By Attorney Kelly Jesson
Creditors come in all shapes and sizes: ex-spouses, bankruptcy, personal and business debts, and claims involving real estate or professional malpractice. People in high risk professions or who deal with circumstances that are prone to litigation sometimes want to take steps to protect assets. However, this must be done before a dispute arises, because moving assets around afterwards can sometimes be deemed a fraudulent conveyance and voided by a court.
Unfortunately, there is no “magic wand,” and protecting assets oftentimes involves investing your earnings into protected accounts, such as life insurance and retirement. An individual’s retirement account is exempted from their own creditors (but not from a beneficiary’s creditors once the assets are inherited, which will be discussed in the next blog dealing with asset protection in estate planning). The cash value of a life insurance policy is also protected from the insured’s creditors, but again, not from a beneficiary’s creditors once the assets are inherited.
Additionally, the state of North Carolina exempts certain amounts of property from creditors:
One of the most important things you can do is title property as “tenants by entireties” (TBE). If a husband and wife purchase property together, by default, it is owned as TBE and is therefore protected from the creditors of just one of them, meaning a lien will not attach. However, if a creditor gets a judgment in both spouses’ names, a lien can attach. Also, if the spouses divorce or one passes away, a lien can attach if the remaining owner is the debtor. Another alternative or high-risk professionals is to have the low-risk spouse own the majority of assets because they will not be responsible for debts unless joint.
Another really important step is for self-employed people to form businesses and formalize businesses to protect assets. If you follow business formalities, business creditors cannot reach your personal assets for business debts. If you own investment properties, you are running a business. In fact, the definition of “operating a business” is pretty loose, and oftentimes people will move high-value assets over to LLCs for asset protection purposes. Again, you must follow business formalities (set up a tax identification number, maintain a separate bank account, have an operating agreement).
If you own a business but you have personal creditors, those cannot reach assets titled in the name of your business. They are limited to collecting only the distributions you receive from the business, which you control as the business owner. Distributions do not include your pay made through payroll, which is another reason to run your business like a business.
Finally, we’re often called by people to set up trusts to avoid creditors. General living trusts or revocable trusts are not protected from creditors of the grantor (the person who sets it up), although the funds could be protected from beneficiaries’ creditors after the grantor dies (the subject of our next blog). North Carolina residents have a few not-so-great options: First, they can set up an irrevocable trust for the benefit of others. For example, if you are married, you can create an irrevocable trust that benefits your spouse for his or her lifetime. Presumably, your spouse will take care of you while you’re married, so you will indirectly have access to the money you put into the irrevocable trust, although on paper it will no longer belong to you, so your creditors cannot reach it. This obviously has risks, but it is an option.
Another option is an asset protection trust. In an asset protection trust, the trustee has discretion to distribute money to the grantor as well as other beneficiaries. These trusts are not valid in North Carolina, although they are available in seventeen other states and other countries. However, North Carolina residents can pick the situs (jurisdiction) of their trust and where the trustee is located, meaning, for example, that you can state that Georgia law applies to your trust even though you live in North Carolina. However, lawmakers in North Carolina have questioned whether this practice is valid for asset protection trusts, and, therefore, there are some risks involved. Of course, transferring funds to another country is always risky.
If you are interested in implementing any of the above ideas in order to protect your assets, please give the attorneys at Jesson & Rains a call!
President Trump signed a new law in December that has taken effect this month called the SECURE Act (Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act). It includes a wide array of changes to retirement accounts that both individuals and business owners should know.
For individuals, here are a few highlights:
(i) being unable to perform (without substantial assistance from another individual) at least 2 activities of
daily living for a period of at least 90 days due to a loss of functional capacity,
(ii) having a level of disability similar (as determined under regulations prescribed by the Secretary in
consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services) to the level of disability described in
clause (i), or,
(iii) requiring substantial supervision to protect such individual from threats to health and safety due
to severe cognitive impairment.
Business owners should be aware of the following:
A financial adviser would be the best person to contact if you have any questions about how the SECURE Act affects your retirement, and a CPA would be a good person to contact regarding business credits. However, if you want to discuss how eliminating the IRA lifetime stretch might affect your estate plan, give Jesson & Rains a call.
Retirement accounts can be one of the largest assets that someone passes on to a loved one. However, these assets are treated differently if they are tax-deferred. If you leave a standard 401K to a beneficiary, they will pay income tax when they withdraw the money.
A surviving spouse will be required to take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) once they turn 70.5 years old. For non-spouse heirs, the beneficiary will have to take RMDs every year if the original account owner passes away after reaching age 70.5. But if the original account owner was under the age of 70.5 when they died, the RMDs will be based on the beneficiary's age instead. This is called a “stretch out” because the RMDs are stretched out over the beneficiary’s life, based on the beneficiary’s life expectancy as dictated by the IRS.
Not all plan administrators will allow a beneficiary to stretch out the payments. It may be worthwhile for the beneficiary to rollover the inherited 401K to their own IRA because, if you do not stretch out RMDs, the RMDs might be taxed at a higher income tax bracket!
Additionally, because 401Ks are distributed according to life expectancies, sometimes they are not the best asset to pass along to multiple beneficiaries through a trust. The IRS will force RMDs based on the life expectancy of the oldest beneficiary.
Finally, deferred tax assets should not be left in a supplemental needs trust for the benefit of a disabled beneficiary. If the trustee accumulates the RMDs instead of distributing them to the beneficiary (which oftentimes is necessary to keep the beneficiary qualified for government benefits), the IRS will tax the RMDs at the trust income tax rate, which can be as high as 37%!
As you can see, estate planning is so much more than simply drafting a will. Please contact Jesson & Rains if you would like to consult with a professional.
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