Tag: mat sorensen

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.

Business Succession: When Corporate Governance and Estate Planning Converge: Are You Setup Properly?

March 28, 2017 Business planning, Corporations, Estate Planning Comments Off on Business Succession: When Corporate Governance and Estate Planning Converge: Are You Setup Properly?

You may have heard in the news recently that there’s been some fighting among the ownership team of the Los Angeles Lakers. When Dr. Jerry Buss, the majority owner, died in 2012, his ownership passed to his six children via a trust, with each child receiving an equal vote/share.

His succession plan had his daughter Jeanie take over his position as the Lakers’ governor as well as its team representative at NBA Board of Governors meetings. This last month, there’s been a fight between her and certain of her brothers that has become a power struggle filled with plenty of contention and legal fees. They appear to have settled this particular dispute but there were a lot of moving parts to their particular situation especially because of NBA rules, etc., so in that sense, what happened with the Buss family is unique.

However, what is not unique is that every business owner faces the same dilemma that Dr. Buss faced before he died – how to pass their business to their loved ones properly and effectively through corporate documents and estate planning. We have many clients who are confronted with this. With that in mind, here are a few tips and items to consider:

  1. Make Sure You Have the Right Entity and the Right Trust. There are a number of different entity structures you might have for your business and there are just as many, if not more, different type of trusts. If you aren’t properly setup, it’s going to make your business succession plan very difficult. In the case of Dr. Buss, at least he had a trust, and what turned out to be a month long dispute might very well have turned into a much longer dispute but for the trust. However, just having a trust is not the end-all be-all, rather, you need to make sure it’s the right type of trust and also that it contains the appropriate provisions for your circumstances.
  1. Have Your Corporate Documents Reviewed and Amended if Necessary. This is critical especially when you have business partners. Hopefully you have something in place currently in terms of corporate governance documents, whether it’s an operating agreement, partnership agreement, bylaws, and/or a shareholder agreement. If so, don’t assume it covers this issue and/or that is covers this issue in the best way for you based on your circumstances. The provisions you’ll want reviewed include but are not limited decision-making, ownership rights, transfer of ownership, etc.
  1. Consider A Plan To Transfer Some or All of Your Business Ownership To Your Loved Ones During Your Lifetime. You can wait until you die to have your business ownership transfer to your loved ones, or during your lifetime, you can strategically phase the transfer of ownership in your business to your loved ones over time. There are pros and cons to both approaches. With the former approach, it could increase the likelihood of estate tax liability. With the latter approach, you can be directly involved in the transfer of ownership and if handled carefully, it can decrease the likelihood of estate tax liability. This is where meeting with a professional can help you make a good decision here.
  1. Don’t forget to plan for incapacity. If your estate plan and business documents properly transfer your ownership to your loved ones, then you’re ahead of the game, but that is only half the battle. You also need to plan for incapacity. Such an event, if not properly planned for, can have a devastating effect on your business. You may recall back in 2014 another NBA owner, Donald Sterling, of the Los Angeles Clippers was ruled mentally incompetent and it affected his rights as owner of that team.

In summary, don’t own an NBA team from Los Angeles, but if you do, or if you own any other business, make sure you have a coordinated set of documents in terms of the corporate documents that govern your business and your estate plan documents, and that you’ve addressed not only death in said documents, but disability as well.

You’ve worked hard to build your business and when your intent was for the business to provide peace and stability for your family, the last thing you want is fighting and instability. If you are a business owner, please call our office so we can assist with this critical topic.

Alternatives for Securing Your Loans or Investments

March 7, 2017 Asset Protection, Business planning, Law Comments Off on Alternatives for Securing Your Loans or Investments

We often advise clients who want to loan money or participate in an investment to “get adequate security” for their investment. The purpose of getting additional security for your loan is so that you have something else that you can go after if the loan goes south.

Ordinarily, if your loan is “unsecured,” it generally means that if the investment tanks, then your only remedy would be to sue the debtor and go through the potentially expensive process of litigation in hopes that you can get a judgment against the debtor, and perhaps most importantly, that the debtor will then have assets from which you can collect.

In our experience, if a debtor has defaulted on your investment, they are likely experiencing financial issues as a whole, and will unlikely have assets for you to recover from even if you prevail in your lawsuit. Moreover, a debtor having financial issues and/or without assets is a likely candidate for bankruptcy, and for those reasons, investors who are reduced to having to resort to the court system to remedy a failed investment are often just throwing good money after bad.

In general, real estate with sufficient equity to secure the investment is the best form of security for the primary reasons that real estate is immovable, and there is a well established public record for recording and determining rights and priorities to real estate.

However, if securing your investment with real estate is not an option, that does not mean your investment must be unsecured. In fact, virtually any type of property or asset can serve as collateral for an investment. Unlike real estate, the process and laws for securing your investment using “personal property” as collateral will depend on the type of property as well as the applicable state, local, and sometimes federal law that apply.   Examples of personal property that can serve as collateral for your loan include the following:

  1. Interests in Inventory, Equipment, or Fixtures – If you are lending to a business and that business has assets, those assets could likely serve as security for your loan. In general, this would require an additional “security” agreement which specifically identifies the assets that are being offered as security for the loan, which then must be “perfected” usually by filing a UCC-1 Financing Statement with the Secretary of State for the state where the business is located. This procedure is most often used by banks and other financing companies for business loans that are not secured by real estate. The benefit is, like real estate, the office of the Secretary of State serves as a central resource where anyone can access to determine the existence of liens against the assets of a business and the priority of those liens.
  1. Interests in Stock or interests in LLCs – If the debtor owns interests in his/her own corporation or LLC, the interest in the corporation or LLC could serve as security for a loan. This is most often accomplished by a “pledge” agreement whereby the debtor offers his/her interests in the corporation or LLC as collateral for the loan. One drawback for stock or LLC interests is, unlike real estate or other asset classes, there is no central resource like a recorders’ office or secretary of state for determining if there are competing or priority claims against privately held interests in businesses.   In addition, a pledge agreement doesn’t mean much if the entity itself has no assets and so adequate due diligence on the entity that is being pledged is essential.
  1. Interests in publicly traded securities and securities accounts – Interests in stocks or other securities held by a brokerage can also serve as collateral for a loan. Usually, this is achieved by having the parties to the loan enter into an agreement with a third party custodian that holds the account (sometimes called a securities intermediary) which provides that upon a default on the loan, the third party custodian will deliver the asset to the creditor without further consent by the debtor.
  1. Interests in Intellectual Property – Interests in Trademarks, Patents, Copyrights, and even Trade Secrets can serve a security for a loan, although the procedures for perfecting these interests in intellectual property will differ and it is often difficult to place a value on intellectual property for purposes of determining whether the value is adequate for the loan.
  1. Interests in Tangible Personal Property – Virtually any item of personal property of value (such as jewelry, equipment, vehicles, etc.) can serve as security for a loan. Usually this would entail delivering the property to a third party who holds the asset similar to an escrow or consignment subject to performance of the terms of the loan. For assets which ownership is evidenced by some certificate of title, there may be a department or organization which provides for registering your lien (e.g. the Department of Motor Vehicles).

Securing your loan or investment with personal property is just one part of the due diligence that you should be performing when considering any particular investment. As this article demonstrates, the documents and procedures necessary to document, establish and perfect these secured transactions may vary widely and so you want to make sure that you follow the correct legal procedures and that your security documents are properly drafted so ensure that your loan or investment is, indeed, secure.

Just “Having” an S-Corp May Not be Enough

February 21, 2017 Business planning, Law, Real Estate, Tax Planning Comments Off on Just “Having” an S-Corp May Not be Enough

Just “having” an S-Corporation may not be enough. It’s important you make sure to reap the tax and legal benefits of your S-Corp if you’re going to set one up.

If you routinely read articles in this space or have heard any of our attorneys speak around the country, you are probably aware that we are big fans of the S-Corporation structure as a way for folks who own and operate small operational businesses (i.e. ones where they are selling goods or services and are not someone else’s W-2 employee) to get some limited liability protection and (probably more importantly) to save on self-employment taxes.

When self-employed folks don’t incorporate and instead operate as a sole proprietorship, their entire net profit from the business is subject to self-employment taxes. If you don’t do anything about them, self-employment taxes will eat up about 15.3% of your income – before we even talk about income taxes. So, on a net profit of $100,000, a self-employed person will pay about $15,300 in self-employment taxes

If instead, a self-employed person operates as an S-Corporation, they can do a “salary/dividend split” on the net income from the business. In a salary/dividend split, the business owner will pay himself a “reasonable” salary from the S-Corporation’s profits. A general rule of thumb is that roughly 1/3 of the company’s net profit is considered a reasonable salary. Self-employment taxes are paid on the amount of the salary, and the rest of the income flows through to the business owner as a type of “dividend” from the S-Corporation. That dividend is not subject to self-employment taxes.

So, if a small business owner has the same $100,000 of net profit and operates as an S-Corporation, he will pay himself a “reasonable” salary of about $33,000 and pay self-employment taxes of about $5,000 (instead of $15,300). The remaining $67,000 flows through to the owner free of self-employment taxes. We love the S-Corporation structure for self-employed doctors, dentists, engineers, realtors, commissioned salespeople, certain types of real estate investors, and others whose income would otherwise be subject to the 15.3% tax.

Right now, you’re probably either thinking: “Yep, Jarom, you’re preaching to the choir. I already have my s-corp and I’m saving a bunch on my self-employment taxes!” OR “Man, I need to look into an s-corp right away!” Either way, please keep reading because establishing an s-corp and doing the correct tax filings is only part of the equation.

The recent U.S. Tax Court Case of Fleischer v. Commissioner (2016 T.C. Memo. 238, filed 12/29/16) demonstrates that just having an S-Corporation may not be enough to save on self-employment taxes. Mr. Fleischer is a financial consultant who signed on as an independent contractor representative for a couple different brokerage houses. He also established an S-Corporation, and funneled his income through that entity to save on self-employment taxes in roughly the same way I described above.

So, why was Mr. Fleischer in Tax Court? Well, the IRS sent him something called a Notice of Deficiency. The Notice basically said that his use of the S-Corporation to save on self-employment taxes was invalid, and that he owed roughly $42,000 in back taxes, plus penalties and interest. Mr. Fleischer disputed the Notice, and the case went before a Tax Court judge.

The IRS argued that the Notice they sent was proper because the income at issue belonged to Mr. Fleischer, personally, and not to his S-Corporation. In support of this argument, the IRS presented evidence (which was unrefuted by Mr. Fleischer) showing: 1) Mr. Fleischer signed both independent contractor representative agreements in his personal capacity, not on behalf of his S-Corporation; and 2) Payment for Mr. Fleischer’s work went to Mr. Fleischer personally, not to his S-Corporation’s bank account.

Mr. Fleischer’s primary argument in response was that he had to sign the agreements and receive payment in his own name because he, not his S-Corporation, is licensed and registered as a financial advisor, and it would cost him millions of dollars to get the same required licenses for his company.

The Tax Court wasn’t impressed with Mr. Fleischer’s arguments, and ruled that he was indeed on the hook for all the taxes, penalties and interest the IRS asked for in the Notice. While the Tax Court’s decision in Fleischer isn’t necessarily binding on other cases, it is instructive for those hoping to use the S-Corporation to save on self-employment taxes – and have that use stand up under IRS scrutiny. Namely, it drives home two important points:

1)   To the extent possible, all of your S-Corporation’s contracts – especially those where it will be receiving income – should be in the name of your S-Corporation. This is crucial. One of the huge factors the IRS looks at when determining whether income belongs to a corporation is the existence “between the corporation and the person or entity using the services [of] a contract or other similar indicium recognizing the corporation’s controlling position.” A contract between your S-Corporation and the person or entity paying it will satisfy this factor. Besides, entering into contracts in the name of the S-Corporation also helps from a limited liability standpoint if the other party wants to sue for breach of that contract.

2)   Again, to the extent possible, all payments for goods or services provided should be made to the S-Corporation directly. Such direct payments may serve as “other similar indicium recognizing the corporation’s controlling position.” At the very least, these direct payments will save you from being in a position where you have to explain to the IRS why income being reported through you S-Corporation went first to you personally.

The S-Corporation is a wonderful and legitimate tool to save on taxes. Please just take the time to make sure you are using and operating it correctly. Doing so will save you time, money and headaches if you are ever audited by the IRS (or sued in your business).