Posts under: Small Business

Feds Make Change to Help Entrepreneurs Raise More Money

May 9, 2017 Business planning, Real Estate, Small Business Comments Off on Feds Make Change to Help Entrepreneurs Raise More Money

Your federal government has modified rules making it easier to raise more money from so-called “unaccredited investors”. Under the updated rule, known as Rule 504, you can raise up to $5 million from unaccredited investors in a 12-month period. Prior to the 2017 update, you could only raise $1 million from unaccredited investors. The updated $5 million cap is available under Rule 504 offerings and should only be used when the offering is a private placement memorandum offering (“PPM”), where you aren’t marketing the offering to the general public but privately to know persons and contacts. The new $5 million cap will make it easier to raise larger amounts of money from unaccredited persons and we expect to see an increase in persons using Rule 504 to raise money for operating businesses and real estate investments.

Background to Securities Offering Exemptions

At some point in its lifespan, just about every business needs an infusion of capital, whether to buy equipment or inventory, hire more employees, make additional investments or something else.  Obtaining that capital can be accomplished in several ways – maxing out credit cards, getting a business line of credit, tracking down private money loans, bringing on partners who invest money but also participate in the decision-making process of the business, or maybe even having a bake sale!

However, sometimes it makes sense to raise cash by bringing on investors – silent partners who have funds to contribute, but who would rather not (and maybe who you would rather not) participate in the business.  These are the type of folks who want to invest their money, step away, and then have you make the hard decisions and put in the blood, sweat and tears to produce a return on their investment.  When you bring on an investor of this type, whether you know it or not, you have sold that investor a “security” and you are now under the purview of the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) – perhaps the only federal agency with a less developed sense of humor than the IRS.

Created by FDR and Congress while the country was in the throes of the Great Depression in 1934, the SEC exists to make sure the excesses and outright frauds that created the 1929 Stock Market Crash do not repeat themselves.  The intervening decades have seen the number and complexity of SEC regulations wax and wane, but in 2017 we are left with a multi-layered, multi-faceted system that those seeking to raise capital should not attempt to navigate without expert guidance.

Regulation D and the 2017 Federal Securities Exemption Options

One of the most popular tools for small businesses looking to raise money is something called “Regulation D.”  In a nutshell, under Regulation D, the SEC allows businesses to raise capital through the sale of securities without requiring those businesses to register said securities with the Commission (an extremely expensive and time-consuming process).  For the past 35 years or so, there have been three separate and distinct sets of hoops to jump through to comply with Regulation D, called Rule 504, Rule 505 and Rule 506.

Rule 506 has been the most popular of the three.  For all intents and purposes, Rule 506 only allows businesses to offer and sell securities to “Accredited Investors” – people with a net worth over $1 million, or whose annual income exceeds $200,000 (individually) or $300,000 (jointly with a spouse).  In exchange for only dealing with Accredited Investors, issuers of Rule 506 offerings get to raise an unlimited amount of money from an unlimited amount of investors over an unlimited amount of time.  In some situations, they may also be eligible to solicit their offerings to the general public (think email blasts and radio and TV ads).  Rule 506 offerings are also simple at the state level – where only the same short document filed with the SEC (the “Form D”) has to be filed (and a fee paid) in each state where Rule 506 securities are sold.

2017 Update

The recent SEC change that will help entrepreneurs raise money comes in Rule 504 of Regulation D.  The nice part about Rule 504 has always been that it allows the company raising the funds to accept money from both accredited and non-accredited investors – a huge advantage if you don’t have contact info for a bunch of super-rich folks in your phone.

The main problem with Rule 504 has always been that you can’t raise more than $1 million in any 12-month period, and $1 million doesn’t go quite as far today as it did in 1988 (which is when the $1 million cap was instituted).  Well, apparently late last year the powers that be at the SEC woke up one morning and realized that 1988 was almost 30 years ago, so they decided to increase the cap from $1 million to $5 million in any 12 month period.  This increase became effective January 20, 2017.  The increase is a potentially significant change, so let’s recap the parameters of the new Rule 504 Offering:

1)   You may offer up to $5 million in securities in any 12 month period.

2)   You may offer securities to an unlimited number of both accredited and non-accredited investors.

3)   Unless you jump through some pretty onerous hoops, you may not “generally solicit” your offering.  You will still need to rely on “word of mouth” marketing.

4)   You can’t play in the Rule 504 sandbox if you have run afoul of the SEC previously and have been branded a “Bad Actor” under their rules.

5)   You still have to comply with state-by-state “Blue Sky” laws.  This can be tricky.  Unlike with a Rule 506 offering, state law compliance is not always as simple as filing the SEC Form D and paying a fee.  In some blessed states (let’s give a shout out to Colorado and South Dakota) the process is exactly the same as a Rule 506 offering.  In others (I’m looking at you California and Texas) the rules are restrictive and complex, and you will be very limited on the number of folks you can accept money from (or even solicit) without “qualifying” the offering in that state.

The bottom line is that if you want to bring on investors and raise up to $5 million in capital, but you are worried about only being able to take money from “accredited investors” then the Rule 504 Offering absolutely needs to be on your radar.  It’s going to take a bit of heavy lifting on the state compliance side of the coin, but depending on the states involved, it could be a very attractive option.  Please speak with an experienced securities attorney to see if a Rule 504 Offering could make sense in your specific situation.

What Being Dragged Off a United can Flight Teach Us about Contract Law?

April 18, 2017 Business planning, Law, Litigation, Small Business Comments Off on What Being Dragged Off a United can Flight Teach Us about Contract Law?

Unless you’ve been in a coma for the past week or so, you’ve probably seen the cell phone camera footage of airport police dragging a kicking and screaming Dr. David Dao off a United Airlines flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport last week.

At this point, the story is well known.  United needed to get four additional flight crew employees on Dr. Dao’s flight, so they asked paying customers to give up their seats voluntarily, for increasing levels of compensation.  When there were no takers, United selected four passengers “at random” for involuntary removal from the flight.  Dr. Dao was one of the “lucky” four selected.  However, when the time came to make the walk of shame down the aisle and off the plane, Dr. Dao refused to get up.  That’s when airport security was called in to physically remove him and cell phone cameras started to roll.

This fiasco, and the seemingly incessant media coverage thereof, has been a PR nightmare for United Airlines.  It has also brought an unprecedented amount of attention to the legal term “contract of carriage.”  Simply put, a contract of carriage is an agreement between a carrier of goods or passengers (such as an airline) and the consignor, consignee or passenger. These agreements define the rights, duties and liabilities of both the airline and the passenger.

You agree to your chosen airline’s contract of carriage when you buy your ticket.  The very broad framework for these agreements is established by federal law and the FAA (for domestic airlines), but the contracts can, and do, vary considerably from airline to airline.  Among other things, in your contract of carriage, you agree that you can be bumped from your seat due to overbooking, or because the airline needs to move employees.  You also agree (at least in the contracts of carriage for the four largest U.S. carriers) that you can be removed from or denied boarding to the plane for the following reasons (among many others):

  1. You decided shoes are overrated – boarding can be denied to those who are barefoot or not properly clothed.
  2. You decided showering is overrated – airlines can refuse to board individuals who have or cause a malodorous condition.
  3. You spent your entire long layover in the airport bar – airlines don’t have to board folks who appear to be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs to the degree that they could endanger other passengers or crew members.
  4. You spent your entire long layover in the airport’s all-you-can-eat buffet – if you are unable to sit in a single seat with the seat belt properly secured or are unable to put down armrests between seats for an entire flight, the airline isn’t obligated to give you a seat (or two).

What can we learn from all of this (other than to make sure to wear shoes to the airport)?  I think the takeaway is that even if we don’t know we’re doing so, most of us enter into legal agreements (i.e. contracts) multiple times each day, and it behooves us to know (and when we can do so, also to control) what is in those contracts.

This is especially important in your business.  Do you have a written contract with your vendors/suppliers/customers?  If not, then what happens if there is a dispute?  What is the basis of your agreement?  An email chain?  A phone call?  A face-to-face meeting that ended with a handshake?  If you do have a written contract, when was the last time you looked at it?  Do you understand the language in the contract and your rights and responsibilities under that language?  Have you had a trusted, experienced attorney review the contract to make sure it is in your best interest?

As Dr. Dao’s experience has taught us, the consequences of a contract can be serious, and can even put us in the national spotlight.  Taking the time to review and, if necessary, to change the contracts that you rely on to run your business is absolutely worth the time and effort.  The few hundred bucks you might spend could save you thousands in defending or pursuing a lawsuit regarding a poorly drafted or non-existent contract.

Who’s Liable- The Landlord or the Tenant?

February 14, 2017 Asset Protection, Business planning, Litigation, Real Estate, Small Business Comments Off on Who’s Liable- The Landlord or the Tenant?

We have many clients that own residential rental and commercial properties and lawsuits involving landlords continue to happen throughout the country, and will continue so long as someone is willing to ‘rent a room’ and someone is likely not to pay or damage something.

However, the question then becomes…who’s liable when something goes wrong.  As you can imagine a lot of finger pointing takes place and it can oftentimes be difficult to see who is in the right.

Thus, history has taught one of the most important lessons of all- “learn from the past”.  As such, I have compiled a brief snapshot of a few recent court cases throughout the country that have dealt with landlord liability.  Hopefully learning from one of these difficult situations will help you avoid the some of the same mistakes.

In a case called Lipp v. Ginger C., LLC (W.D. Mo., 2016), the tenant threw a party. Surprise…Surprise!!! And as you would expect, one of the guests, who had been drinking at the party, went onto a second floor deck to urinate. While on the deck, the wooden balcony broke, causing the guest to fall 18 feet onto the driveway. He then died a few days later. The landlord knew that the balcony had been temporarily repaired by a prior owner, but the landlord had not permanently repaired the balcony as of the date of the party. The family of the deceased guest sued the landlord.

In a case called Ortega v. Murrah (Tex. App., 2016), the tenant broke her leg after slipping on water that had leaked from a broken pipe under the rental property’s kitchen sink. The tenant sued the landlord for personal injuries.

In a case called Moore v. Parham (Ariz. App. 2016), the landlord owned a residential property in Lake Havasu that he leased to a tenant. A satellite dish installer came to the property to install a satellite dish for the tenant. The installer was injured when he attempted to access the roof by climbing on a shade structure attached to the house. The installer sued the landlord for personal injuries.

Lastly, in a case out of California last year called Ramos v. Breeze, 2016, the tenant tripped and fell in the parking lot of the apartment complex in which she was living.   The tenant sued the landlord for personal injuries.  The landlord was held substantially liable for the injuries.

These are just a few of many recent cases involving landlord liability and a landlord being sued. Most of the cases above are still working themselves through the court system in terms of being resolved on the merits, but the point is that if you’re a landlord, you need to consider your exposure to liability and consider what steps you can take as a preventative measure, including the following:

  1. Have your landlord-tenant agreement reviewed. Whether you’re a landlord of commercial real estate, or investment residential real estate, you need to make sure you have a strong “landlord-friendly” agreement. Have you had it prepared or at least reviewed by an attorney?
  1. Review your rental property insurance policies and applicable limits. If a landlord is subject to a legitimate claim, hopefully it never ripens into a lawsuit because the claim is a covered event under the appropriate insurance policy. But make sure you know exactly what claims are covered and what claims are not covered under your insurance policy(ies) so that you know what is and what is not covered under the policy(ies). Do you know what policies you have and what events are covered and what events are not covered?
  1. Consider how you’re managing your rental(s). You want to make sure you utilize best practices and procedures for managing your rental(s), whether you can and are managing them yourself or you have someone else manage them for you.
  1. Consider how you’re vetting your tenant(s). Are you being careful to properly vet/screen your tenants? A little extra time on the front-end to make sure the tenant is properly qualified will save you a lot of time later on.
  1. Consider an entity(ies) for your rental(s). Certainly having an LLC own your rentals is not the end-all, be-all, and it won’t in of itself prevent a lawsuit. However, it can, unless abused, prevent you from personally being named in the lawsuit, and thus exposing your personal assets in the event the plaintiff obtains the judgment against you.

Even in cases in which the landlord “wins”, the time spent and the costs involved to defend the lawsuit can be enormous. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of medicine, particularly when it comes to landlord liability. This type of liability can arise in a number of ways, including failure to comply with statutory requirements, a breach of contract, premises liability, or negligence.

Each one of these liabilities requires a state-specific analysis based on statutes and cases in the particular state in which the property is located. Please contact our office at 888-801-0010 if you would like to schedule a consult regarding these matters.

Which State’s Law Applies in a Lawsuit?

February 14, 2017 Asset Protection, Business planning, Corporations, Law, Litigation, Real Estate, Small Business Comments Off on Which State’s Law Applies in a Lawsuit?

We frequently hear from clients who have been told by others that they should incorporate in Nevada (or other states outside of their home state) in order to take advantage of their favorable laws.   We have seen many individuals persuaded into incorporating in a state outside of their home, only to complain about the cost and complexity of the structure which ultimately had to be unwound.

This is not to say that incorporating an entity in Nevada or Wyoming should never be considered as part of an asset protection strategy. One primary reason for incorporating a Nevada or Wyoming entity is arguably due to their strong “charging order” protection.   The charging order is a concept protecting an LLC owner who is sued and held liable for something unrelated to and “outside” from the LLC from then being able go and take that LLC interest or the asset held by the LLC.   For example, if you’re cruising on the highway over the weekend and get into a major accident causing serious injuries, the charging order could prevent or hinder the injured plaintiff from seizing your assets held in your LLC.

However, the myth that we often hear from clients is that because states like Wyoming or Nevada have strong asset protection laws, they should take advantage by incorporating these entities into their structure even if they don’t own assets or do business there. What is often omitted from the conversation is whether Nevada or Wyoming law will actually be applied if there is no connection between the lawsuit and Nevada or Wyoming.

Since we are a union comprised of fifty states with different laws, there is an incentive to try and take advantage of states that have more favorable laws. Courts generally discourage this type of “forum shopping” where people try to use the favorable laws of one state even if they have no actual connection with that state.

One of the ways courts deal with these types of cases is by applying a set of rules called Conflicts of Laws. It is an area of the law that allows a state to determine which laws will apply to a case when the laws of multiple states could potentially apply.

For example, lets say a California resident is driving in Nevada on his way to Vegas and collides with a Colorado resident causing catastrophic injuries. Where should this type of lawsuit be filed and which of these three state’s laws should we apply? Because these types of circumstances can be so varied depending on the residency of the parties and the location where the events resulting in a lawsuit occur, it is sometimes difficult to predict where a lawsuit should be and what state’s laws should apply. This is further complicated by the fact that states have different Conflicts of Law rules.

Here are some general rules that courts will usually apply depending on the type of case. Examples include the following:

  1. Personal Injury or Fraud: Generally the law of the state where the wrongful act causing the injury or fraud occurred will be the law that should be applied. For example, if the accident or fraudulent conduct occurred in Nevada, that is an indicator that Nevada law should be applied;
  2. Personal Property (damage or theft): Where the personal property was located when the act causing the theft or damage occurred may determine which state’s laws should apply;
  3. Real estate: The state where the real estate is located will often determine which state’s laws will apply in a dispute relating to real estate;
  4. Contracts: Where the contract was entered or where the principal events necessary to form the contract occurs. Keep in mind that many contracts have provisions governing which state’s laws or courts will be used in the event of a dispute. These types of “forum selection” or “choice of law” clauses are often enforced by courts, unless there is no substantial or reasonable relationship with the chosen state. For example, if you are in California and you enter into a contract with someone else in California and all the activities relating to the contract occur in California, it is unlikely that a California court would enforce a provision that says Delaware law should apply even if you included such a provision in your contract.

These are just some very general guidelines as courts may consider additional factors in any given case. Hence, the outcome in any particular case is often difficult to predict with any consistency.

Therefore, before you decide to set up a structure that includes incorporating in a state which you have little or no connection with, make sure you understand not only the purposes for choosing that particular state, but perhaps even more importantly, its limitations.     Don’t assume that if you incorporate your entity in Nevada, that you will necessarily get the benefit of Nevada’s laws, especially if you do not live in Nevada.

What Is a “Holding Company” and When Could It Make Sense to Have One?

February 7, 2017 Asset Protection, Business planning, Real Estate, Small Business Comments Off on What Is a “Holding Company” and When Could It Make Sense to Have One?

We have lots of clients who come to us after dealing with promoters and would-be practitioners who have recommended elaborate (and usually expensive) entity structures for their businesses. This “up-sell” approach tends to happen whether the business sells cheeseburgers or invests in buy-and-hold rental properties.

One of the structures that is almost always included in these intricate structures (especially when real estate is involved) is something called a “holding company.” Simply put, a holding company is a business entity that exists solely to own other business entities. In our practice, we see this most often in the form of a holding company LLC, which owns one or more additional LLC’s, each of which, in turn, owns a single rental property.

At first glance, this structure may seem like overkill, and in many situations it is. Owning a rental property in the name of a single properly established, maintained, and operated LLC will provide the LLC owner with limited liability for the potential debts and obligations associated with that property.

In several states (but certainly still less than half), this simple structure also does a great deal to protect the rental property from the debts and obligations of the LLC owner. In these states, if an LLC owner has some sort of judgment against him or her, the sole remedy available that judgment creditor has to get at the LLC owner’s interest in the LLC that owns the rental (and the rental itself) is something called a “Charging Order.” Let’s call these states “Charging Order States.”

The Charging Order lets the judgment creditor step into the LLC owner’s shoes if and when the LLC makes a distribution of profit – but it doesn’t let that judgment creditor do much else. For that, and several other reasons, the Charging Order is a particularly weak remedy that many judgment creditors will simply decide not to pursue (or that they may be willing to walk away from for pennies on the dollar).

So, given the protections offered by a single LLC, when can a holding company, set up in a Charging Order State, actually make sense in the context of rental real estate? Here are a few:

1)         You work in a profession that tends to get sued a lot (think doctors and engineers), and your rentals (and their associated LLC(s)) are located in a non-Charging Order State. In this situation, the holding company can be an effective barrier between the people who might sue you for malpractice and your rental property assets.

2)         Even though you don’t work in a “high risk” profession, you are a bit of an asset protection junkie, so for you, because your rentals (and their associated LLC(s)) are located in a non-Charging Order State, the additional cost and paperwork of having another entity is worth the additional protection from personal creditors. Here, the holding company may have less practical effect than in number one above, but it will serve as that same barrier if you get tied up in a lawsuit you end up losing.

3)         You are a bit of an asset protection junkie, and you like the idea having two layers of limited liability protection between the liabilities associated with your rental property and your personal assets. In this situation, if a plaintiff in a lawsuit is for some reason able to pierce the corporate veil of the entity that owns the rental and get at the owner, they will find yet another corporate entity whose veil will also have to be pierced before they can access your personal assets to satisfy a judgment.

You’ve worked hard to accumulate the assets you have, and it makes sense to take steps to protect them. Don’t be fooled by those who say “you have to” do X, Y or Z. There is no one-size-fits-all-approach. The art and science of asset protection involves one cost/benefit analysis after another. Make sure you are seeking and following the advice of a knowledgeable professional who has your best interests at heart.

Court Rules Against California Franchise Tax Board on Overreaching Franchise Tax

January 24, 2017 Business planning, Small Business, Tax Planning Comments Off on Court Rules Against California Franchise Tax Board on Overreaching Franchise Tax

On January 12, 2017, an appeals court in California ruled, in a closely watched case of Swart Enterprises, Inc. v. Franchise Tax Board (Appeals Case F070922), that a non-resident of CA was not “doing business in California” and therefore not liable for California Franchise Taxes merely because it owned a passive investment in California.   Although this ruling may not have much impact on California residents who own and direct investments from California, it does signify the Court’s willingness to impose some limitations on California’s ability to tax under its expansive definition of “doing business in” California.

California imposes a minimum franchise tax of $800 for every corporation (or LLC) “doing business within …this state.”   Revenue and Tax Code § 23101 defined doing business as “actively engaging in any transaction for the purpose of financial or pecuniary gain or profit.”

Beginning in 2011, the California Franchise Tax Board (“FTB”), adopted a policy whereby it would impose the minimum $800 franchise tax for any LLC or corporation outside of California if they were deemed to be “doing business in California.”  The policy was summarized in Publication 689 from the Franchise Tax Board, and used the example of a California resident (Paul), who formed a Nevada LLC owning property in Nevada, would nonetheless be subject to the annual LLC franchise tax because he could (from California) (1) hire and fire the Nevada management company, (2) have telephone conversations from California with the management company, and (3) was ultimately responsible for and oversees the management company from California.   The FTB need not consider the frequency or continuity of the California activities as a single activity tied to California could be sufficient to impose the Franchise Tax. This was considered by many experts to be an aggressive stance to tax out of state corporations and LLCs that had any connection with California.

In July 2014, the Franchise Tax Board doubled down on this policy and issued its Legal Ruling 2014-01 that if an LLC doing business in California was classified as a partnership for tax purposes, ALL of its members were also deemed to be doing business in California even if the individual LLC member never stepped foot into California or performed any transactions in California.  The rationale was that in an LLC taxed as a general partnership, each partner has the right to participate in the management of the partnership business, and it made no difference if the partner/member never actually participated in the management of the business.  In a general partnership, all partnership’s activities are attributable to each partner, and so if the partnership were doing business in California, then all the partners were also doing business in California.  Contrast that with the situation of a limited partner which the California Board of Equalization recognized in a 1996 decision of Amman & Schmid Finanz AG, did not have the right to manage or conduct the business of the limited partnership, and therefore, would not be considered doing business in California merely because of its limited partner interest in a California Limited Partnership.

The Swart Enterprises case was the test case for an out of state entity whose only connection to California was a passive investment in an LLC that happened to be taxed like a partnership.  Legal Ruling 2014-1 made clear that if an LLC doing business in California was owned in part by a corporation that had no independent presence or activities in California, the corporation would still need to register and pay the minimum annual $800 franchise tax fee (Situation 4 in Legal Ruling 2014-1).   Swart Enterprises was an Iowa corporation operating a farm in Kansas who had no physical connection to California except that it invested $50,000 for a .2% interest in Cypress LLC which was a California LLC.  Swart had no involvement in any of Cypress’ operations or management, and the Cypress LLC documents specified that the Cypress LLC was “manager managed,” and that no member could take part in the control, conduct or operation of the business, or bind the LLC or act on its behalf unless it was the “manager.”   Despite the fact that Swart had no independent business activities in California, the FTB concluded that that Swart owed the $800 minimum tax because the Cypress LLC elected to be taxed as a partnership, and all of its members would be considered doing business in California if the LLC itself was doing business in California.  In other words, the FTB applied its rationale in Situation 4 of Legal Ruling 2014-1 to conclude that Swart owed the $800 minimum franchise tax in California.

The Court of Appeals rejected the conclusion of the FTB and, focusing on the language in § 23101 requiring “actively engaging” in a transaction in California and following the rationale in Amman & Schmid, concluded that Swart’s purely passive investment did not meet the standard for doing business in California.  The Court concluded that an LLC electing to be taxed as a partnership does not make each LLC member a “general partner” for purposes of the franchise tax.  Among the other factors considered by the Court in favor of Swart included the following:

  1. Swart had no interest in any of the specific assets of Cypress LLC;
  2. Swart had no right to act, bind, or be liable for the obligations of the LLC, was specifically prohibited from management and control of the LLC which was reserved only for managers, and these limitations were specifically referenced in the LLC’s Articles and/or Operating Agreement;
  3. Cypress LLC was a “manager-managed” LLC, and under California law, a member who is not a manager in a “manager-managed” LLC has no authority to manage or conduct LLC activities; and
  4. There was no evidence that Swart actually conducted any management activities for the LLC.

Because Swart was deemed to be the “quintessential passive investor” akin to a limited partner who never performed any activities in California, the mere fact it was a member of an LLC in California did not result in imposition of California Franchise Taxes.

This case is most relevant for out of state entities seeking to invest in California.  Unfortunately, it does not provide any real assistance for California residents seeking to invest in entities outside of California.  Appellate decisions typically go to great lengths to limit the impact of rulings only to the specific facts of the case, and therefore, it is unknown if the outcome would be different if any of the factors 1-4 listed above were different.   In the opinion of this author reviewing the Court’s analysis in Swart, if the Court were presented with a situation similar to Paul from FTB Publication 689, the Court would likely agree with the Franchise Tax Board that Paul was “actively engaged in transactions” in California, and therefore, owes the minimum $800 Franchise Tax.  Nevertheless, Swart should settle the issue that merely passively investing in an entity in California will not, by itself, constitute “doing business in California.”

The Law of Christmas Light Displays according to the Hon. Clark W. Griswold

December 20, 2016 Business planning, Law, Small Business, Tax Planning Comments Off on The Law of Christmas Light Displays according to the Hon. Clark W. Griswold

According to a 2011 survey, Americans spend in excess of $6 billion per year on Christmas decorations – and there’s no truth to the rumor that more than half of that number was spent by Clark Griswold for his annual Christmas light extravaganza.

What is true is that displays get bigger and more expensive every year, and the desire to have the best and brightest Christmas display in the neighborhood (or maybe in the town, the state, or even the country!) could land you in a lawsuit if you’re not careful.  Let’s take a look at three of the biggest issues to watch out for as you enjoy your Christmas lights this year:

1) Is Your Display a Nuisance?

Many among us look forward to driving around with our kids looking for the most ostentatious displays we can find.  Even here in little Cedar City, Utah there are some very impressive presentations, including one neighborhood where all the houses are involved with thousands of lights, and hand-painted signs retelling ’Twas the Night before Christmas.  However, what happens when your lights are too much for your neighbors?  Remember, not everyone loved Clark Griswold’s “25,000 tiny twinkling lights,” along with the miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.

Holiday decorations can create additional traffic and noise from those coming by to get a look (or noise from the displays themselves).  They can also result in parking issues, blocked driveways, and unwelcome late-night revelers.  The display itself can also be a nuisance to the folks next door or across the street who have to deal with flashing lights at all hours of the night.  Displays using older incandescent bulbs also use much more electricity and could cause power outages.

While I’m not aware of any particular case law, it’s absolutely conceivable that an aggrieved neighbor could sue and demand a restraining order for a particularly gaudy holiday display.  However, in the spirit of Christmas, I would certainly hope that before it gets that far, neighbors could get together to work out a compromise that is acceptable to everyone.  While being on a court docket during the holidays doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’re on Santa’s naughty list – it is pretty close!

2) Getting “Professional” Help to Hang Your Lights

If you’re like me, you love how your house looks when it’s decorated with a dazzling Christmas display, but you’re not a huge fan of the work it takes to get there (and you’re not in a huge hurry to place yourself on your roof to make it happen).  Those of us in that rather large boat are in luck – there are plenty of “professionals” out there who are ready, willing and able to do that work for us – for a reasonable fee of course.

Seems like a win-win, right?  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, a lot of the folks who perform this work are unlicensed.  So, what happens when the wind kicks up and one of the workers is blown off your roof and becomes seriously injured?  If the contractor you hired is licensed, then they will carry worker’s compensation insurance and you can rest easy.  On the other hand, if you hired an unlicensed contractor, then you may wake up on Christmas morning to a present you didn’t want to receive – a process server handing you a summons and a complaint for a lawsuit from the guy who fell off your roof.

3) Issues with Laser Lights

The past two or three years have seen a huge proliferation in the number of homeowners eschewing the traditional strands of Christmas lights, and going instead with one of several different “laser” holiday light products, which project lights onto the exterior of your house.  The main selling point of these systems is that they produce attractive displays with less work and less danger than hanging actual lights yourself.  While all of that is true, these systems are not without their issues.

Several news outlets have highlighted concerns with these lights, claiming that they can cause issues for pilots.  There are also reports of arrests coming after people “intentionally” pointed the lights at aircraft.  Because these systems are so new, this is still a developing area of the law.  However, it’s probable that cities and other municipalities will begin implementing regulations on these systems – including how close they can be used to airport facilities.

These systems have also been in the news for how easily then can be pilfered.  While it’s fairly difficult for a Grinch to steal lights that are affixed to your residence, he will have very little trouble making off with the compact device that sprays laser light all over your house.

Being aware of these issues and taking steps to mitigate them can help you enjoy the holidays without needing to get your attorney involved – after all, we all know the Child Born in Bethlehem wasn’t the biggest fan of lawyers!

November 30, 2016 Health Care, Small Business, Tax Planning Comments Off on The Election Didn’t Kill ObamaCare (yet): What You Need to Know

As Americans awoke on the morning of November 9, 2016, the reality of a Donald Trump presidency began to sink in.  Many believed that a Trump administration would mean the end of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. the ACA or ObamaCare) on day one.  Well, the reports of ObamaCare’s death have been greatly exaggerated (or are at least premature).  ObamaCare is alive and well for 2017 and Open Enrollment began November 1st and runs through January 31st.  Here’s what you need to know for what may be ObamaCare’s last ride:

  • Turns out that insurance under the Affordable Care Act isn’t really so affordable: Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past couple of months, you know to be prepared for a bit of sticker shock. ObamaCare Premiums for 2017 are up by an average of about 25%, and eight states (Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Tennessee) will see increases of more than 30%.  The steepest increase belongs to the Sooner State – as Oklahomans will see their premiums increase by an average of 76%.
  • You may have to choose between paying more for insurance and paying more for not having insurance: Insurance premiums aren’t the only prices on the rise. The penalty for not having health insurance has increased as well, and is calculated in one of two ways.  It’s either: a) 2.5% of your income; or b) $695 per adult and $347.50 per child, with a maximum of $2,085 per family.  The penalty is whichever amount is higher.  This means that anyone with an income of $83,400 or more who fails to obtain health insurance will be paying a penalty of at least $2,085, regardless of the size of their family.
  • Not all employers are required to provide health insurance for employees: The “employer mandate” which requires employers to offer acceptable coverage to their workers or pay tax penalties was one of the most controversial aspects of ObamaCare. However, this mandate only applies to employers with 50 or more full-time employees, so many small businesses are off the hook.  In addition, employers with less than 25 full-time employees with annual wages of less than $50,000 can qualify for employer tax credits through ObamaCare’s Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP).  More information on SHOP is available at https://www.healthcare.gov/small-businesses/.
  • A Health Savings Account (HSA) can be your friend: This strategy can be a huge opportunity for the small-business owner. Although non-business owners can also use a HSA, small-business owners have much more control over their health insurance plans and can utilize creative strategies to acquire the right type of insurance to allow for an HSA. In order to qualify, you have to enroll in a high-deductible health plan (HDHP), and if you’re generally healthy, this is a great chance to save on premiums and avoid the doctor as much as possible.

In the meantime, contributions to your HSA are deductible from your gross pay on the front page of your tax return, potentially putting you into a lower tax bracket.  In 2016, the tax deduction is up to $3,350 for singles and $6,750 for families.  The funds grow tax-free and aren’t a “use it or lose it” type plan.  The account can continue to grow and build year over year for your future healthcare needs. You can also spend the money tax-free on qualified medical expenses, and you can invest the money in much the same way you invest an IRA.  You can even invest HSA funds in real estate!

Knowing the deadlines is huge in order to take advantage of an HSA in 2016 or 2017. There are two deadlines to be aware of: the Setup Deadline and the Funding Deadline:

The Setup Deadline: Dec. 1, 2016 (as in this Thursday!!!) – In order to qualify to make contributions and take deductions in 2016, you must have established your HSA by this date.

The Funding Deadline: April 15, 2017 – Deadline to contribute to your HSA for 2016 and receive the tax deduction on your 2016 tax return.

  • Don’t forget about the Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA): This is a great strategy, but it only works for business owners, and it really benefits those with higher-than-average medical expenses. The HRA allows you to set up your own “benefit plan” for health care and reimburse yourself for ALL of your health care expenses — thereby getting a 100 percent write-off for all of your medical expenses.

The only challenge can be the structure you need to use in order to make the plan work. Sometimes it takes a little extra business planning and structuring – and certainly some attention to bookkeeping – to make it happen. But again, it can be very lucrative and worth the extra time.  With a little bit of planning with an attorney or CPA who understands the HRA, you can take massive tax deductions for your healthcare expenses over and above your health insurance.

The Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress means that in 2017 we may finally have the chance to bid a fond farewell to ObamaCare, but for the time being the ACA remains the law of the land.  Take steps to make sure you are doing all you can to capitalize on its advantages and avoid its pitfalls.

How to Negotiate a Solid Contract

November 15, 2016 Asset Protection, Business planning, Law, Small Business Comments Off on How to Negotiate a Solid Contract

Lets face it, we all have to deal with contracts, many of us on a daily basis, and it is the law of contracts which forms the very foundation for our civil and commercial society.  The main purpose of a contract is to memorialize and confirm the intentions and future performance of the parties to the contract, and our society would be fraught with chaos were it not for laws that bind parties to their contractual agreements.

In our practice, we see a lot of bad deals and lost investments that result from the failure to have the deal memorialized in a solid written agreement, or that the agreement that was signed did not have sufficient provisions to protect the party’s interests.  While it is true that oral agreements can be binding, the problem is how will you prove in court what the terms of the oral agreement were if the other side fails to perform?  If and when a dispute does arise from an oral agreement, be assured that the opposing party will likely have a different version of what was said, or at least their recollection will be foggy.  For that reason, we will always recommend that your deal or understanding should be confirmed in a comprehensive, written agreement.

While no article can address all of the issues that could arise in a given transaction, and certain types of transactions will call for varying type of contractual provisions, here are a few tips to help ensure that your contracts will adequately protect your interests in any given transaction.

  1. Make sure the contract addresses all of your expectations for the transaction. The whole reason for having contracts is to confirm who will do what, when, where, and how.   We have seen our share of overly simplistic agreements that the parties “thought” were adequate, but failed to contain sufficient specificity as to all of the expectations of the parties.  For example, I had a case where the parties signed a written agreement that they would start a business and be 50-50 owners.   Nothing else was mentioned regarding who would do what, who was responsible for what, and what would happen to the business if they split or disagreed.  The subsequent result was years of litigation and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees even though technically they did have a written contract.   A contract should be very specific and detailed as to each and every expectation you have of the other side.  Anything you expect the other side to do, not do, or any rights, protections or contingencies you want to preserve should be confirmed in detail in the contract.   Don’t assume that if the other side told you something verbally, in an email or text, that it necessary be enforced.  If a particular issue, term, or detail has any importance to you, put it in the final written agreement.
  2. Make sure terms are objectively clear and comprehensive.  Terms in a contract should be objectively clear and understandable.  I often see agreements that contain references that would only be understood by those in the industry, or worse, only by those individuals who were parties to the agreement.  Keep in mind that if the other party defaults and you need to have the agreement enforced, it will likely be a lawyer, judge, or jury that decides your case.  Therefore, the terms in your contract should be written as if it were to be interpreted by someone who has no experience or knowledge with your particular transaction, since realistically they will likely be the ones to interpret or enforce the agreement in court.    Many contracts written by attorneys will begin with a summary of the facts and circumstances giving rise to the agreement itself which helps provide context to third parties for the provisions that follow.
  3. Make sure you properly address foreseeable contingencies or breakdowns. Similar to No. 1, many laypersons inexperienced in negotiating agreements frequently fail to consider all the possible ways their agreement could fail.  One of the most important aspects of a solid contract is to fully address all the “what ifs” in a given transaction.  Indeed one of the best ways to protect your rights in a transaction is to fully address each and every way the transaction could go wrong (i.e. events of breach or default), and what will be the rights of the parties if or when those events occur (i.e. remedies or enforcement upon default).  Some may feel they are disrespecting or offending the other side by bringing up these concerns, but the best time to address these types of issues is BEFORE they occur.    Similarly, many inexperienced with contracts or the process that is involved to enforce a contract in court fail to even consider the possibility that a dispute could arise, and that they may end up having to pay attorneys’ and other fees to enforce their rights.  The general rule in America is that unless you specifically provide for attorney’s fees in the contract, each party will pay their own attorney’s fees if court intervention becomes necessary.  Therefore, I generally recommend dispute resolution provisions and attorney’s fees clauses in every contract.

These tips are not intended to be a substitute for consulting with your attorney or other professionals who have experience in your particular type of transactions, and can advise you on terms and issues that could likely arise that should be included in the contract.   Given the proliferation of contracts in today’s society, it would be unrealistic to expect that you would apply this level of scrutiny to every contract you see.  However, if you have important rights at stake in a given transaction, these tips along with consulting your attorney will help ensure that, for THIS contract, your interests are adequately protected in the deal.

What are My Options if I Disagree with the IRS?

October 25, 2016 Business planning, Law, Small Business, Tax Planning Comments Off on What are My Options if I Disagree with the IRS?

Many view the IRS as an agency shrouded in mystery and the IRS is generally perceived as the omnipotent “big brother” that we should all fear. It is true that the IRS does have the ability to unilaterally garnish wages or levy on assets, whereas almost every other creditor would only have these rights only after filing a lawsuit and successfully getting a judgment from the courts.

However, that does not mean you do not have rights if you disagree with the IRS, and the IRS does have administrative procedures available when a taxpayer disagrees with an IRS determination.

In general, disputes with the IRS from individual taxpayers will usually fall into several categories which include:

  1. Deficiency determinations: Taxpayer disagrees with a determination of income or certain other taxes or penalties assessed by the IRS after an examination (audit). Typically, when the IRS assesses additional taxes after an examination, they will send a letter stating what changes were made which could be on a Letter 915 or “30 day letter.” If there was no examination but the IRS believes additional taxes are due, they may send a “balance due” notice instead. Typically, if you disagree with the determination by the IRS, you should file a “Protest” with the office issuing the letter within thirty (30) days. The notice you receive from the IRS usually includes a summary explanation of your rights or options if you disagree, and so read those notices carefully, and especially any time limitations stated in the letter.   For additional information on preparing Protests, see IRS Publication 5.
  2. Collection Actions: Taxpayer disagrees with actions the IRS intends to take to collect on taxes owed, or is planning to deny or revoke a proposal for tax resolution such as an installment agreement or offer in compromise. The issue in these types of cases is not whether the tax liability is valid or not, but whether the proposed collection action by the IRS is reasonable and/or whether the IRS followed the required procedures. For example, the IRS filed a federal tax lien, or purports to seize assets from the Taxpayer without complying with the notice requirements in 26 U.S.C. §6331(d). In these circumstances, you may have the right to a Collection Due Process Hearing (CDP) with the Office of Appeals or an appeal under the Collection Appeals Program (CAP).   There are differences in which types of actions can be appealed as a CDP or as a CAP, and there is no right to judicial review of CAP decisions, and so you must familiarize yourself with the rules for these procedures which you can find under IRS Publication 1660 and in the Internal Revenue Manual Section 5.1.9. This should also be done within 30 days of the date of the notice or according to the date stated in the notice.
  3. Disallowing Refund Claims: The IRS disallows all or part of a refund claim filed by the taxpayer. The deadlines for filing Refund Claims is generally 3 years from the return due date or 2 years from the date the tax was paid.   IRS Form 843 is generally used for this purpose.   If you disagree with the determination of the IRS with respect to a refund claim, the procedures for disputing the IRS determination and requesting an Appeals conference can be similar to deficiency procedures and more information can be found in IRS Publication 556.
  4. Penalty Abatement: If you disagree with a penalty proposed by the IRS, it is important that you respond timely to the deadline stated in your notice and usually to the office that proposed the penalty. You may be able to obtain relief under the provisions for “First Time Penalty Abatement, ”the “Reasonable Cause Exception,” or other basis for relief.  Details on the factors for meeting these exceptions can be found in the Internal Revenue Manual from the IRS.

In any written dispute to the IRS, you should always include copies of all documents and any legal authorities supporting your dispute. This may include documents previously sent or received from the IRS including, the legal notice you received, IRS tax transcripts, receipts, affidavits or sworn statements from third parties in support of your dispute, and send your dispute certified mail with return receipt.

This is where an attorney who is experienced in such tax issues who can research your specific issue and present your legal arguments in an organized and logical manner setting forth the facts, the law, and legal analysis applying the facts to the law can be helpful. Above all, always make sure the IRS has a current address for you and do not ignore IRS Notices as failure to take advantage of these dispute procedures will effectively waive your rights.

If you are not satisfied with the administrative remedies with the IRS, you may have an option to litigate the matter in tax court. The procedures and rules are similar to litigation in court. For more information on your rights and options with the IRS, refer to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.