Tag: mark j kohler

The New “Centralized Partnership Audit Regime” – A Seismic Shift or Much Ado about Nothing?

October 31, 2017 Business planning, IRS, Tax Planning Comments Off on The New “Centralized Partnership Audit Regime” – A Seismic Shift or Much Ado about Nothing?

An article on IRS audits…just what you needed to read before going to bed tonight, and I’m not kidding. Now, don’t be embarrassed if you haven’t heard of the Centralized Partnership Audit Regime (“CPAR”). If you think it sounds like something out of a George Orwell novel that only CPA’s and Tax Attorneys care about – well then, you’re half right. It’s not from Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is a real thing; the sort of thing people in my profession like to bring up when they’re trying to sound smart at cocktail parties – the most boring cocktail parties EVER.

Anyway, despite the sleep-inducing name, the CPAR is something many of our clients need to be aware of – namely clients who file (or should be filing) an annual Form 1065 Partnership Tax Return. So, if you are involved in a partnership, try to stay awake – this is for you.

A little background: The CPAR was enacted into law by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 (“BBA”). As with most federal laws, the statute itself is nice and all, but the real meat comes in the form of the administrative rules implementing the law. The Proposed Rules for the BBA were introduced earlier this year, and barring something really crazy (which can’t be ruled out in the Washington D.C. of 2017) they will go into effect for all tax years beginning on or after January 1, 2018.

In a nutshell, the CPAR will replace the rules that currently govern partnership audits (which come from the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (“TEFRA”). The intent of the CPAR is to make it simpler and easier for the examine partnerships, particularly large partnerships with multiple tiers or levels of ownership.

So, What’s New in the CPAR?

1) “Partnership Representative” Replaces “Tax Matters Partner”: Currently, a partnership is required to designate a “Tax Matters Partner.” This is typically done in an Operating or Limited Partnership Agreement. While the Tax Matters Partner can bind the partnership in connection with an audit, it cannot bind the individual partners. In addition, a partner who is not the Tax Matters Partner has certain rights during an audit, including notification rights and the right to participate in the proceedings.

Under the CPAR, the Tax Matters Partner is replaced by the concept of a “Partnership Representative” who is the sole point of contact between the partnership and the IRS. Unlike with the Tax Matters Partner, all partners and the partnership itself are bound by the actions of the Partnership Representative and no one other than the Partnership Representative is vested with a statutory right to participate in a partnership-level audit proceeding. Neither state law nor the partnership agreement itself may limit the authority of the Partnership Representative when it comes to an audit.

Under the CPAR, a partnership must designate its Partnership Representative in the partnership’s annual tax return. Unlike with the Tax Matters Partner, the Partnership Representative may or may not be a partner. The only hard and fast requirement is that the Partnership Representative have a “substantial presence” in the United States. The Partnership Representative designation must be made separately for each tax year and is effective only for that year. One Orwellian tidbit here is that if you fail to designate a Partnership Representative, the IRS is allowed to pick one for you!!! This is a little scary. Again, the Partnership Representative does not have to be a partner in the partnership – so it is at least conceivable that the IRS could appoint as Partnership Representative a non-partner third-party who then becomes the sole point of contact for the IRS regarding the audit and is vested with full authority to bind the partnership in an audit.

Given the above, under the CPAR it becomes more important than ever that you don’t blow off your annual 1065 Partnership Return. File the return on time and name a Partnership Representative! A pretty simply recipe to avoid IRS trouble. I have seen some chatter online about amending operating or partnership agreements to make this designation. However, while this is certainly a good place for the partners agree in writing as to who will be designated the Partnership Representative (or how the Partnership will choose the Partnership Representative), the actual designation must be made on the filed partnership return.

2) “Imputed Underpayment” and the “Push Out Election”: These will become important if you are ever in an audit, but we will not be going into detail here. They are technical changes regarding how the IRS notifies the partnership of an amount owed after audit, and how and when a partnership can decides to pay what is owed at the partnership level, or “push out” that liability to the individual partners.

Am I Stuck with the CPAR?

The short answer is “not necessarily.” Partnerships with 100 or fewer partners – all of whom are considered “Eligible Partners” by the IRS can opt out of the CPAR. Eligible Partners are defined as:

  1. Individuals
  2. C-Corporations
  3. S-Corporations
  4. The Estates of Deceased Partners

So, if any partner is a trust, a disregarded entity (such as a single-member LLC), or another partnership, opting out is simply not an option. Just like naming a Partnership Representative, opting out of CPAR is done annually, when you file your 1065 partnership return. In order to successfully opt out, you will need to provide the IRS with the name, tax ID number, and federal tax classifications of all partners. Also, the election to opt out only applies to the year to which your tax return applies, so it will need to be done each year going forward.

If you opt out, the IRS will be required to initiate deficiency proceedings at the partner level (instead of the partnership level) to adjust items associated with the partnership and thereby assess and collect any tax that may result from those adjustments. This makes life harder for the IRS, and for this reason, it will likely make sense for eligible partnerships to opt out of CPAR – if they can. The decision to opt out can be made in an operating or partnership agreement, but will need to be submitted to the IRS each year as part of filing the 1065 partnership return.

Because opting out makes a partnership audit more difficult for them, the IRS has stated its intention to closely scutinize any partnership’s decision to opt out. This will include analyzing whether the partnership correctly identified all of its partners. For example, the IRS could conduct a review of a partnership’s partners to confirm that none are acting as nominees or as agents for a beneficial owner.

At the end of the day, for most of our clients, the shift to CPAR will not be noticed. Most partnerships don’t get audited, and if they do, the partners work together to get through it. However, by taking the steps to opt out of CPAR (if eligible), or to make sure a Partnership Representative is named (if opting out isn’t a possibility), you can avoid running into a CPAR problem that could have otherwise been avoided.

8 Core Tax Concepts Every Entrepreneur Needs to Know

October 24, 2017 Business planning, Corporations, Small Business, Tax Planning Comments Off on 8 Core Tax Concepts Every Entrepreneur Needs to Know

Of the many virtues that entrepreneurs have, one such virtue is the desire and ability to get as much information and knowledge as they can by reading books, attending speaking events, researching on the internet, etc. However, ‘taxes’ aren’t one of the topics entrepreneurs seek out, and it’s for a justifiable reason.

Many believe the topic of taxes to be either too boring or overly complicated, and it typically is when presented improperly.  Yet, so many business owners are starving and anxious to learn tax and legal principles. Inspired by those teachers of tax and legal topics that make it truly interesting, I have tried to summarize in this article the top 8 Core Tax Concepts that every entrepreneur needs to know:

  1. The IRS treats different types income VERY differently. This principle is at the CORE of so much of our advising. For example, income you make in your operational business is NOT taxed the same as income you make in your rental real estate “business”. So as you read books, attend speaking events, etc., keep in mind that the principles taught (and the advice if you’re talking to your tax professional) are going to depend in large part on the TYPE of income.
  2. Corporate Income Tax versus Pass-through Entities i.e. LLC’s, S-corps, Sole Props, Partnerships. A pass-through entity is a business entity that does NOT pay income tax at the “entity” level but rather, the income tax liability is passed-through to the owner(s) of the business (hence avoiding the double taxation that is often associated with c-corporations). In other words, the manner in which income generated by an LLC taxed as a sole proprietorship or partnership is very different than a c-corporation. There are a lot of false assumptions that entrepreneurs have about their tax situation and a lot of that comes from internet research – not because the article was bad, but because they simply misapplied it to their situation. For example, if an entrepreneur whose business is taxed as a partnership comes across an article about business taxes is going to become very confused if the articles is referring to corporate income taxation, unless they REALIZE the article is not referring to “pass-through entities” such as theirs. The result would be that if that entrepreneur tried to apply the principles in that article to their business, it would be confusing and likely not helpful.
  3. There are all sorts of taxes – It’s important to keep them straight. If you regularly read books, attend speaking events, listen to podcasts, etc., and you hear taxes, don’t assume it’s ALWAYS about income taxes. For example, technically, self-employment taxes, which is discussed frequently, is different than income tax. And when you’re in the world of small business, real estate, estate planning, etc., trying to get as much “self-learning” as you can, there’s even more types of tax out there which may or may not apply to you. For example, there’s income tax, self-employment tax, estate tax, property tax, gift tax, payroll tax, sales tax, and many more. So always make sure you’re aware of which type of tax that author, or speaker, etc., is referring to.
  4. Generally, a tax-write off is whatever costs and expenses are customary and appropriate in your industry and helpful to your business. Actually, the verbiage in the tax code is “ordinary” and “necessary”, but thanks to the courts, those words have been defined to mean “customary” and “appropriate”. So if you’re a house flipper out genuinely trying to make money in your business and you have costs and expenses along the way, you’ll typically be able to write off any and all expenses that are customary and appropriate for someone in the house flipping business.
  5. Some business “write-off’s” must be amortized over time. With some exception, when you/your business buys equipment or assets, generally that cost IS deductible BUT will have to be spread out or amortized over multiple tax years based on the IRS schedule for that particular asset/equipment.
  6. Basis. One of the core principles of taxation is that your cost to acquire an asset is called your basis, and that’s important because when you decide to sell that asset, the tax consequences of that transaction will be determined “based” (bad pun) on the selling price of the asset/equipment over and above the basis (note: by the time you sell that asset, the basis will have adjusted and so it’s referred to as your “adjusted basis”). That excess amount, if any, is a capital gain and is typically taxed differently than your “ordinary” business income. Selling an asset in your business (or the business itself) can become quite complicated, but so long as you remember this core tax concept, it will help you when discussing transactions with your tax professional(s).
  7. Most tax deductions are “entity-agnostic”. Most of the tax write-off’s that a typical entrepreneur are going to have will be available to them regardless of whether they operate as a sole proprietorship, LLC, or corporation. For example, if you’re trying to claim expenses associated with your business that you incur in the course of traveling, meeting with clients, etc., those costs will generally be deductible regardless of whether you operate your business as a sole proprietor, partnership, s-corporation, or c-corporation.
  8. Don’t let the “tax tail wag the dog”. I’m not suggesting your business is a “dog”, but if your business doesn’t need a certain expense or you wouldn’t buy a certain expense otherwise, it usually doesn’t make sense to incur such an expense simply to claim another tax write-off. For example, it’s exciting when you read a book or attend a speaking event that mentions a certain tax write-off, but if you don’t need that expensive new piece of equipment, particularly if you’re just starting out in your business, that huge expense, notwithstanding the fact that it is deductible, could run your business into the ground.

In sum, keep reading, attending speaking events, listening to podcasts, but if you will keep these core principles in mind you’ll have much better success in implementing some of the strategies you read/learn about. This article is not intended as legal or tax advice. If you’re an entrepreneur or potential entrepreneur and have tax and legal questions, please contact our office.

Creative Planning Options with a Revocable Living Trust

October 17, 2017 Business planning, Estate Planning, Uncategorized Comments Off on Creative Planning Options with a Revocable Living Trust

Estate planning is something most know they should do, but most American adults simply haven’t gotten it done.  In a survey available from AARP,  60% of American adults do not have an estate plan.  The number gets even higher for some minority populations.  In most cases, this is simply due to procrastination that “I just haven’t gotten around to it.”  Many people that I speak to as a lawyer simply don’t understand the consequences of passing away without an estate plan.

One of the primary reasons for a Trust is to avoid probate, which is a court supervised process for the distribution of a decedent’s assets (especially real estate) when a person dies without a trust.  However, the revocable living trust affords many creative planning opportunities that generally cannot be accomplished without a comprehensive estate plan.  Many individuals who have not consulted with a professional estate planner do not know the creative strategies that can be accomplished through a trust.  Examples of some creative planning opportunities include:

Planning for the Disabled

In general, eligibility for certain need based government benefits such as disability or SSI have restrictions based on income and assets.    Many people mistakenly assume that if they have a child or other dependent that is disabled or who otherwise relies on government benefits, that they should disinherit these disabled dependents in order to ensure that the dependents continue to qualify for disability benefits.  Disinheriting a dependent entirely just so they can continue to get disability represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the available options and often times simply indicates bad planning.  A “special needs trust” is a special type of trust that can allow a dependent to potentially receive funds and benefits from the trust without interfering with government benefits.    These types of trusts require very precise terms and conditions so that any benefits from the trust do not disqualify the dependent’s eligibility for the particular government benefit to which the dependent is or may be eligible.

Asset Protection for the Beneficiaries (Your Kids/Heirs)

A trust can provide significant asset protection for children who have difficulties handling money or who are otherwise high risk.  Most states allow trusts to contain “spendthrift” provisions which can restrict the ability of creditors of the beneficiary from reaching the beneficiary’s interest in the trust.  In general, a creditor can only reach assets from a debtor which the debtor himself/herself can reach.  Different states may have different rules and there may be exceptions for certain types of creditors (for example, claims by a spouse for alimony or child support may not be protected by a spendthrift clause).  In addition, the protection of the spendthrift provision general applies only to the beneficiary, not the original creator (i.e. the grantor) of the trust.  However, the spendthrift provision could be an effective planning tool to provide for your beneficiary without risking that the trust could be subject to that beneficiary’s creditors.

Planning for Blended or Non-traditional Families

Lets face it, our conception of the family unit from generations ago is constantly changing and evolving.   Many of us are now raised in blended families, or by individuals who were not our blood parents, or live in various types of family arrangements.  In most cases, the law has not evolved in recognition of these different family arrangements.   A primary purpose of the revocable living trust is to dictate how your loved ones will share in your legacy.  With a Trust, you can help ensure that certain individuals do (or don’t) share in your legacy.    Otherwise, leaving this decision up to the laws of the state could result in people you care for being cut off from your estate.   The most common example is someone who divorces and remarries but has children from the original marriage.  In many states, if that person passes without an estate plan (will or trust), the estate passes to the surviving spouse and the children from the first marriage are cut off.   Proper planning using the revocable living trust will help ensure that the people you wish to benefit will actually receive those benefits.

Planning and Supporting a Legacy

A trust is a very flexible document and can be drafted in different ways to support the ones you love but not allow the assets to be wasted.  Do you want to provide support to a grandchild, but not have it affect their eligibility for financial aide for college?  Do you want to help a child start a business, but not unless he/she first gets a college degree?   Do you want to assist your children to buy their first home, or finance their wedding?  A revocable living trust allows you to set terms and conditions for your generosity to ensure that your gift is used the way you wanted it to be used, and for nothing else.

Of course if you’re one of those people who feel that “I can’t take it with me so I’m going to spend it all now,” then perhaps these planning opportunities are not for you.  But for those who wish to leave a legacy behind for your loved ones (or loved causes) future and want it protected and preserved for this purpose, the revocable living trust can provide infinite possibilities to secure your legacy.

Estate Planning 101: 5 Tips to Avoid Mistakes

July 25, 2017 Estate Planning, Law, Litigation Comments Off on Estate Planning 101: 5 Tips to Avoid Mistakes

As I work with small business owners and investors throughout the year, I want them to see the big picture when it comes to Estate Planning. Many misunderstand what the Estate Plan is all about and think it’s simply an ‘asset protection’ strategy…that couldn’t be further from the truth.

An Estate Plan is about passing on your hard earned wealth to your loved ones, or a project/institution you love.  What a tragedy for a small business owner or investor to spend decades toiling to build wealth, only to have it crumble at the very end of their life because they don’t have an estate plan. YOUR wealth should go to what or who you love, NOT lawyers or to ungrateful and litigious family members fighting over who gets what.

Having said that, estate planning is not just for entrepreneurs or investors – anyone who has assets and/or a family should have an estate plan.  So here are 5 tips for avoiding mistakes when setting up an estate plan:

1. Putting It Off / Procrastination. Nobody likes thinking about dying.  But here’s a motivating factor to not put off your estate plan.  Imagine how you would feel if upon your death your assets went to your worst enemy (or at least someone you don’t like).  Although that’s an extreme thought, the reality is that if you don’t have an estate plan, you lose that control, that ability to decide who gets your assets upon your death.  So before you put off doing an estate plan, imagine your ex-spouse getting everything you own, and hopefully that is all the motivation you need to get your estate plan done.  The first step is to fill out an estate planning questionnaire.  Our questionnaire has all the basic questions you should be asking yourself when setting up an estate plan.  Then I would review those answers and we would schedule a consult to make sure everything is in order.

2. Making Sure the Estate Plan Fits You / Your Situation. It doesn’t make sense to have an elaborate expensive estate plan if that’s not necessary.  It also doesn’t make for a successful business owner or investor to pay $99 for a boilerplate estate plan off the internet.  The key is making sure your estate plan is a good fit for your  You don’t want it bigger and more expensive than it needs to be, but you also want to make sure it is comprehensive and custom-fitting to your circumstances.  Our office can assist with making sure it’s a good fit for your situation.

3. Not Knowing the Difference Between Creating a Trust and Funding a Trust. One of the biggest tragedies is when someone finally gets an estate plan with a revocable living trust but they fail to FUND the trust i.e. put assets into the trust.  Certainly the trust can’t own assets until it is created, but simply creating the trust without funding it is insufficient.  Creating your revocable living trust is a matter of getting the documents drafted and properly executed/signed.  Funding your trust is a matter of actually putting your assets into the trust.  The manner in which this is accomplished depends on the asset.  Some assets require having ownership re-titled into the name of the trust.  Other assets simply require having the trust listed as the beneficiary.  But if you create the trust but don’t fund it, you’re missing arguably the most important step in the process of estate planning.  If you created a trust but are unsure if it’s been funded appropriately, our office can assist with this.

Here is a video by our senior partner here at KKOS lawyers, Mark J Kohler, explaining 4 reasons why you might need a trust. Understanding the role and purpose of a trust can help you fund it and maintain it properly.

 

4. Understanding that Estate Planning is Not Just About Death. If death isn’t reason enough to have an estate plan, what about incapacity?  Imagine the impact on your business and your life if you lost your mental capacity either because of a coma or something less dramatic.  You would no longer be able to make important decisions about your business and your life.  A good estate plan will include documents that address this.  So make sure your estate plan has the appropriate documents for death AND disability/incapacity.

5. Knowing When to Make Changes / Take Ownership of Your Estate Plan. Your estate plan is meant to be a living, breathing thing that should probably be changed as your life circumstances change.  If you plan to setup an estate plan and hope to leave it alone until you die, there’s a good chance either the applicable law will have drastically changed or your intent will be completely different than it was when you first set it up.  So if you put your best friend as a beneficiary of your trust and then you guys become worst enemies, it’s a good idea to update to your trust.  If your trust was written when your kids were little and they’re now adults, it’s probably a good idea to update your trust.  If you put your brother as the successor trustee of your trust with no backup and he died 5 years ago, you need to update your trust.  Basically, if the nature of your relationship with anyone you’ve listed in your estate plan has materially changed, it’s time to update your trust.  Now if someone’s address changes or something minor, you don’t necessarily need an overhaul of your estate plan.  The other part of this tip is making sure you take ownership of your estate plan.  Hopefully you get an attorney to draft it but even so, you should know the basics of your estate plan such as who the trustee(s) is/are and who are the beneficiaries, so that as your life changes and your relationship with these people change, you know if a change needs to be made to your estate plan.  For example, I have talked to many people who obtained an estate plan previously and they don’t know who the beneficiaries are or who the trustee(s) is/are or what the trust owns.  While you don’t need to know the legal jargon you should know these basics about your estate plan.

Hopefully these tips will get you thinking about setting up your estate plan or updating it if you already have one and your situation has changed from when you set it up originally.  Our estate plans come include a one hour consultation so you’re getting sound legal advice tailored to your situation, and not just boilerplate paperwork. Please contact our office at 888-801-0010 to book a consultation with an attorney to start the process. Any retainer will be applied to the cost of setting up the entire estate plan.

Ask Your Attorney if a “Covfefe” Trademark Is Right for You

July 11, 2017 Business planning, Corporations, Law, Litigation Comments Off on Ask Your Attorney if a “Covfefe” Trademark Is Right for You

On May 31st, 2017, at 12:06 a.m. Eastern Time, President Donald Trump unleashed the following tweet: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.” No one has been able to definitively crack the code (if there is one) as to what “covfefe” actually means. The President took down the tweet six hours later and replaced it with a tweet saying: “Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe’??? Enjoy!”

Predictably, the word “covfefe” immediately went viral on social media, with several twitter users encouraging their followers to “ask your doctor if Covfefe is right for you” and others thinking it’s what you’re supposed to say when someone sneezes. In the following days and weeks, covfefe has taken on a life of its own and become a bit of a cultural phenomenon. Late night hosts have debated whether President Trump had some sort of minor stroke or simply fell asleep when he typed covfefe, and Hillary Clinton was asked about what she thought it meant in a recent public appearance.

However, it’s not only comedians and 24-hour news channels that are making hay with covfefe. A Google search of “covfefe” reveals dozens of businesses ready to sell you apparel with hundreds of variations on the covfefe theme. To date, my personal favorites are “Make America Covfefe Again” and “What Part of Covfefe Don’t You Understand?”

A check of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) databases shows that in the forty days since the covfefe phenomenon began, 34 trademark applications have been filed using the term. The products and services being tied to covfefe run the gamut from “advice relating to investments” to fragrances, toys, coloring books, and even sandwiches. As you might expect, four different companies have filed applications to use covfefe for beer.

However, easily the most popular application (there are about twenty of them) is to get protection for using covfefe on t-shirts, hats, and other apparel. One applicant for a covfefe apparel trademark even appears to have access to the inner circle of Trump advisors and confidants who know what covfefe really means – after all, its application is for: “COVFEFE – Carry On Vigilantly Fighting Evil For Ever.”

So, the question becomes: which of these applicants will win the coveted “covfefe” trademark for t-shirts? The answer from this trademark attorney is: very possibly none of them! Why? Because the USPTO will generally refuse an application as “ornamental” if what is submitted to the USPTO shows that the use of the mark is only decorative or ornamental. That is, if the use of the mark does not clearly identify the source of the goods and distinguish them from the goods of others – which is required for proper trademark use.

The USPTO’s number one example of “ornamental” use is when a quote is prominently displayed across the front of a t-shirt, such as “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword.” The USPTO’s position is that most purchasers would perceive the quote as a decoration, and would not think that it identifies the manufacturer of the t-shirts (the source of the t-shirts could be Hanes® or Champion®, for example, as shown by the neck-tag).

Other examples of “ornamental use” put out by the USPTO are:

  1. A logo on the front of a hat. When the logo is associated with an organization, like a sports team, which did not manufacture the hat.
  2. Stitching designs on the back pocket of a pair of jeans. Purchasers are accustomed to seeing embellishments on jean pockets and would not think this embroidery design identifies the source of the jeans.
  3. A floral pattern on tableware or silverware. A purchaser would likely see this pattern as merely decorative and would not think it identifies the source of the tableware or silverware.
  4. The phrase “Have a Nice Day” or a smiley face logo. Everyday expressions and symbols that commonly adorn products are normally not perceived as identifying the source of the goods.

While there is no definitive place to affix a mark to goods to avoid an ornamental refusal, the location, size and dominance of a mark have a big impact on how the public perceives it. The USPTO has offered the following examples of proper non-ornamental trademark use:

  1. Discrete wording or design on the pocket or breast portion of a shirt. A purchaser would typically associate the small logo on a shirt pocket or breast area with the manufacturer or the source of the shirt.
  2. A tag on the inside of a hat or garment. A purchaser would associate a logo on the tag with the maker of the garment.
  3. Logo on a tag above the back pocket of a pair of jeans. A purchaser would typically associate this mark with the manufacturer of the jeans.
  4. A small logo stamped on the back of a dinner plate or bottom of a coffee mug. Purchasers are accustomed to seeing a mark used in this location to identify the source of the tableware.

Another way to get around an “ornamental use” refusal from the USPTO is to show that the mark has “acquired distinctiveness.” Long-term use in commerce, advertising and sales figures, dealer and consumer statements, and other evidence can be used to show that consumers directly associate a mark with the source of those goods. While this probably won’t work for the covfefe applicants (since the term has only existed for about six weeks), it could be an option in your situation.

The final option for the covfefe trademark applicants would be to move their applications to the “Supplemental Register.” Registration on the Supplemental Register doesn’t provide all the same legal advantages as registration on the Principal Register, but it does provide protection if and when someone applies for a conflicting mark later. Also, after five years of continual use, you can apply for (and in most cases will be awarded) registration on the Principal Register.

If you feel like you have captured “covfefe-like” lightning in a bottle, and want to talk about how to protect your name and/or logo, please give me a call at 435-596-9366 or shoot me an email at jarom@kkoslawyers.com.

The Realities of Litigation

June 27, 2017 Business planning, Law, Litigation Comments Off on The Realities of Litigation


For most people involved in a dispute, declaring the words “See you in Court!!” can seem like the perfect threat or even feel therapeutic at the least. Some even presume that by stating “I’m going to sue you” is like declaring nuclear war against the other side and the person or company that wronged you will certainly want to ‘settle’ because you have scared them with a lawsuit.

However, people who have actually been participants in litigation soon realize that there is no such thing as “inexpensive litigation,” and many individuals, fueled by the passion of a person scorned, proceed hastily to the courthouse seeking vindication or retribution without having a full understanding of the realities that they are getting themselves into.

Certainly, one of the great hallmarks of our society, and what separates the American system from many others around the world is an independent judiciary. But again, the media frequently oversimplifies what is actually involved in the legal process with its sole focus on sensationalizing the outcome thereby conveying a misleading impression of the actual litigation process.   Here are a few misconceptions I frequently encounter with clients about the litigation process include the following:

  1. Are you ready for the PROCESS? Unless you are in small claims, you generally don’t just file a lawsuit and then get to see Judge Judy the very next day. Media usually focuses on “trials” only, but ignores the months (usually years) of pre-trial procedure needed to get to that point.    Litigation usually begins with a “Complaint” which begins the “pleading” phase where the parties set forth their allegations and responses in defense. Sometimes there could be challenges to the pleadings through the motion process, which add additional expense and delay. Once the pleadings are done, then the parties have the opportunity to require other parties to the lawsuit to answer questions, produce documents, or take testimony of witnesses (the “discovery” phase). It should come as no surprise that parties to litigation are not always so eager to provide information that may hurt their case, and so the discovery process can often take months or years with parties jockeying in court over who should get what.   Assuming the parties have completed discovery, that does not necessarily mean you go to trial.   Trials only occur when there are actual factual or legal issues in dispute which requires a judge or jury to determine, and the reality is that most lawsuits do not go to trial. Although the cost of litigation varies depending on the location and issues involved, what I usually tell clients is the cost to go through these procedures to litigate a normal civil matter from Complaint up to but not including trial, doing a minimal amount of work, can easily run between $50,000 to $100,000. Preparing for and conducting a trial can substantially increase these costs and so unless you’ve retained an attorney on contingency, the expense and delay litigation is definitely an important consideration for most litigants.
  2. Does the Opposing Party have Assets to Satisfy Your Claim?  Usually this is the first question I ask a client contemplating litigation, and many times it is question the client hasn’t considered. It makes no financial sense to pay tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars on a case if the defendant has no money.  Although I’ve had my share of clients walk into the office wishing to sue “on principle” or “just to make a point,” these moral considerations usually get thrown out the window very quickly once we begin to discuss the costs that will be incurred to get them to where they want to be.   So unless the opposing party has significant, identifiable assets that may be exposed in a lawsuit, or there is sufficient insurance to cover the claim, many potential litigants find themselves having no remedy for their claim because the opposing side is essentially “judgment proof.”
  3. Do you realize how unpredictable litigation can be? This should go without saying, but I spoken with plenty of people contemplating a lawsuit express confidence that a judge or jury would find them in the right. In litigation, it is less about who is wrong or right and more about what you can prove. Court decisions are ultimately made by people who come from all types of backgrounds and from all walks of life, and attorneys in high stake cases often employ professional “jury consultants” and perform “mock trials” to gauge how a jury will likely view their case. Despite all the money that is spent on attorneys, consultants, experts and the like, even the best attorneys with the greatest of resources lose cases, and most of us have probably followed cases in which we were surprised by the outcome. From a legal perspective, the reason there are trials is because there are issues of law or fact in which “reasonable people can differ.” If every issue in a case was a “slam dunk,” then there would be no need for a trial.

For these reasons and more, I consider litigation to be the option of last resort. Although the media likes to portray litigation and trials as dramatic and full of suspense (which it certainly can be), they leave out the cost and the time consuming process.

Consider interviewing several litigation firms before embarking on your lawsuit and make sure you weigh all the pros and cons of a long draw out lawsuit. It doesn’t mean litigation shouldn’t be a tool, threat or productive option in your dispute, but just go into the process with your eyes wide open.

6 Tax and Legal Tips When Investing in Real Estate

June 6, 2017 Real Estate Comments Off on 6 Tax and Legal Tips When Investing in Real Estate


Sir Francis Bacon put it best when he said, “knowledge is power”.  Not only does he have a great last name but he gives good advice that applies to all facets of life including investing in real estate.  Whether you are new to real estate investing, or a seasoned investor, before you rush off to make your first/next real estate investment, consider the following tips all of which are to help you be strategic about investing in real estate the right way for your situation, i.e. knowledge is power.  With that in mind, here are six tax and legal tips / questions to ask yourself when investing in real estate:

  1. Will you invest directly in real estate by yourself / with a small number of business partners OR invest indirectly alongside many other investors in a company that invests in real estate? For example, let’s say you invest $200,000 for 5% ownership of a company that will take your funds and, along with the funds of other investors, probably in the millions of dollars, invest in real estate. In this situation, you typically have very little control or decision-making authority, such that you are basically “parking” your money and somebody else will make decisions regarding the real estate investment such as what to acquire, how to manage it, when to sell, etc.    There is nothing wrong with this type of investment, you may actually desire that, but you want to understand this going into the investment and not have false expectations. You should consult with an attorney before signing documents to invest in real estate through a company, particularly one in which you are a minority owner.  Contrast that with a situation in which you invest $200,000 along with a friend or business partner to buy an investment property.  In this situation, you have a lot more control over the real estate investment, but that comes with more responsibility and potentially more liability.  Again, you should consult with an attorney to make sure you are setup properly from a tax and liability perspective and also to make certain you have the appropriate documentation between any business partners you may have in addition to the proper documentation to make your real estate investment.  Neither option is better than the other one – they are just different so before making your investment, you should consider which scenario makes more sense for you / which situation you are dealing with.
  1. Does your real estate investment require financing? There are many benefits that come with investing in real estate with financing/loans, such as minimizing the amount of out-of-pocket cash you have to provide.  However, anytime you have a loan, that means you have a lender, and if you have a lender, that means you have to play by their rules.  Sometimes having a lender is like dealing with a big gorilla on your back.  They have a legitimate interest in the property and want to make sure their interests are properly protected.  So by financing a property, you tend to lose a bit of control.  You should have an attorney review any loan documents so you understand the rules of the game with that particular lender as it will affect your deal.   Without involving a lender in your deal, you get a bit more flexibility and control of the deal but of course this assumes you have all of the cash necessary to complete the investment.  Further, if you own properties outright i.e. no financing, that typically means there is a sizeable amount of equity which may require some additional consideration and structuring in terms of asset protection.  Again, neither option is better than the other one – they are just different which is why before making your investment, you should consider which scenario makes more sense for you.
  1. Are you going to invest in real estate inside your retirement account OR outside your retirement account? For the average person, they probably have no idea they have the option to invest in real estate inside their retirement account. But for most of our clients, it is a large part of how they invest in real estate.  In fact, many of them invest in real estate inside AND outside their retirement account.  Knowing the difference between the two and the impact it has is crucial.  If you invest in real estate inside your retirement account, the income is typically either tax-deferred or tax-free.  This is probably the biggest benefit to investing in real estate inside your retirement account.  However, there are a few more restrictions when investing in real estate INSIDE your retirement account versus outside your retirement account.  For example, inside your retirement account, you need to be aware of matters such as “disqualified persons”, “prohibited transactions”, “unrelated business income tax”, and “unrelated debt financed income tax”.  Such matters don’t exist when you invest in real estate OUTSIDE your retirement account.  Long story short, there is a ton of upside to investing in real estate inside your retirement account, but you should counsel with an attorney before doing so.  Yet again, neither option is better than the other one – they are just different so before making your investment, you should consider which scenario makes more sense for you.
  1. Is your real estate investment a long-term deal OR a short-term deal? This is especially important if you are simply one investor in a company that invests in real estate alongside a number of other investors because if the investment is long-term real estate, such as owning a commercial property, an apartment building, or even a single-family residence, your capital is typically “locked up” for a longer period of time as opposed to a short-term real estate deal such as a 12 month development project for immediate re-sell. Either way, you may be taxed on the income differently with a short-term deal than with a long-term deal, which is why it is important to understand before making your investment how you will be taxed on your income from your real estate investment.  Again, neither option is better than the other one but you should consider which scenario makes more sense for you.
  1. Understand the different ways to acquire investment properties. Besides cash deals and traditional financing deals, there are other ways to acquire investment real estate, such as seller financing, or “subject to” deals.  There are pros and cons to some of these less conventional forms of acquiring real estate.  One of the biggest benefits is, like traditional financing, it requires relatively little out of pocket cash.  However, when acquiring a property via seller financing or subject to existing financing, you should consult with an attorney to make certain the purchase contract properly reflects this type of financing.
  1. Understand the various ways to sell your real estate investment (Exit Strategy). The more you consider your exit strategy before making your investment, the better situation you will be in.  This is similar to #5 above, you might decide to sell via seller financing, or an installment sale, or a 1031 exchange.  These are some of the strategies you might consider to defer the capital gain income tax that would otherwise be due when you sell your real estate investment.

In sum, just because you have a friend or a relative who invested in real estate a certain way does not mean you should invest in the same manner.  For example, there is a big difference between someone who invests outside their retirement account as an investor in a company alongside a number of other investors in a short-term real estate deal versus someone who is invests inside their retirement account in a two-man partnership on a long-term real estate deal that is financed/has a loan.  These are two situations that will have different outcomes from a decision-making perspective during the life of the investment, the liability exposure, and the tax consequences.  So before you rush off to invest in real estate, please contact our office.  We can properly advise you and also make certain you have the right paperwork, contracts, entities, etc., for your particular real estate investment(s).

What You Should Know about Administering a Family Member’s Estate

May 23, 2017 Estate Planning, Law, Retirement Planning Comments Off on What You Should Know about Administering a Family Member’s Estate

Most of us will, at some point in our lives, be called upon to administer the estate of a departed family member or loved one. While it may seem like an honor to have been entrusted with this responsibility, the reality is often it is a thankless, time consuming job, and even more so if there are disagreements and disputes among the heirs or beneficiaries of the deceased.

Being asked to shoulder the responsibility of administering a decedent’s affairs while still mourning their loss can be challenging. The precise rules and procedures that apply will depend on whether the decedent had a trust that was fully funded, whether probate will be necessary because the either decedent did not have a trust or did not fully transfer all relevant assets into the trust.

It will also depend on which state laws apply as well as the value of the estate. Keep in mind that it is impossible to provide an all-encompassing checklist that applies to each family situation and the procedures may vary greatly depending on if the decedent had a will or a trust. However, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind, some of which may or may not apply depending on the situation:

  1. Seek Professional Advice.   This is something you may only do once in your lifetime and Google is not going to give you all the answers you need.  Also, keep in mind you do not have to go at this alone. Depending on the value of the estate and its complexity, you may want to employ the services of professionals such as attorneys, CPAs, appraisers, etc. to assist in navigating your responsibilities. Typically this would entail an estate attorney, a CPA knowledgeable in estate and income taxes, and a financial advisor, although additional professionals may be needed depending on the situation. Usually, these fees would be paid from the decedent’s estate and so there should be no financial disincentive to seek help if needed. There may be certain actions, decisions, procedures or deadlines that need to be met in a timely manner, which could impact the ability of heirs or creditors to make claims or challenges to the estate. Most people are not aware of these rules and deadlines and so getting the right advice from the start may be good protection for both you and the estate.
  2. Inventory and Secure the Decedent’s Assets & Important Documents. A trustee or administrator of an estate is charged with the duty to assemble, inventory and safeguard the decedent’s assets and important documents. In the immediate aftermath of a death, it could be a chaotic situation with visitors and relatives coming and going and, as the representative of the estate or trust, it is incumbent on you to safeguard the important assets and documents. You will need to determine whether the decedent had a will or trust, and assemble all important documents, contracts, bank accounts, financial accounts, safe deposit boxes, investment accounts, unpaid wages or other income sources, mortgages, insurance policies, retirement accounts, social security or other government benefits, pensions, real estate, businesses, prior tax returns, digital assets (email, social media accounts), etc. of the decedent. It may take some investigation into the files of decedent or interviewing the family members to uncover all potential assets and liabilities, and don’t assume decedent told you everything there was to know. A separate bank account will likely need to be set up for the estate or trust, and never comingle your personal finances with the estate/trust finances. You will need to obtain several certified copies of the death certificate in order to establish control over certain accounts held by third party custodians/banks. Some assets such as real estate may need to be appraised to determine the fair market value for purposes of estate taxes, reporting, or for distribution.
  3. Gather and Assemble a List of Decedent’s Creditors. This does not necessarily mean that you will immediately pay every bill as soon as it arrives. Rather, there could be other expenses that take priority such as funeral expenses or federal and state taxes. As a trustee or administrator of the estate, you could get into trouble by paying expenses that then leaves the estate unable to meet its tax or other priority obligations.   It is important to try and get a broad picture of the Decedent’s overall financial situation, including factoring in potential tax liabilities, in order to establish a game plan for administering the estate or trust and paying creditors. Of course, some debts such as mortgages or car payments need to be timely made to prevent the account from going to default, but have a concerted strategy for handling Decedent’s creditors. If it appears that the estate may not have sufficient assets to cover all liabilities, then professional assistance or assistance from the courts may be needed to determine how to prioritize payments.
  4. Notify Decedent’s Heirs and Beneficiaries. Some states have time requirements on when heirs and beneficiaries should be notified and whether they are entitled to receive a copy of Decedent’s will or trust. Their ability to bring challenges to the trust or estate may depend on when they were first notified and so seek help to determine the requirements in your situation and document your communications with heirs and beneficiaries.
  5. Manage the Assets of the Estate Prudently and Obtain the Consent of Heirs or Beneficiaries for any Major Actions. As the trustee or administrator, you are a fiduciary and must act in the best interests of the beneficiaries or heirs. You generally have a duty to manage and invest the assets as a reasonably prudent investor would and can be held personally responsible for failing to do so. Therefore, seek the advice of legal and/or financial counsel regarding any issues with managing or investing the assets of the estate, and if a decision needs to be made regarding an important asset (such as selling the asset, making significant improvements to real estate, etc.), consider obtaining the written consent of all beneficiaries before authorizing such action.
  6. Distribute the Assets to the Heirs/Beneficiaries. Once all the creditors and taxes have been paid and the estate is in a position to be distributed to the beneficiaries, an accounting may need to be performed and approved by the heirs/beneficiaries, and then the assets of the estate/trust may be distributed and estate or trust closed.

Again, keep in mind these are only general guidelines for administering trusts and estates and there may be specific state or federal requirements and deadlines that will apply to your situation. If you have a particularly large estate that may implicate state or federal estate taxes, there are likely additional requirements and deadlines and so it is recommended that you check with appropriate professionals as soon as possible for large estates.

For smaller estates or assets with lower value that are not held in trust, there may be other options for distributing those assets without the need for probate.   The rules and procedures can be rather complex depending on the state and the situation and so make sure you consult with appropriate professionals to ensure you are complying with your responsibilities as a fiduciary for the estate/trust.

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.