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.
By Attorney Kelly Rains Jesson and Associate Attorney Danielle Nodar
Forming a corporation in the state of North Carolina is pretty easy to do yourself, but that may get business owners into trouble. Numerous corporations exist without any bylaws and without issuing any shares (especially those who do-it-themselves). Failing to complete all the steps can have negative consequences.
A corporation is owned by its shareholders. Shortly after a business is incorporated, it should issue shares to the owner(s). If there are no shares issued, there are no shareholders, and thus no owners. Why do so many business owners fail to complete this step? Probably for two reasons: (1) they don’t know this is the way it works and (2) in order to incorporate, all the Secretary of State’s office requires is that Articles of Incorporation be filed with its office. It does not require proof of bylaws or shares.
Shareholders do not manage the business just because they are shareholders. The Board of Directors manages the business. For small, family businesses, the shareholders and the directors are often the same people. However, these are still two distinct roles. Most business owners that have not issued themselves shares are simply acting like directors of the corporation.
To incorporate, the incorporator (could be a future director, shareholder, or third party, like an attorney) files Articles of Incorporation. North Carolina law states that if no directors are named in the Articles of Incorporation, the incorporator shall hold a “meeting” (can be informal) to name the initial directors. “The incorporators or board of directors of a corporation shall adopt initial bylaws for the corporation.” N.C.G.S. § 55-2-06 (emphasis added). The law states that there SHALL be bylaws, not that there MAY be bylaws. The bylaws govern the management and affairs of the corporation. The bylaws state how shares will be issued, how directors will be named/replaced, and how the company is managed.
So why should you care?
First, the liability protection corporation owners enjoy is at risk if you do not follow the corporate formalities required by North Carolina law. You risk having a creditor ask a court to “pierce the corporate veil,” making you personally liable for debts and judgments of the corporation. When a court “pierces the corporate veil,” it determines that the corporation and owner are basically the same, with the corporation serving as merely a shell for the owner to act. If this finding occurs, your personal assets can be used to satisfy corporate debts, which defeats one of main purposes of owning a corporation in the first place.
Second, you will probably not be able to obtain an SBA loan if you do not have bylaws. These loans are backed by government guarantees. The government wants to make sure it is not lending to an entity that has not been set up properly. The SBA wants to make sure the bylaws do not contain provisions that make the loan risky.
Finally, another reason why we talk to our clients about shares and bylaws is for estate planning purposes. When a person passes away, they leave their property to beneficiaries. Shares of corporations are personal property. If a business owner has not issued himself or herself shares of the corporation, what is there to pass to their beneficiaries?
Further, as we explained above, corporations are managed by the board of directors and not the shareholders. Therefore, even if a shareholder owner passes their shares to their beneficiaries, that does not mean that the beneficiary now suddenly starts managing the company as a new director. If you are the sole director of your corporation, who will take over management when you pass away or are sick? The bylaws of a corporation will govern what happens when a director passes away or otherwise becomes unable to act.
We can do some pretty creative estate planning with owners of corporations. We can help them restrict management or ownership of shares to family members. We can ensure that their shares stay out of probate through using trusts, saving their families money.
For assistance with drafting bylaws, issuing shares, and implementing an estate plan, give Jesson & Rains a call!
Written by Danielle Nodar, Associate Attorney
Estate planning can be a daunting process for many people. Whether it is the stress of making decisions that will impact loved ones when we are gone or avoiding thinking about death or incapacity, many people are hesitant to create an estate plan. The confusion and anxiety surrounding this process have lead to some pervasive myths relatied to estate planning, which we have addressed below.
1. My estate is not big enough to require any estate planning.
There is a widespread myth that only the very wealthy need estate plans and that the average person does not have an “estate” to begin with. This is not true! When someone passes away, all of their assets become part of their estate; there is no minimum threshold of assets that make up an estate. Thus, at death, we all have an estate, it just varies in size and complexity based on the amount and types of assets you have. Oftentimes, people with fewer assets have the most issues during probate and could have really used the help of an attorney.
2. Estate Planning only deals with distributing property at my death.
Another myth is that your estate plan only deals with who will inherit your property when you pass away. This is also incorrect! A will also allows you to name people who may serve important roles when you pass away. In a will you will name an Executor to manage your assets and distribute them to the beneficiaries in your will at the time of your death. Without a will, you will not have any control over naming the person to manage you affairs at your death. Additionally, in North Carolina, the only way to name a guardian for your children in the event that both parents pass away while the children are still minors is to name the guardian in a Last Will and Testament. You can also name a trustee who is the money manager for inheriting children until they reach a certain age.
Additionally, estate planning involves planning for incapacity through durable powers of attorney and health care directives. With a durable power of attorney, you can name an agent to make business, legal, and financial decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated. You can also name an agent to make healthcare decisions for you in the event that you are incapacitated and include specific instructions for them about your healthcare wishes. There is also the advance directive or “living will,” which includes your wishes relating to the withdrawal or withholding of life support if you are incapacitated and suffering from a medical condition where you will not likely recover.
3. If I have a will, I can avoid probate.
Having a will drafted will not always prevent your estate from having to go through probate to pass assets to your loved ones. If you pass away with a will, depending on the circumstances, your executor may have to file your will at the courthouse along with the initial probate application and then must comply with all the requirements of the probate process. This includes providing the court with an inventory of all of your assets at the time of your death, providing notice to any of your potential creditors existing at the time of death, handling creditor claims and paying creditors with estate assets, and making distributions of any remaining assets to your beneficiaries. While there are ways to avoid probate (for example, owning property joint with rights of survivorship, the surviving spouse allowance, and utilizing revocable trusts), sometimes merely having a will is not enough.
4. I do not need a will because my spouse will inherit everything.
In North Carolina, this is oftentimes false. The surviving spouse will remain owner of all joint property or accounts with right of survivorship. Also, every surviving spouse (regardless of the existence of a will) is entitled to a year’s allowance of $60,000 worth of the decedent’s personal property. If there are any other assets, a surviving spouse does not automatically inherit everything according to the North Carolina Intestacy Statute. For example, if you do not have a will and are survived by a spouse and only one child (or grandchildren, if that one child is deceased), the surviving spouse takes ½ of your real property, the first $60,000 of your personal property, and ½ the remaining balance of your personal property while the child inherits the remainder. If you do not have children but are survived by a spouse and parent(s), your spouse will inherit ½ of your real property, the first $100,000 of your personal property, and ½ the remaining balance of your personal property. Your parent(s) will inherit ½ of your real estate and any personal property remaining after the spouse’s share
Thus, without a will, you may be inadvertently leaving your assets to people who do not need them and leave your spouse in need. For example, if your children are minors, you may want your spouse to inherit your full estate to take care of your children.
Overall, all of these options are more complicated and involve more court oversight. It is much easier to create an estate plan with an attorney that ensures that your spouse inherits everything or is adequately taken care of when you pass away. If you or anyone you know have any questions regarding estate planning, please give Jesson & Rains a call.
- By Jesson & Rains Associate Attorney, Danielle Nodar
The beginning of a new year lends itself to reflecting on the year that has passed and setting goals for the future. Come January, we are bombarded with information about New Year’s resolutions and implementing plans to help us transform our resolutions from lofty dreams to our reality. From health goals relating to diet and fitness, financial goals such as saving for retirement or paying off longstanding debt, even decluttering our homes--there is no shortage of information about what we can do to improve our present and plan for our future.
However, one area of planning that many people seem to put off is creating an estate plan. Estate planning involves meeting with an attorney to discuss things like your assets and debts and how they could impact your estate plan; how you want your property distributed at your passing; who will administer the probate of your estate; who will handle your financial affairs and medical decisions if your become incapacitated and are no longer able to make those decisions on your own; and other important decisions that could make a lasting impact on your loved ones.
Even if you have an estate plan in place, you should meet with your estate planning attorney every three to five years to review any life changes or changes in the law. Some reasons to update an estate plan are:
If you have had any major life changes or just want to ensure that your estate plan is in order, make it a goal for 2019 to plan for your future and the future of your loved ones with estate planning. We can help you to ensure that your property is distributed how and to whom you want it to be distributed and to ensure that you are leaving your family unburdened.
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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