Almost everyone knows someone who had a problem and lost everything. Claims can, for example, allege professional liability, responsibility for a car accident, or unpaid creditors. Whether meritorious or not, defense can be enormously costly. With our litigious society, with limited risk for those making liability claims, asset protection planning has become required for many and highly desirable for many more.
In this issue of The Wealth Advisor, we will provide an introduction to asset protection planning (what it is, types of risk, when to plan, what to expect in the planning process, and levels of planning) and how you can get started.
Asset protection planning is not about hiding or concealing assets. It is about using the existing laws appropriately to obtain the best possible level of protection for your assets – in other words, to make you a less desirable target for claimants.
Physicians, dentists, other health care professionals, lawyers, accountants, and sometimes people whose business enterprises pertain to health care, such as skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities, are frequent targets for claims. Those in construction (architects, builders, developers) also have professional liability concerns.
As a general rule, nobody can limit their own professional liability through a legal device. That’s why professionals carry malpractice insurance. But there are other areas of risk against which professionals can and should protect themselves.
In a general partnership, each partner is liable for all claims arising out of partnership activities. Verbal partnerships are always general partnerships. Only in a limited partnership can the partners be protected from liability for the malpractice of the other partners. In a multi-owner entity in which an owner is married, protection may also be needed against a partner’s next spouse becoming an owner.
These include liabilities for business deals (for example real estate) that have gone bad and tort claims (such as for car wrecks). In any business there could be non-professional liability claims based on employment practices, alleged employment discrimination, and alleged sexual harassment, to name just a few.
Professionals and nonprofessionals alike are exposed to general liabilities that can cause their assets to be at risk. These include liability for unpaid income and estate taxes; the behavior of children and their spouses, which can lead to loss of family assets; co-signing a loan or mortgage with a relative or another who defaults or has a judgment filed against them; or a car wreck or other accident.
The best time to plan is before a claim arises. There are different rules that apply for known claimants and unknown future claimants. But even with an existing claim, and sometimes even after a judgment has been entered, some options may still be available. It is, however, vital to avoid making a “fraudulent” transfer; i.e., a transfer of assets with intent to defraud or hinder creditors that is made without full and adequate consideration.
Because asset protection planning can include a variety of strategies, it is usually best accomplished by a team of advisors, which may include a CPA, estate planning attorney, financial advisor, insurance advisor and possibly retirement plan administrator. Any member of this advisor team may recognize that you need asset protection planning and recommend an evaluation, or you may have some concerns that you would like to address. Generally, the process takes at least three meetings to plan and implement. They are:
It is important that you are honest and forthright in providing the information requested. At the same time, because the very nature of asset protection planning can involve current worry about potential risk and/or litigation, it is important to determine early how much information you are willing to share and should share with various members of your advisory team. For example, it may be vital to preserve attorney/client privilege and not share litigious information with non-attorney advisors who could be subpoenaed later.
Once the plan has been approved, your advisors will make a list of the assets and determine where they need to go. It can easily take six months to a year to fully fund the plan, and it’s usually done in steps and pieces. During this time, it’s important that everyone stays informed about the process.
There are numerous asset protection strategies you can employ, from very basic to advanced, depending upon the particular risks you face, your current situation, and the extent to which you are willing and able to go to protect your assets. Briefly, asset protection begins with utilizing state and federal law exemptions for things like life insurance, retirement plans, and limited types of jointly owned property. These exemptions have limited effectiveness, however, because they only protect these specific types of assets. For those who need broader protections, more advanced strategies like business entities and even trusts specifically designed to protect you against future creditors may be in order.
Planning Tip: Asset protection planning is a complex area, and as you start to become familiar with these tools, you will begin to understand why a team of advisors is usually needed to accomplish your goals.
If you are concerned about protecting your assets, talk to us. We can help you evaluate your situation, put together a team of advisors and start putting a plan into place. Most asset protection plans will build right on top of your existing estate planning.
Remember, the best time to plan is before a claim arises.
Answers: All of the above are false except 8, 9 and 10.