Why Smart Estate Planners Control & Protect Their Assets (Instead of Owning Them)
Years ago, my grandfather owned several rental properties, but as he aged, he decided to sell them. I don’t believe he was aware of certain tax strategies like providing heirs with a stepped-up basis, as he was a pipe-fitter by trade. After he passed away from a heart attack, he left his estate to my grandma.
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Several years later, my uncle, also a pipe-fitter, who was single and had lived at home with my grandma for most of his life, passed away at the early age of 49 from cancer, and he too left my grandma his estate, which consisted of some vacation rentals.
Eventually, my grandma went to live with my aunt, as she was developing memory loss and could no longer live alone. Then, after a bad car accident, my grandma went to live in a nursing home for the next five years until she passed away in her early 90s.
The reason I’m telling you this is because the nursing home wiped out her entire estate in a relatively short time. I’m sure my grandpa and uncle had no idea that the assets they worked so hard for would be taken by the nursing home and the tax man.
It wasn't until years later, when I was working as an insurance agent and financial planner, that I realized all of this was preventable, especially if I focused more on controlling assets, instead of simply owning them.
Related: The Fundamental Advantage Real Estate Investing Has Over Stocks
If you’re aging like I am, maybe it’s time to start moving assets out of your name (as many assisted living facilities have a five-year look back period) and see if long-term care and other insurances may make sense for you. It’s never too early to do some serious estate planning if you really care and want to give your heirs the greatest gift, a well-thought-out estate plan.
The Best Form of Asset Protection
Recently, I wrote an article discussing when the best time to start an entity is, and it quickly turned into a conversation about asset protection strategies. But when I think of the best asset protection there is, it’s to not own assets. After all, it’s hard for someone to take what you don’t own. The problems come from actual ownership more than anything else.
Putting up Barriers
That said, if you decide you want to own something, you need to put up a barrier to protect these assets. If it's real estate and you're in accumulation mode as an investor, and if you have earned income, you'll probably want the tax breaks of various deductions, while also taking advantage of all the depreciation.
If that’s the case, then setting up trusts and LLCs can create some barriers to those trying to sue you.
But I do think asset protection is about more than just insurance and entity selection. It comes down to what you really want—is it income, assets, or perhaps both?
The best asset protection strategies I’ve seen involve sweeping some of your money and assets off the table and putting them into safer buckets, such as family partnerships, trusts, LLCs, or even IRA accounts or insurance contracts. The more buckets of separate accounts, the better.
The Problem With Estate Planning
The biggest problem I see with estate planning rears its head when the real estate investor approaches old age. The dilemma is if you don’t want to deal with managing the real estate anymore (or your heirs won’t help you) and you sell it. Now you’ll have a long-term capital gain tax and depreciation recapture tax to pay.
The ideal is to wait until you pass away, then have the properties transferred—hopefully with some life insurance to your heirs, as they’ll get to take advantage of the stepped-up basis. The only real problem with this strategy is if your heirs aren’t around to help you manage the real estate before you pass. So what’s an investor to do—1031 exchange into a REIT (real estate investment trust)?
Most real estate investors are so used to being in accumulation mode that they aren’t always thinking about the best tax and estate planning strategies. So, a couple of years ago, I made the decision that the best gift I could leave my family was to get some of my house and estate plan in order. It was no easy task and it took me over a year, but I feel much, much better having updated my plan.
Recap: Ways to Control Assets Without Ownership
I've already mentioned strategies like utilizing family trusts and owning assets in your IRA, but there are other ways to limit ownership or exposure as well. This could be anything from having a non-recourse loan on a large commercial asset to buying smaller properties with owner financing or taking over the property via subject to financing. Even a lease-option deal is a perfect example of gaining control without ownership. Other ways to limit exposure to credit risk is through hard money, private debt, or even by raising private equity. If utilized properly, all the techniques mentioned can limit personal exposure.
So, let me ask you, how do you limit your various risks, whether it’s liability, taxes, or even the nursing home? Have you ever considered attaining control instead of ownership?
Let me know with a comment!