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Lehman Tax Law > Blog > Domestic Tax Planning > Estate Planning in a Low-Interest Environment

Estate Planning in a Low-Interest Environment

By Richard S. Lehman, Tax Attorney

In last week’s column, we established that today’s business climate is extremely treacherous for all sizes and types of business. Whether a suit is won or lost, frivolous or legitimate, there are major distractions. Time is spent defending actions, while revenue-generating activities are curtailed. Similarly, large sums of money can be spent on defense.

In the first article, we analyzed a variety of asset protection entities. In this final segment, we will look at protected forms of investment. Business owners, directors of public companies, management and individuals should consider making use of these various methods of investment as another protection against liabilities.

Exemption equals protection.

Not only can there be protection from creditors by choosing the proper entity in which to hold assets, many types of investment assets are also protected from creditors by virtue of state and federal exemptions. All states have “exemptions” to designate categories of property interests that are immune from forced sale or seizure. Florida law provides an assortment of such exemption:

  • Annuity and insurance contracts. Florida law protects the cash surrender values of life insurance policies and the proceeds of annuity contracts issued upon the lives of residents of the state. Creditors of the insured or the beneficiary cannot seize the assets unless the policies or contracts were for the benefit of the creditor.

  • Life insurance trusts. Consideration of the life insurance trust provides an asset protection opportunity that makes use of the trust concept, the exemption concept and also provides for major estate and gift tax benefits. This type of trust, formed to handle life insurance proceeds, is similar to the domestic trust described in the previous article. Asset protection may be afforded by providing limitations on the beneficiaries’ interest. Under Florida law is also protection from creditors due to the exemption, and it also provides for the estate tax-free payment of life insurance death benefits to beneficiaries.

By placing the policy in a separate irrevocable trust, rather than owning the policy, the insured retains no “incidence of ownership.” The death benefits payable from the policy will not be included in the insured’s estate. If the insured does not use a trust or another person as the owner of the policy and retains any incidence of ownership, all of the death benefits will be subject to estate taxes.

All states have exemptions to designate categories of property interests that are immune from forced sale or seizure. Florida law provides an assortment of such exemptions. Homestead and other exemptions.

  • Homestead protection. Florida provides unlimited protection for the homestead property and improvements. The limit on the size of protected property is up to one-half acre in a city or 16 acres in the country.

  • Earnings of a head of household. Florida protects compensation for personal services or labor whether denominated as wages, salary, commission or bonus. The first $500 a week of such earnings are absolutely exempt from attachment or garnishment and anything above that amount will not be subject to attachment or garnishment unless such person has agreed otherwise in writing. Wages may be protected for six months after receipt.

  • Disability insurance and disability insurance proceeds. Florida exempts disability payments from creditors, including lump sum proceeds resulting from settlement of a claim against a disability carrier.

  • Pension plans and IRA’s. These are generally protected, but bankruptcy courts have found that pensions will not be protected from creditors in the event of inappropriate compliance with tax or labor laws. Among common defects that may cause this qualification are a failure to cover all employees requiring such coverage, inappropriate investments and loans, and prohibited transactions.

  • Alimony rights. These rights are a protected asset.

  • Unemployment compensation benefit rights. As defined by Florida law, these rights are exempt from all claims and creditors.

Keep in mind that these are cursory explanations of several asset protection strategies. Business owners should realize that their assets are always at risk, so it’s worth considering these plans with a professional as a way to protect what you’ve built personally and through your business.

Originally Published: May 31, 2002 in South Florida Business Journal

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