and, in many instances, extremely complicated. The first question to ask yourself is whether or not you actually have the time and the skills necessary to administer the trust. Another factor to consider is that a trustee can be held personally and financially responsible for failing to carry out the mandates of the trust to the letter. Even if a mistake was inadvertent, the penalties can be severe.

Given all of this, it is clear that the decision to serve as trustee should not be taken lightly.

If you are considering whether or not to accept the role of trustee, we can help you understand the responsibilities and risks involved. If you decide to serve as trustee, we can guide you through every stage of the process. If you would prefer not to accept this responsibility, we can help you choose a suitable person or trust company to serve in your place.

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The Benefits of an IRA Trust

 Asset Protection, Elder Law, Estate Planning, Retirement Planning No Comments

 

An IRA trust can help you better control distributions after you pass away and restrict access to beneficiaries who might squander the funds of a large IRA. How? Let’s say your IRA is left directly to your beneficiaries outside of a trust. In this situation, your beneficiaries can immediately cash out your IRA and spend the money however they choose. The trouble is, when the IRA is cashed out, not only is the ability to stretch the required minimum distributions (RMDs) over the beneficiary’s lifetime lost, but all of the amount withdrawn will be taxable in the withdrawal year.

Or consider this scenario: If you name a minor grandchild as the direct beneficiary of your IRA, a guardianship or conservatorship will need to be established to manage the IRA until he or she reaches the age of 18. Then, when the grandchild reaches 18, he or she can withdraw all of what remains in the IRA. An IRA trust can put restrictions on how your IRA is spent, as well as when and how much a beneficiary can withdraw. This can provide important tax benefits if, for example, the beneficiary already has a taxable estate, since the IRA trust can be drafted to minimize or even eliminate estate taxes in the beneficiary’s own estate. In addition, the IRA trust has the potential to create an ongoing legacy for your family, because the IRA assets not used during a beneficiary’s lifetime can continue in trust for the benefit of the beneficiary’s descendants. If you are in a second marriage, an IRA trust can prove particularly valuable. In a typical second marriage situation, you’ll want to leave your spouse the annual IRA income, but after his or her death you may well want to make sure that the IRA goes only to your children, not the children from the spouse’s first marriage. An IRA trust can help you accomplish this.

Or what about a situation in which you dislike or do not trust your son or daughter in law? If you leave your IRA outright to your child, his or her spouse may be able to talk them into liquidating it. However, if you name a trust as the IRA beneficiary, your child won’t be able to liquidate the IRA—and suffer the potentially painful financial consequences. Similarly, if you fear that your son or daughter is not yet mature enough to handle the money in your IRA, but you hope one day they will be, an IRA trust can allow you to name them as beneficiaries but put restrictions on how they can utilize the money.

Finally, even though IRAs are protected from the claims of creditors in many states, when the IRA account owner dies and the assets go to an individual beneficiary, the IRA may lose its protected status. By putting these inherited IRA assets into a subtrust created for an individual beneficiary under the terms of an IRA trust, the assets will continue to be protected. The result? The IRA assets can remain intact for the benefit of the beneficiary in the event a lawsuit is filed against the beneficiary, if a married beneficiary later divorces, or if a single beneficiary gets married and later divorces. To determine whether you and your family would benefit from having an IRA trust as part of your overall plan, please contact us for a consultation.

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Estate Planning for Your Digital Assets

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Do you have an e-mail account?

Do you participate in Facebook or other Social Networking sites?

Do you do any of your banking, bill paying or investing online? 

We live in a digital world. With every year that passes, more and more of our lives are moving into the digital realm. This includes friendships, networking, business and banking. Many people would now consider their Facebook password to be just as secret and sensitive as a credit card or social security number.

We all know the convenience of living so much of our lives online — in fact, some in the younger generation can’t remember living any other way. The age of the internet, the iPad and the cell phone means that we have unprecedented freedom and global access; it also means, however, that huge portions of our lives are locked away behind password protected accounts, many of which our friends and relatives aren’t even aware. Online accounts are incredibly convenient, but they can create huge problems if your executor or agent has no way to retrieve your online passwords, assets or contacts after you die.

Estate planners are not blind to this development. They understand that family heirlooms and records aren’t what they used to be. Nowadays everything from photos and music to financial statements and tax documents are increasingly likely to be created, stored or accessed via computers, mobile phones or other devices. Unfortunately, while people understand how important digital assets are, very few of them plan for those assets.

Some large online service providers are developing policies to deal with the transfer of accounts upon the death of the user, but the process is rarely a simple one. Some companies require a death certificate before they will agree to shut down an account or turn over the contents, but rarely will an online company transfer actual ownership. It could take months or years of headaches and frustration before your heirs have access to any assets or information locked behind these online protections.

What this means as far as estate planning and asset protection is that when you talk to your attorney or financial planner about protecting your assets, it’s not just about physical assets anymore; digital and online accounts and assets must be part of the conversation.

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Don’t Let the Tax Tail Wag the Dog: Client Concerns, Not the Estate Tax, Should Drive Estate Planning

The fiscal cliff deal and the tax law changes it ushers in have received lots of attention in the press, but what clients need to do now is redirect their attention to everyday 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 post, let’s take a 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?
Asset protection planning is not hiding or concealing assets. Rather, it is helping clients use existing laws appropriately to obtain the best possible level of protection for their assets against possible attack by creditors. The goal is to make planning decisions that are effective if and when needed because they have legitimate non-asset protection purposes and thus are defensible.

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
Almost every client would benefit from some asset protection planning, but like most things in life there is a cost to achieve the benefit. Asset protection planning is advanced planning and requires collaboration from a team of advisors, so sometimes the cost outweighs the benefit. Therefore it is important that each member of the advisory team be able to recognize the types of clients whose profile indicates they might be good prospects for asset protection planning. Here are a few of the main ones:

Professionals
The clients who are the best prospects for asset protection planning are those most likely to be sued. At the top of the list are physicians, surgeons, dentists and other health care professionals. Running a close second are lawyers, architects and accountants. A third category is clients involved with business enterprises that pertain to health care, such as skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities. Builders, developers and others in construction are also at risk. Those who have already gone through a lawsuit will be keen to avoid the fear of loss associated with another one.

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.

Partners
In a general partnership, each partner is liable for the negligent acts of every other partner and every employee. It is rare to encounter a general partnership of medical professionals, but much more common with lawyers and architects. Plus, partnerships can come into existence without any paperwork as a business is started and then the clean-up sometimes doesn’t get done as the business grows.

Entrepreneurs and Executives
Attacks on entrepreneurs could come from business deals that have gone bad or tort claims. Management level personnel are exposed to claims for alleged improper employment practices, employment discrimination, or sexual harassment.

Landlords
Clients who own residential rental properties have often acquired them one-by-one over time. Frequently they are owned in the landlord’s name. Every residential property exposes its owner to premises liability claims, such as for injuries from fires and slip-and-fall accidents. Legal structures can be set up that isolate a property from these risks associated with another property and separate the landlord from all the risks.

The Wealthy
The wealthy are exposed to more risk of lawsuits because they have the ability to pay and juries are often sympathetic to the plaintiff when the defendant is rich. Also, they often have staff, multiple properties and multiple vehicles and those impose claim risks, too.

Lifestyle-Based Candidates
Clients who have had more than one spouse are statistically at higher risk of divorce than those in first marriages. Many a business has collapsed as a result of an ex-spouse claiming an ownership interest in the business.

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
Every asset protection plan is a unique creation designed to meet the particular client’s needs, risks and concerns. Typically, an asset protection plan employs a combination of strategies. Because asset protection planning is a process that frequently takes months to fully implement (and because wisdom dictates building the foundation before starting on the roof) in general asset protection planning should be implemented by levels, starting at the lowest. The lower rungs on the ladder don’t get you very far off the ground, but they are dangerous to skip. Asset protection planning works the same way. A typical planning level strategy that would be presented to a highly compensated professional in a high risk profession would be:

Level 1: Exemptions
Level 2: Transmutation or Tenancy by the Entirety Agreements
Level 3: Professional Entity Formation (PA/PC/PLLC)
Level 4: FLP/FLLC to Own and Lease Practice Assets
Level 5: FLP/FLLC to Own Non-Practice Assets
Level 6: Domestic (U.S.-Based) Asset Protection Trusts
Level 7: Offshore Asset Protection Trusts

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
Some assets are automatically protected by state or federal exemptions. State exemptions can include personal property, life insurance, annuities, IRAs, homestead, and property held in tenancy by the entirety. Each state protects its citizens’ assets differently and the amounts of the exemptions will also vary greatly from state to state. For example, some states have an unlimited homestead exemption; many states protect all IRAs; and many non-community property states recognize tenancy by the entirety, which is sometimes a great way to shelter the interests of both the spouse who is at risk and the spouse who is not.

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 can be hard to obtain, 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
There are asset protection strategies for married clients that depend on how title is held to an asset. In most of the states, the available technique is converting jointly held property to tenancy by the entirety property. In the nine community property states, the technique of choice is the agreement to transmute community property into separate property. Both techniques have legal consequences beyond asset protection that must be explained to, understood and accepted by the client.

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)
General partnerships and sole proprietorships under which a professional is conducting business should be restructured as a professional association or corporation (which depends on state law) or a professional limited liability company. By so doing, each professional will become protected from personal liability for the errors of other professionals and employees. Putting that protection in place is a good second step beyond having adequate malpractice insurance.

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
An LP or LLC can be created to own the specialized or valuable equipment and/or real estate that is used in the professional practice. “Lease back” agreements can then be created between the professional practice and the property owning LLCs. This strategy allows the professional to isolate valuable real estate and equipment from malpractice exposure. In some cases, a factoring arrangement can put the value of the practice’s accounts receivable in the LP or LLC and thus beyond the reach of a malpractice creditor.

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
Consider the formation of a family limited partnership or family LLC in a favorable jurisdiction that has the charging order as the sole remedy to own non-practice assets. This entity would hold personal use real estate, investment accounts, cash or bank accounts, and investment real estate. Having a multi-member LLC increases the charging order protection because a bankruptcy judge cannot collapse a multi-member LLC that was formed in a favorable jurisdiction.

Level 6: Domestic (U.S.-Based) Asset Protection Trusts
Historically, creditors were able to reach assets that their debtor had placed into an irrevocable trust for the debtor’s benefit. Such trusts are called “self-settled.” Starting with Alaska in 1987, several states have adopted laws that allow the assets of certain self-settled trusts to be protected from the grantor/beneficiary’s creditors. These trusts are called asset protection trusts. Because they are formed under a state’s jurisdiction as opposed to the jurisdiction of another country (see Level 7, below) this kind of trust is commonly referred to as a Domestic Asset Protection Trust (DAPT).

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
The highest (and most expensive to establish and maintain) level of asset protection planning is founded on one or more asset protection trusts established under the laws of a foreign jurisdiction. (The Cook Islands, the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Channel Islands are all popular choices.) With an offshore trust, the assets are in the hands of a local trustee and are outside the reach of any U.S. court. However, there may be tax issues. Also, if the court orders the assets repatriated and they can’t be, the client could be cited for contempt and even jailed.

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
The advisors independently and collectively will make a list of the client’s assets and determine what needs to be done with each one to implement the levels of planning selected by the client. It can easily take six months to a year to design, implement and fully fund a comprehensive asset protection plan, and it’s usually done in steps and pieces. During the process, it’s very important to keep the client informed and keep everyone on a timeline.

Protecting the Advisor Team
Asset protection planning can pose a risk to the advisor team members’ assets. Those risks need to be avoided. One risk is the client who, when his or her assets are under attack, will forget that no advisor guaranteed the plan’s success. The other risk is that the client’s creditors, who just want money and don’t care who pays, may try to bring the asset protection planning team members into the fray under “fraudulent transfer” allegations.

Tempering Expectations and Documenting the Agreement
To deal with the first risk, it is important to set some reasonable expectations for the client and for the client to be educated about what asset protection is, how the laws work, and what the client can reasonably expect to achieve. For example:

  • Most people would like to have a high degree of certainty of the outcome. The advisors have to temper that expectation by explaining how the law works and that there may be circumstances that nobody can effectively control. Asset protection is time consuming, but worthwhile. The end result should be considerably better than if the client had done no planning at all.
  • Many clients want to maintain control rather than shift assets to some unknown third party in a foreign land. The preferred approach is to maintain control or at least oversight over the assets.
  • An effective plan will discourage lawsuits from the outset. We cannot make our client’s assets appear not to exist, but we can create a structure that will make it less attractive for a potential plaintiff to go after our client than to go after someone who has done no planning. And we can enhance our client’s ability to negotiate a favorable settlement if liability is established.

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 natural tendency of the debtor is to hide assets to frustrate the creditor who would seize them. To deal with that problem, there are “fraudulent transfer” laws. Each state has one and there is one in the Bankruptcy Code. In general they allow a creditor to unwind certain transactions in which the debtor has transferred assets to another for anything short of full and fair consideration with the intent of hindering or defrauding creditors. These laws also impose personal liability on anyone who aids or abets the debtor in these activities. Therefore, the advisor team members all want to make sure that they have a good defense to any frustrated creditor’s claim that they took any action that was reasonably calculated to aid their client in implementing a fraudulent transfer.

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.

Conclusion
Asset protection planning is just one client concern that can be the impetus that gets the client to do estate planning. While it is highly important that the advisor team members know and understand the current estate tax laws, nobody knows what those laws will be in the future when the client’s planning “matures.” Other than in very rare cases, the current tax laws themselves are irrelevant to, and are rarely the motivating factor for, our clients’ planning. What our clients want and need is predictability coupled with flexibility. Members of the advisory team who are aware of the enduring concerns clients have will find many opportunities to work together for the benefit of the team members and their clients.

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Understanding Revocable Living Trusts

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Estate planning clients often ask about the pros and cons of a will versus a revocable living trust. This article provides a good overview:

http://www.estateplanning.com/Understanding-Living-Trusts/

Note that in Florida, there are reasons for filing a probate proceeding even when a revocable living trust is employed. For example, there may be a need for a judicial determination of  homestead status for real estate, or there may be a need to employ the 90-day creditor claims period available under Florida probate law. Nonetheless, the article highlights some of the principal benefits offered by revocable living trusts.

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Planning for Advanced Asset Protection

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Asset protection is vitally important in our ever more litigious society, and more wealth planning teams are needed who understand the intricacies of this area and can collaboratively implement advanced strategies. Whether creating an entire plan for the client or creating additional asset protection measures added on to an existing plan, you want to know with a high degree of certainty that the plan will be effective if an attack ever comes.

Asset protection planning is designed to provide increasing levels of protection, starting with where the client is today and moving to where he or she would like to be. Planning appropriately includes making sure there is neither too little nor too much planning.

In this issue of The Wealth Counselor, we will review and build on a prior issue (“Asset Protection Planning — Teamwork Is Required for Success”). We will also include some specific advanced asset protection strategies that will strengthen the plans you and your colleagues create for your mutual clients.

The Advisor Team Approach: The Three-Meeting Strategy
Asset protection planning is advanced. It is anything but “one size fits all”! Therefore, it requires both an in-depth understanding of the client and a collaboration of all the professionals involved. Therefore, we highly recommend that an asset protection engagement proceed deliberately and with a structure agreed to in advance by the client and the team members. The recommended and proven structure is:

1. Initial Meeting with Advisors and Client: The purpose of this meeting is to gather financial and objective information and to build a relationship with the client. To preserve the attorney/client privilege, it may be necessary to excuse non-attorney advisors from part of the meeting so the client and attorney can talk freely. It is also important to set some reasonable expectations and explain what asset protection is, how the laws work, and what the client can expect.

2. Advisors’ Meeting: After the initial meeting, the client’s involved advisors (attorney, CPA, financial advisors, insurance advisors, etc.) meet without the client present to review the client’s objectives, discuss various legal and financial solutions, and determine a consensus solution. During this meeting, it is important to lean on the expertise of specific advisors to determine a comprehensive solution. All potential ideas and concerns should be discussed and explored and differences of opinion ironed out here, not in front of the client.

3. Client Solution Meeting: Here the advisor team presents a unified solution plan, including all legal and financial components, to the client and gets the clients’ approval to proceed with plan implementation.

Talking Points for the Initial Meeting
It is important to explain to clients that asset protection is not about hiding or concealing assets. Rather, it is using existing laws appropriately to obtain the best possible level of protection for their assets. The goal is to take advantage of planning opportunities in a way that they can be as defensible as possible if and when the time comes that they are needed.

Client objectives typically include:
*    High degree of certainty of the outcome. While there may be circumstances that neither client nor advisors can control, the end result should be considerably better than if the client had done no planning at all.
*    Maintain control of their assets and their destiny. This is typically especially important to professionals and entrepreneurs.
*    Discourage lawsuits from the outset. Rearranging business affairs and asset ownership can make clients less likely to be personally liable. For example, rental properties that are owned individually or in a revocable living trust can be moved to an asset protected arrangement like a limited liability company (LLC).
*    Avoid liability “traps” like partnerships and joint ownership. It’s one thing to be responsible for your own actions, but quite another to have your assets vulnerable to the actions of another.

Types of risks faced by clients often include:
*    Professional liability: As a general rule, you cannot limit your own professional liability. Also, most states do not permit nonprofessionals to own a portion of a professional practice. Professional liability protection therefore begins with adequate malpractice or errors and omissions insurance coverage.
*    Professional liability of a partner or employee: In a partnership, each professional is exposed to liability for the malpractice of every other partner and employee. The practice can be legally structured in such a way that each professional is protected from personal liability for the errors of others.
*    Non-practice personal liabilities: These could come from business deals that have gone bad or tort claims (auto accidents, etc.). Within the practice, there could be non-professional liabilities from employment practices, employment discrimination, premises liability, and sexual harassment claims. Again, structures can be set up that isolate clients and client assets from these risks.
*    Estate planning risks: These can include unnecessary or excessive income and estate taxes; a partner’s next spouse who might be a problem with ownership interests; children’s spouses and their behavior which can lead to loss of family assets, etc. These can be dealt with in general estate planning.

The best and most effective time to plan is before a claim arises, when there are only unknown potential future creditors. But even with an existing claim, some options (such as making a contribution to an ERISA qualified plan or doing a Roth conversion) may still be available to shield assets.

Planning Tip: Be aware of potentially fraudulent transfers. Also, because clients often submit incomplete information, obtain a solvency certificate and seek permission to independently investigate their financial situation through online/court house records and other advisors.

Levels of Asset Protection
Level 1: Exemptions: Certain assets are automatically protected by state or federal exemptions. State exemptions include personal property, life insurance, annuities, IRAs, homestead, joint tenancy or tenancy by the entirety. Different states protect assets differently and amounts of the exemptions will vary greatly. Federal exemptions include ERISA which covers 401(k), pension and profit sharing plans. The Pension Protection Act protects up to $1 million in IRAs for bankruptcy purposes.

Planning Tip: Sometimes it is possible to convert non-exempt assets into exempt assets. For example, cash can be used to pay down a mortgage to increase home equity. An IRA that is not well protected under state law could be put into an ERISA qualified retirement plan that is absolutely protected from creditors. Outside cash can be used to pay taxes on a Roth conversion, thereby increasing the net protected asset pool.

Level 2: Transmutation agreements (in community property states): Separate property assets of the “safe spouse” generally are not reachable to pay certain creditors of the “at risk spouse.” Community property assets can be converted to separate property for the spouse not at risk, but once transmuted, the property may not become community property again in some states.

Planning Tip: Commutation of community property to separate property will have consequences, including the loss of stepped-up basis on the death of the non-owner spouse. Also, in the event of a future divorce, these assets would already be owned by the “safe spouse.” It is important to explain these implications and possible consequences to the clients in writing. Be sure to evaluate commutations from a fraudulent transfer perspective before the transfer.

Level 3: Professional entity formation (PA/PC/PLLC): State laws will vary, but if available, a PLLC is usually more desirable than other forms of entity because of the charging order limitations that prevent a creditor from seizing the creditor’s ownership interest in a multi-member entity. Instead, the creditor is often limited to the distributions that would have been made to the affected member. Income tax consequences for the creditor and debtor must also be considered. Using a jurisdiction that makes the charging order the sole creditor remedy is highly desirable.

Planning Tip: Using separate entities or a PLLC can limit liability for a partner’s malpractice claims.

Level 4: Equipment and Premises Leasing LLCs: LLCs can be created to own specialized or valuable equipment and/or real estate to remove these assets from the business or professional practice. Lease agreements can then be created between the professional practice and the asset holding LLCs. It is important to segregate real estate, equipment and securities accounts from malpractice exposure and it may be desirable to separate them from each other. The state in which the LLC is formed is very important, as a jurisdiction that allows the charging order as the sole remedy is highly desirable.

Planning Tip: Accounts receivable, which can be significant, can be protected by pledging them to a friendly creditor or factoring them. In the event an unfriendly judgment creditor appears in the future, the unfriendly creditor will not be able to attach to the receivables because they are already pledged or factored to another creditor.

Planning Tip: One structure to consider is creating an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) and funding it with a life insurance policy that is designed to have significant cash build up over time. Using a conventional trust structure that works in every jurisdiction, the insured is not a beneficiary, but the spouse and descendants can be. (If the insured is to be a beneficiary, a self-settled asset protection trust would need to be used.) The ILIT trustee (an independent party) can use discretion and enter into a credit line arrangement with the insured (the business owner/professional). In exchange for granting the credit line access to the cash value of the insurance policy, the insured would need to pledge significant assets to secure the potential drawdown. These pledged assets can include accounts receivable. There are turnkey accounts receivable protection plans that include bundling (creation and funding of the ILIT with a particular insurance product, along with the proper documentation) or the advisor team can create one. Either way, be sure to document carefully.

Level 5: FLP/FLLC to own non-practice assets: Consider forming a family limited partnership (FLP) or family limited liability company (FLLC) to own non-practice assets. These can include personal use real estate, investment accounts, cash or bank accounts, investment real estate and highly valued collectibles (vehicles, artwork, etc.). These can be leased back to an individual for personal use. Again, a favorable jurisdiction that has the charging order as the sole remedy is preferred.

Planning Tip: Ownership interests can be gifted, often at discounted values, and the current $5.12 million gift tax exemption provides an exceptional opportunity to transfer assets this year. Should this exemption decrease to $1 million in 2013, as the law currently states, the ability to make lifetime gifts will be significantly affected.

Planning Tip: With a personal residence, one option would be to borrow the maximum on the mortgage (through a home equity line of credit) and transfer the loan proceeds to an asset protection trust (APT) which then becomes a member of the FLP/FLLC. (Establish the APT first for interim protection.) A second option would be to sell the residence to an intentionally defective grantor trust (IDGT) in exchange for a note that is structured in such a way that it would be unattractive to a creditor.

Planning Tip: A qualified personal residence trust (QPRT) can also be used. Under a QPRT, the grantor retains the right to live in the home for a pre-determined number of years. At the end of the term, the home is owned by the trust beneficiaries, which can include the descendants of the grantor. Because it is a self-settled irrevocable trust, some states have limitations that can reduce its effectiveness for asset protection during the primary term. Also, the funding of a QPRT when there is a known claim could be considered a fraudulent transfer. However, there may be other reasons to use a QPRT, including the ability to do significant gift planning and asset value freezing.

Level 6: Domestic asset protection trusts: Non-practice or leasing LLC assets transferred to a DAPT before any claim arises may provide additional charging order protection. The downsides include having to fund the trust in the jurisdiction that allows it (e.g., Nevada, Delaware, Wyoming, Alaska, etc.) and the need to have a resident trustee in that jurisdiction, which may be a significant ongoing cost. There is also the risk under the Bankruptcy Act of a 10-year clawback for transfers to a DAPT.

Planning Tip: The creator of a non-APT trust cannot be a beneficiary and still achieve asset protection. However, the spouse and children can be the beneficiaries. A flight provision can be included so the assets could go to another jurisdiction if the trust is attacked. A trust protector can oversee the trustee, change the trustee, direct the trustee to move the trust to another jurisdiction, and even be able to decant and move the assets to another trust for the benefit of the same beneficiaries. The alternative is to establish a DAPT in a jurisdiction that allows them, so that the grantor can be a discretionary beneficiary and still achieve asset protection. (Alaska, Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming are often the most popular.)

Level 7: Offshore asset protection trusts: These are established under the laws of a foreign jurisdiction. With an offshore trust, the assets are in the hands of a foreign trustee and are outside the reach of any U.S. court. However, there may be tax issues. Also, if the court orders the assets repatriated and they can’t be, the client could be cited for civil contempt and even jailed. In addition, offshore trusts are expensive to establish and maintain.

The Risks of Doing Asset Protection
Proceed with caution when doing asset protection planning for your clients. Be aware of potentially fraudulent transfers, concerns of solvency, and that there may be creditors you don’t find out about. It will be much better for you if the client will let you do some level of due diligence. Make sure your client understands the issues and has some reasonable expectations of what the asset protection planning may or may not accomplish. Sometimes the advisors will conclude that it may not be possible to do everything the client wants to do.

Conclusion
Asset protection planning is a challenging and rewarding area in which the advisor team has many opportunities to work together for the mutual benefit of their clients and themselves.

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Uncle Sam to 60 Million Americans: “You’re Getting a Raise!”

 Elder Law, Estate Planning, Retirement Planning No Comments

 

Here’s some good news for over 60 million Social Security and SSI beneficiaries  … you’re getting a raise!

The US government recently announced a cost of living adjustment of 3.6% for both Social Security and SSI beneficiaries. The raise benefits SSI beneficiaries starting in December 2011 and Social Security beneficiaries starting in January 2012.

This is the first “raise” beneficiaries have received in three years. Many seniors will of course welcome this news, as many have felt the effects of the economic recession, the stock market decline, and the fact that banks are paying almost zero interest on savings accounts.

The increase in Social Security income will be especially welcomed by those seniors who will be experiencing a hike in Medicare premiums in the next year. In the past, many of those seniors were shielded from such an increase due to a “hold harmless” provision that protects more than 70% of Medicare beneficiaries.

Even with the expected increase in Medicare premiums, most seniors are simply glad to see Uncle Sam acknowledging the rising cost of living. While most recipients of Social Security do have an alternate form of income (with SS benefits representing a little less than half of their earnings), many rely on their monthly check for a sizable portion of their income.

For more complete information about the coming changes in Social Security and SSI, or for help understanding how this change may affect you and your estate planning, please contact our office.

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Hidden Deductions for Special Needs Education

 Estate Planning, Special Needs Planning No Comments

 

Over 6 million children in the U.S. have “special needs” and the numbers are growing. Families of these children often pay for a range of therapies and treatments, yet many overlook the tax breaks available for such payments under the Internal Revenue Code. This article in the Wall Street Journal does a nice job of summarizing the issues.

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Honored to Serve on Board of Broward Performing Arts Foundation

 Estate Planning No Comments

 

I am honored to have been named to the Board of Directors of the Broward Performing Arts Foundation. The Foundation is a not-for-profit charitable foundation composed of business and community leaders dedicated to supporting the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. The Broward Center is one of the gems of Broward County — a world-class facility with two theaters, over 3,000 seats, and year-round performances of music, dance and entertainment enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of South Florida schoolchildren and residents.

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Trustee Selection for Irrevocable Trusts

 Estate Planning 10 Comments

 

Who should be trustee of your irrevocable trust? The answer may not be as simple as it seems.

This article examines who can, who should, and who should not serve as trustee; non-tax and tax factors that should be considered when selecting a trustee; who can, and should, be given the right to remove and replace a trustee; and using a team approach to segregate duties among lay and professional trustees.

Background

Irrevocable trusts are created in two ways:

1.  A revocable trust becomes irrevocable after the grantor has died.

2.  An irrevocable trust is established while the grantor is living to save estate taxes (by removing assets from the grantor’s estate) and/or for asset protection or Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California) planning.

While a grantor may technically be allowed to serve as the trustee of an irrevocable trust he creates, it is not a good idea at best. That is because if the grantor has any discretion with trust asset distributions, it could lead to inclusion of the trust assets in his estate for tax, Medicaid and other purposes, which could frustrate the trust’s objectives.

Often there is someone the grantor knows who the grantor suggests to be the trustee. Typical choices are the grantor’s spouse, sibling, child, or friend. Any of these may be an acceptable choice from a legal perspective, but may be a poor choice for other reasons. For example, some families would be torn apart if one sibling had to ask another for a distribution.

Sometimes client’s trustee appointments are made (out of ignorance) with little consideration of the actual qualifications the trustee should have. Likewise, those who agree to be trustees typically are unaware of the responsibilities (and liabilities) they are assuming. Non-professional trustees often are overworked, underpaid, unappreciated, find they are dealing with unhappy and unappreciative beneficiaries, and may even wind up being sued by the beneficiaries.

With this in mind, let’s look at some factors (non-tax and tax) that should be considered when selecting a trustee.

Non-Tax Considerations for Selecting a Trustee

Here are some of the characteristics that the client should consider in choosing an individual trustee:

Judgment: Clients typically want their trustee to make the same decisions they would. Someone who shares the grantor’s values, virtues, spending habits and faith is more likely to do this. Also, consider whether the trustee candidate will be aware of his own capabilities and weaknesses. If the trustee candidate does not have accounting or investment experience, would she have the judgment to admit this and engage an appropriate qualified professional?

Availability/Location: Does this trustee candidate have the time required to be a trustee? Will he be available when needed or will work and/or family demands leave too little time for trust responsibilities? Where does the candidate live? If the trustee lives in a place different than the trust situs, different laws may apply. Is living near the beneficiary important?

Longevity: How long will the trustee be needed? Many grantors are most comfortable with friends who share their values and have gained wisdom from life experiences, but someone near the grantor’s age may not live long enough to fulfill the job. A trust established for the grantor’s child will likely need a trustee for many years to come. Thus, for trusts that may last a long time, a corporate trustee is often the preferred choice.

Impartiality: The trustee must be capable of being impartial among the beneficiaries. This is especially difficult to do if the trustee is one of several beneficiaries. Corporate trustees, because they can be impartial, are often chosen to prevent a sibling or relative from being placed in an uncomfortable (and often unfair) position.

Interpersonal Skills: The trustee needs to be able to communicate well and effectively to the beneficiaries and to professionals who may be involved with the trust. Some people may be good record keepers or investors, but lousy at diplomacy or feel intimidated or even be offended if a beneficiary gets an attorney. A good trustee will need to be able to work calmly and well with all involved.

Attention to Detail: Does the trustee understand the serious duties that come with the job and is she willing to be accountable for her actions? Fiduciaries are often thought by the beneficiaries to be guilty until proven innocent. While it may not happen, the trustee should assume he will be sued at some point and keep meticulous records as a ready defense. A trustee who expects to be sued will be much better prepared than one who doesn’t think it will happen and, as a result, does not take the record keeping requirement seriously.

Investment Experience: While it is helpful to have investment experience, the trustee can certainly get by without it, as long as he/she recognizes this is an area for which to secure professional help. Also, if the trustee lives in a place different than the trust situs, different investment laws may apply, making it especially prudent or even essential to seek professional assistance.

Planning Tip: CPAs can make good trustees, but may be unwilling or unable to serve (because of insurance considerations, for example). Sometimes, the best choice is a corporate trustee. Seldom will the unguided grantor even think of using a team, which can include both various professionals and friends and family members.

Fees: The non-professional trustee rarely discusses fees with the beneficiaries. Often, family members and friends will not charge a fee for their services out of a sense of family duty or respect for the grantor. But trustees should be paid and, more often than not, an unpaid trustee will eventually come to that conclusion or fail to diligently carry out his duties. From the outset, a trustee should keep close track of time and expenses so that a reasonable fee can be substantiated. Generally, a reasonable fee is what a corporate trustee would charge, so thinking that a non-corporate trustee will do the same necessary work for less is false economy.

Planning Tip: Become knowledgeable about the fees charged by corporate trustees in your area as a guideline. Talk about trustee fees when establishing the trust to avoid problems and misunderstandings later.

Insurance: Anyone serving as a trustee needs to have plenty of insurance (errors and omissions or liability). Some of the laws that govern trustees are absolute standards, so a trustee needs to have adequate insurance for protection in the event of a mistake or an innocent error. The amount of insurance needed can depend on the degree to which a trustee is indemnified. However, legal defense costs in trustee litigation can be very large and are typically borne by the insurer.

Indemnification: This often comes up when family members or friends are serving as trustee. Grantors want to indemnify family members and their friends; they do not want them to be sued. It is possible to reduce or eliminate the prudent investor rule for such trustees. However, indemnification is a two-edged sword because it may result in the non-professional trustee not taking the job seriously.

Planning Tip: A good alternative is to have a family member or friend serve with a corporate fiduciary that is assigned the administrative and investment responsibility. The family member or friend trustee could make or veto discretionary distributions, but having no oversight, administration, or investment obligations would be less likely to be sued if something goes wrong.

Planning Tip: Indemnification might be appropriate in a situation with obvious bad family dynamics, where the siblings are already fighting each other yet the grantor insists on naming one sibling as trustee. In such a situation, your recommendation to name a corporate fiduciary instead should be well documented.

Planning Tip: Waiving the prudent investor rule can also be helpful in other situations, depending on the use of the trust. For example, with the sale of an appreciated asset(s) to a grantor trust, the trustee is usually buying hard-to-value assets (real estate, wholesale business interest) from the client in order to shift future appreciation to the trust and away from the grantor. Rather than starting initially with a corporate fiduciary who is not familiar with the asset or situation, it may be more effective (saving both time and money) to have the initial trustee be someone close to the family who better understands the issues, and then change later to a corporate fiduciary. Waiving the prudent investor rule and providing indemnification for the initial trustee in this situation could make sense.

Planning Tip: Being able to waive all or part of the prudent investor rule when using an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) gives greater latitude and peace of mind to make some of the transactions meet the unique needs of the client. Beware, however, of the risk that the trustee, shielded from liability, may fail to do the appropriate work to make sure that the insurance held in the ILIT is appropriate as markets change.

Tax Considerations

Estate Tax

If a purpose of the trust is to remove assets from the grantor’s estate, the grantor cannot have any role in determining who gets distributions or when they occur. However, the grantor can have the power to remove and replace the trustee or to control the investments of the trust. Neither of those will cause estate tax inclusion providing the grantor cannot appoint a trustee who is related or subordinate to the grantor (as would be a brother, employee or someone else who will capitulate to the grantor’s wishes). Interestingly, there is no problem appointing, at the inception of the trust, an initial or successor trustee who is related or subordinate to the grantor.

Planning Tip: It is unclear if a grantor can have the right only to remove a trustee and allow the next named successor trustee to take over. While also unclear, it seems that a grantor can reserve the right to remove and replace someone who is not a fiduciary (for example, a trust protector).

Income Tax

A non-adverse trustee having certain powers may trigger grantor trust rules and cause the grantor to be taxed on the trust’s income. In some instances the client may not want the tax to come back to the grantor and instead want a trust that is a separate tax-paying entity for which the income that is distributed to the beneficiaries is be taxed to the beneficiaries.

Planning Tip: Because the trustee’s identity may affect state income tax as well, you may be able to shift the trust situs to a state with a lower income tax rate. Depending on the trust assets, this could be important as some investments (such as oil and gas) may be taxed significantly higher in some states than in others.

Beneficiary Removal and Replacement of Trustee

This is an area that is customizable for each trust and can help maintain some downstream flexibility. Some grantors may not want the beneficiaries to be able to remove the trustee, especially if the grantor is aware of family quarreling. But if the corporate or individual trustee knows it cannot be replaced there is little need for responsiveness or careful attention to investments. Because there does need to be a way to have the trustee removed if things should deteriorate, the document can include that the trustee can only be removed for cause as determined by the court. On the other end, spendthrifts may want to “trustee shop” until they find one that will do whatever they want, so there will need to be some restraints on when a trustee can be replaced.

Team Approach

There are times when a team can do a better job than a single trustee. Having more than one trustee, even with different duties and responsibilities, can work well for many situations. The trust can benefit from assigning the trustees specific duties based on their strengths and experience. Of course, the fewer people who are involved, the less complicated the administration. Also, disagreements will have to be worked out. If there are two trustees or any even number, deadlocks are possible. With an odd number, a simple majority would be needed. If an agreement cannot be reached, the court can be allowed to intervene as a last resort.

Also, as mentioned earlier, family member trustees can work with professionals as paid advisors instead of as trustees. This would allow the advisors to provide valuable input and insight into both the grantor’s desires and the personalities of the beneficiaries, without being so exposed to possible lawsuits.

Planning Tip: Ethical issues can arise if the attorney represents more than one trustee, so she should be sure to have a waiver of conflict or other plan in place.

Planning Tip: Naming someone as trustee is a nomination. The person named is under no obligation to accept the responsibility when the time comes, and it is not unusual for someone to refuse to serve or to step aside once he understands the duties and responsibilities involved. For this reason, it is important for the trust maker to name several successor trustees and to clearly communicate with each before finalizing the choices. Most drafting attorneys will also recommend naming a corporate trustee as trustee of last resort, especially if no procedure for appointing successors is provided to the beneficiaries, short of going to court.

The Trustee’s Duties and Responsibilities

  • administer the trust
  • be loyal
  • be impartial
  • be prudent
  • control and protect trust property
  • collect trust property
  • inform and report to beneficiaries
  • diversify investments
  • keep records and no commingling
  • enforce and defend claims

Conclusion

A competent trustee is as important to the success of a trust as its being well-drafted. Naming a favorite family member as trustee may not be the smartest (or kindest) thing the grantor can do. As experienced professionals who have seen the consequences of unwise choices for trustee, we are in a unique position to counsel our clients with their and their beneficiaries’ best interests in mind.

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