Why Are Divorces Expensive?

There is an well-worn reply among lawyers to the line:  “Why are divorces so expensive?” The reply is “Because they’re worth it.” Of course, this reply, no doubt, has multiple layers of meaning for every person. Especially depending on where one stands after a divorce.

But, on one level the reply makes a great deal of sense. I am a strong believer that clients benefit from having an experienced, knowledgeable lawyer. Obtaining good legal and tax counsel is a cost-benefit investment that in most cases produces benefits well beyond the expense and time. Lawyers can also help give their clients a comforting degree of repose and peace of mind.

Now, applying the above notion to asset protection and estate planning, unfortunately this planning often appears to clients, on the surface, to be nothing more than a transactional expense and time-consuming burden.  Very easy to put off until later. There typically, and understandably, is no strong emotional motivation for this planning, compared to the threat of divorce.

But, I also believe most people are aware of the thousands of reported court cases and anecdotes among friends and family illustrating the vast number of costly problems arising from the absence of asset protection and estate planning.  But, then again, we all tend to think these problems only happen to others. Not to our family.

So, a universal question most families need to ponder is the possible surfacing of a divorce by a son-in-law or daughter-in-law with war-like efforts to grab the other spouse’s inheritance. This question touches directly on asset protection and estate planning. In addition, and more subtle, are increased taxes (including income tax) that result from inadequate and inflexible estate planning.

Another universal point on this subject of preventive planning, that I repeat constantly, is: Don’t help line your lawyers’ pockets by getting caught in costly, and otherwise, preventable legal and tax issues. Seek out a lawyer’s preventive review of your situation ASAP. It is an investment, not simply an expense.
 

 

 

Inter-Vivos QTIP Trusts; Almost Perfect

For many years I have been, and remain, a fan of the inter-vivos QTIP trust.  There is no perfect estate planning, but this QTIP is almost perfect.   BTW, this is a brief, technical post primarily for advisors and practitioners who might find this topic useful for their clients.

This inter-vivos QTIP trust is a marital trust for a married couple designed under the QTIP tax laws.  QTIP, in tax law jargon, is “qualified terminable interest property.”

Essentially, one spouse creates and funds this inter-vivos QTIP trust while alive. The other spouse is the beneficiary of the QTIP trust. “Inter-vivos” is an old legal term meaning essentially “between the living”.  A trust someone creates while alive.  By contrast, a trust that only becomes operative when the person dies is a “testamentary” trust. Such as a trust provision in that person’s Last Will and Testament.

As an important aside, and part of the inter-vivos QTIP design, it is possible for the funding spouse later to become a secondary beneficiary of the QTIP trust if the other beneficiary spouse dies first. Also, the written provisions of the inter-vivos QTIP trust can include provisions for the children after both spouses’ deaths, etc.

In broad terms, the above inter-vivos QTIP trust provides the following benefits:

    1. It gives a married couple – while they are still living — asset protection for the assets in the inter-vivos QTIP trust.
       
    2. The inter-vivos QTIP trust is defective for income tax purposes from inception up to the death of the second spouse. This both-spouses duration of the defective status means no trust income tax returns, no compressed trust tax rates, and no separate 3.8% Medicare tax during the remaining lifetimes of both spouses.
       
    3. I am purposely repeating this above point. That is, defective during the lifetime of the spouse who creates the QTIP trust and during the surviving spouse’s lifetime. This effect on both spouse generally is not available for testamentary QTIP trust planning.
       
    4. The defective income tax status of this QTIP trust also allows the substitution of assets, called a substitution power. This can allow, if needed, stepped-up basis planning by later substituting into the QTIP trust high-basis assets for low-basis assets, etc.
       
    5. The inter-vivos QTIP, in my opinion, provides the optimal flexibility for portability options.
       
    6. The spouse’s funding of the inter-vivos QTIP trust starts the 5-year lookback period for Medicaid nursing home eligibility. This may be important in the event later the spouses need governmental Medicaid nursing home assistance. Medicaid planning – although generally not at the top of most family’s estate planning checklist – can greatly help prevent financial impoverishment of the other spouse (and possibly the children).
       

For readers who wish to delve into more technical aspects of this inter-vivos QTIP planning, I highly recommend the following breaking-ground 2007 article by well-known estate lawyers Mitchell Gans, Jonathan Blattmachr, and Diana Zeydel.   Click here for the link. It is a well-written article.

You are Not Your Brother’s Keeper. Tax Liens and Joint Ownership of Real Property.

I cringe (figuratively speaking) when I hear of individuals who include friends and ancillary family members as joint owners of real property. Such as joint tenants in common for owning grandmother’s old house, etc.

This is joint ownership of real property with the co-owners each named on the real estate deed.  Such as “John Smith and Jane Doe, as tenants in common.” Or, “John Smith and Jane Doe, jointly with right of survivorship.”

[There are exceptions to my concern in certain cases (i) for married couples as joint owners and (ii) in states with joint “tenancy by the entirety” ownership (Georgia does not recognize tenancy by the entirety).]

Because real estate ownership is governed by publicly-recorded deed and lien records, jointly-owned property is a lightning rod for the other co-owners’ debts, judgments, unpaid income taxes, estate tax liens, etc.

Let’s assume Bill owns Atlanta undeveloped land with his distant nephew Pete. Pete owns 10% with Bill as the other 90% joint owner (joint tenants in common, to be exact). This is undeveloped land that belonged to Bill’s grandparents (Pete’s great-grandparents). Bill and Pete rarely visit the property.  It is merely a long-term, passive asset.

Bill typically remains unfamiliar with nephew Pete’s ongoing financial and tax affairs and has no idea Pete has not been paying his (Pete’s) income tax. Unknown to Bill is that the Georgia Department of Revenue has been racking up recorded unpaid tax liens against Pete (called a recorded Fi-Fa), with Pete’s unpaid tax debt continuing to increase with interest and penalties.

Bill’s 90% share is now on the hook. Although technically Bill is not liable for Pete’s tax liens. Nor is the value of Bill’s 90% portion of the land technically available to satisfy Pete’s liens. The reality for Bill is that the entire land is burdened by Pete’s tax liens.

On the other hand, Pete essentially has no concerns about his unpaid taxes or these liens. Pete, 27 years old, works part-time, has no money, etc.

Bill’s unfortunate reality is that no buyer will touch this land until Bill clears these tax liens. The Georgia Department of Revenue also has been  consistent with extending the duration of its recorded tax liens (called an “entry of nulla bona”).

Bill’s land over the years has increased in value. This results in Pete’s 10% share also increasing in value to the extent Georgia will likely demand its full claim for the unpaid taxes, penalties and interest in order to release the liens. These surmounting Georgia penalties and interest have transformed what started as nominal unpaid tax amounts into substantial issues. Bill has a costly problem.

The moral of this blog post.

Don’t — without thoughtful deliberation — become your brother’s keeper. Talk to your lawyer first about co-ownership of property. Possibly use an LLC. Or, a recorded written joint property agreement that allows a co-owner to charge the other owner’s portion of the property for these kinds of liens. Good legal advice is also an investment in tranquility.

Preventive Planning and Jazz Guitar

Bear with me. There is a connection in this blog post between my reference to preventive planning and jazz guitar. I use the term “preventive planning” in reference generally to estate and asset-protection planning.

The top 1-percent. A roster of high net-worth clients is a badge of honor among estate and asset-protection planning lawyers. A plume signifying success, financial reward, larger law firm profits, etc. The work is high-end, interesting, technically challenging, and typically underpins the ever-increasing hourly lawyer rates for this market segment. I am fortunate to have a small share of these top 1-percent clients. But, I also have many clients in my own group.  That is, the other 99-percent of us.

A focus narrowly only on the top 1-percent fails to address how important it is for our remaining 99% group to address preventive planning. Most current marketing efforts (and the bulk of related articles, commentaries) for estate planning and asset-protection continue to address options for the top 1-percent group. I find few discussions of what we (and our families) — in the bottom 99-percent — ideally need for excellent, cost-effective preventive planning.

The probable absence of estate tax liability for most of us in this 99-percent group also helps push this preventive planning to an even lower place on our “to-do” list. No pressure. No rush. Do it later.

This next point is for our 99-percent group.

One of my high-priority, personal goals is to prevent me and my family from wasting valuable time due to problems caused by lack of planning, outdated, flawed or missing documents, failure of estate planning, absence of asset-protection, etc. Coupled with this threat of lost time, I prefer my family not expend their financial resources on lawyer fees to clean up an oversight or mess I might leave for my wife and kids.

Now, why jazz guitar? I have played guitar since college and presently take improvisational jazz guitar lessons. I am committed to squeezing in 45 minutes of evening practice each day, as though it also is a job. I guard this 45-minute time-slot zealously.

I would be extremely perturbed if issues were to arise from a lack of planning, etc., that steal away my (and my family’s) valuable time. But, I have my preventive planning in place. And it gives me great comfort knowing my family and I will not lose time in dealing with problems, etc. We also will likely not incur substantial lawyer fees to fend off and resolve future problems.

But, bottom line for this post, I am far more concerned about wasted time than money (for fees, etc.). One can always make more money. But, can never get back lost time.

 

Estate Planning. Give this PDF Memo to Your Clients

For many people the topic of estate planning is very low on the list of priorities. This is understandable. Estate planning is, by analogy, like flossing. We hear the admonitions to floss (or to get our estate planning in order), but who really buys into these pleas?

I also find surprising the number of families who end up later with no choice but to pay large legal (and litigation) fees to deal with an abundance of problems. Problems — both tax and non-tax — arising from aging, incapacity, and death.  Problems in many cases avoidable.

Lawyers reap the financial benefit of this family expense. Virtually a captive market.   The hourly fee clock ticks on, almost perpetually.

So, in line with my persistent efforts to highlight the need for estate planning (and asset protection planning), primarily for preventive purposes, here is a memo that might help you, your friends, and clients get moving on this task. Click here for my memo.

 

A Family Asset Protection Checklist (in pdf format)

The threat of uninsured risks includes, for example, old-age incapacity, predatory elderly remarriages, nursing home care, asset protection, divorce by our children, personal guarantees, bankruptcy.

This blog post includes my memo (link is below) for a family’s asset protection checklist.  Please forward a copy to your family members, friends and neighbors.

Click here for a pdf copy of my memo.

BDIT Trusts — “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be tax lawyers.”

This is a tax lawyer, technically-oriented blog post.   It is about a trust known in the trust / tax world as a BDIT (a beneficiary defective inheritor’s trust).  What is a BDIT and as a practical matter when might one use a BDIT?  This “why” touches on income tax advantages and asset protection.

BDIT Example — Assume Anne wants to make gifts to her daughter so her daughter can have a long-term investment nest egg.  Anne also wants to use a trust to provide her daughter with strong asset protection for this gifted property  (against divorce, bankruptcy, personal guarantees, uninsured claims, etc.). Anne wants this trust to be taxed to her daughter at the daughter’s own lower income tax brackets (the daughter no longer falls under the kiddie tax rules).

A BDIT fits this bill.

Anne’s income tax rates are much higher than her daughter’s rates in the above BDIT example, plus Anne is already in the 3.8% Medicare investment tax bracket.  The daughter is not.  Overall Anne saves income and Medicare tax in this BDIT example with her daughter being taxable on the trust’s income and gains.

By contrast, if Anne funds a non-BDIT trust for her daughter, in general either Anne will pay the trust’s income tax at Anne’s own higher income tax rates, or the trust will pay the income tax under its more costly, compressed rate brackets.  This depends on the trust design for Anne.

Now, what about BDIT asset protection?

In this example Anne is funding the BDIT trust for the benefit of her daughter.  This means Anne’s BDIT trust is a “third-party” trust (the third-party is Anne).  This is compared to a trust the daughter creates and funds herself.  If the daughter funds the trust, instead of Anne, the daughter’s trust will be a “self-settled” trust.  That is, self-settled (funded) by the daughter.

Self-settled trusts (compared to third-party trusts) – as general rule – in many cases don’t provide asset protection.  This means the daughter cannot fund her own trust and then try to use the trust as a shield for asset protection purposes.  Whereas, the daughter is in a much better position to use Anne’s third-party funded BDIT trust as an asset protection shield.

I don’t discuss in this post how to design a BDIT.

But, with BDITs being relatively new in the trust world, and as with any trust subject to various trust, asset protection, lapsing withdrawal right, and tax laws, there is a vast array of differing views on how best to design the BDIT.

I enjoy digging into the nuances of how to optimize this BDIT planning.  And this is an example of a highly technical thicket of complexity that, throughout the years, makes me recall the old Willie Nelson tune, which I often sing under my breath with the lyrics slightly changed to “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be tax lawyers.”