Comparing Commercial and Residential Leases

Comparing Commercial and Residential Leases

Most individuals must navigate a residential lease at some point in their lives – typically for an apartment to live in before potentially purchasing a home later in life. In contrast, the majority of people will never need to negotiate or enter into a commercial lease – used for renting space to run a business. For those who do, it is important to understand the differences between the types of leases to avoid inadvertently making a bad deal. On the other hand, a business owner who has become familiar with commercial leases and then decides to invest in and rent out residential property should bear in mind the special rules for residential leases to avoid a costly mistake.

All states have some differences between laws governing residential and commercial leases based on the public policy position. While commercial tenants are presumed to be savvy parties operating a business and capable of negotiating and bargaining on an even playing field with their landlord, the average residential renter is unsophisticated and vulnerable to being taken advantage of by better positioned landlords. After all, renters tend to be younger and in a worse position financially than someone who needs to rent a space to operate their privately owned business. A commercial tenant is viewed as another equal player in the economic marketplace who is capable of, and therefore responsible for, the consequences of any contract they choose to enter into.

Wisconsin state law (primarily Wisconsin Statute Chapter 704) is a set of general rules that apply to all leases but that can be altered by contract (i.e. the lease), and then special rules for leases creating residential tenancies. Residential tenancy is further governed by state regulatory code (ATCP Chapter 134) providing more specific rules for residential landlords to follow. The list below highlights some of the major rules applying to residential leases in Wisconsin:

  • Requirement to provide a check-in sheet at the start of a lease which the tenant can make notes of any conditions existing on the premises (Wis. Stat. 704.08).
  • Requirement that leases must contain specific language notifying tenants of certain rights of domestic abuse victims (Wis. Stat. 704.14).
  • Required special notice procedures to remind tenants of deadlines related to automatic lease renewals (Wis. Stat. 704.15).
  • Minimum habitability standards that are generally waivable for commercial leases but required in residential leases (Wis. Stat. 704.07).
  • Certain provisions, when included in residential leases, make the lease void and unenforceable (Wis. Stat. 704.44). The ten provisions listed act as a sort of “guard rail” on the terms of residential leases keeping certain one-sided terms from being imposed on any renters in the state. The prohibition on such terms are not universal, and it is important to review any form leases obtained that are not Wisconsin specific for inclusion of these terms.
  • Strict rules on the receipt of, accounting for, and return of security deposits. (ATCP 134.06).
  • The requirement to highlight and separate out certain terms as “NONSTANDARD” making them easier for tenants to see (ATCP 134, throughout).

In addition to these special rules contained in the Wisconsin state statutes and regulations, certain municipalities also have local ordinances imposing additional requirements. It is important to review any local laws that may provide further restrictions on residential leases.

For Example: Outside of strictly defined differences in legal rights and requirements, residential and commercial leases tend to vary in other ways. The following are typical differences:

  • Commercial leases are generally longer. Typical residential leases are either month-to-month or annual. Such short terms are certainly possible for commercial leases, but three to five years with options to review for longer is more standard. Generally, commercial tenants will want short terms with many options to review, while commercial landlords will want the opposite.
  • Commercial leases more commonly involve the tenant making significant alterations to the property. It is rare for residential tenants to take out walls, install new equipment, etc., but commercial leases often allow tenants to modify the space to suit their business needs. The responsibility for and ownership of these changes should be defined in the lease.
  • Commercial leases tend to have the tenant take on more responsibility for maintaining the property and paying ancillary costs, like property taxes. A common subset of commercial lease is the “triple-net” lease, where, in addition to rent, the commercial tenant pays all of the property taxes, insurance and maintenance costs. Residential tenants pay rent and often pay the cost of utilities, but rarely are asked to directly pay for property taxes, maintenance or insurance costs.

For renters entering into a commercial lease for the first time, understanding the protections they may have benefited from without knowing about it in the course of their residential tenancies is important to fully review and potentially negotiate their commercial leases, where such protections do not apply. No one should ever sign a contract, like a lease, without carefully reading it first. Commercial tenants are exposed to the possibility of terms so burdensome the legislature banned them in the residential setting and thus need to review the lease carefully. For first-time landlords of residential properties, keeping these special rules in mind may be helpful in avoiding a costly mistake. Terms they may have grown accustomed to as “typical” in the commercial setting cannot just be inserted into a residential lease without first ensuring compliance with applicable laws.

In conclusion, whether you are entering into a commercial or residential lease for the first time you should be aware of the laws and rules in your state and local municipality. Please contact one of our experienced real estate attorneys if you have questions.

 

When Your LLC Designation is Not Enough

When Your LLC Designation is Not Enough

A limited liability entity, such as a LLC or Corporation, is an important part of protecting your individual assets from liabilities arising from your business. By operating the business within the limited liability entity, lawsuits stemming from the business – such as contractual claims or damages from personal injuries – generally will be restricted to pursuing claims against the business itself and the assets owned by the business. Your personal assets, held outside the business entity, are typically left untouched. You may need to liquidate the assets held in the business to pay the judgement, or even have the business declare bankruptcy. Obviously paying any claim, even if limited to company assets is not ideal, but the losses at least stop there and you personally will be spared from needing to pay.

This legal separation between you and your business for purposes of liability is known as the “corporate veil.” Over the years, courts have developed rules around the limits and exceptions to the protection of the corporate veil, sometimes to remedy an otherwise unequitable situation and sometimes to prevent individuals who sought to take advantage of the rule. When courts decide to override the limited liability status of an entity and allow a claimant to pursue the owners individually, it is known as “piercing” the corporate veil. This can be particularly disastrous to an owner of multiple businesses, as once a debt has reached them personally, the assets of their other entities are also at risk through a “reverse pierce.” The individual cases where judges have ruled for a piercing of the corporate veil have developed into a few broad categories which now form the precedent judges consider when deciding whether to uphold or pierce the veil in any given case. If you wish to rely on the corporate veil to protect you in the event of a large lawsuit, you should be aware of the triggers for veil piercing listed below and work to ensure that business operations are conducted in a way that will not trigger them.

  1. Fraud. Unsurprisingly, courts do not look kindly upon parties who actively seek to defraud others. Fraud might be the source of the lawsuit itself or committed in an effort to avoid the consequences of the lawsuit. Both may cause a court to consider piercing the corporate veil to allow the victim of the fraud to better recover their damages. This exception is often applied after “fraudulent conveyances” are made to remove assets from the entity after a legal claim is known of but before the claimant can secure payment. For example, transferring all of the cash in the business account to the owner’s personal account in the middle of a lawsuit and then claiming the business lacks the funds needed to pay the judgement. Here, an owner’s desire to save the money in the business account from the lawsuit may ultimately backfire and lead to all of their assets being subject to the claim.
  2. Lack of Formality of Entity Operations. Maintaining an entity separate from you as owner requires certain formal processes and bookkeeping requirements. Entities can be created fairly simply by filing with the state department of financial institutions, but it is important to fully flesh out the organization with proper agreements, resolutions, etc. Failure to properly keep up these formalities may give grounds for piercing the corporate veil if the record keeping is sufficiently lacking or may tip the scale when paired with other considerations. One of the reasons LLCs are such a popular choice of entity type is that they require substantially less formality than corporations. Bear in mind, even the relatively simple requirements of LLCs still require some formalities to properly form and maintain.
  3. Undisclosed Corporate Principle. In order to effectively claim your limited liability entity is the appropriate party to sue and not you personally, you should be able to show that the plaintiff knew or should have known they were dealing with your limited liability business – not you personally – for the acts that gave rise to the lawsuit. In essence, it is unfair to prevent a plaintiff from suing the owner of a business personally if they thought they were dealing with that person personally. Even if the plaintiff knew they were dealing with a company, if they were not aware that company was a limited liability entity (for example if the contract uses most of the company name but omits the “LLC” or “Inc.”), they could still claim this principle should apply. This is why it is important to properly identify the company’s full name on all signage, advertising and, especially, in contracts. While you, as owner, will be signing your name to most contracts, it should be in your capacity as a representative of the business, not as the party to who the contract binds.
  4. Undercapitalization. There is substantial caselaw of business owners attempting to take advantage of limited liability entities by keeping virtually no assets in the name of the business, so that when they are sued, there is nothing to take. Here again, getting too greedy in protecting assets can lead to jeopardizing additional assets. While keeping company assets relatively trimmed is a good practice, taking this too far can lead to a piercing of the corporate veil. As a general rule, the company should own at least sufficient capital and assets to be able to carry on its regular business. For example, in addition to reasonable operating funds in a business account, a real estate rental business should typically own the real estate it rents, an auto repair business should own the tools needed to complete the repairs. If ownership of physical assets is unclear, bills of sale should be prepared to formally transfer the assets into the name of the company.
  5. Tortious or Professional Misconduct. A limited liability entity will not protect you as owner from personal liability for your personal improper or professionally negligent behavior. Incidents stemming from road rage while driving for business purposes or stealing a client’s property while in their home making repairs may well lead to a court denying you the protections of the limited liability entity as it was really you who did the act the lawsuit is about, not your company. Additionally, if you are a member of a profession that is held personally responsible for malpractice, using a limited liability entity will not prevent malpractice suits against you. For example, if a patient slips and falls in a doctor’s waiting room operated as a LLC, the corporate veil will likely prevent the patient from suing the doctor personally. If however the doctor commits malpractice while providing the patient medical services, the LLC should not hinder the patient’s medical malpractice claim against the doctor.
  6. Lack of Separation Between Owner and Entity. For a court to treat you and your limited liability as separate, you should be able to demonstrate that you treated you and your entity as separate. This includes keeping separate bank accounts and using your personal funds for personal purposes and the company funds for company purposes. It also means keeping a clear record of what is owned by you and the company and respecting that distinction. If a lawsuit secures a judgement against your entity, these steps will be important to identify what belongs to you and what belongs to the company. If that distinction cannot be made, a court may elect to look past it and pierce the veil.
  7. Contractual Agreements to Guarantee Debts of the Company. Banks, landlords and suppliers are aware that limited liability entities may result in their loans going unpaid or contracts unfulfilled and so, it is not unusual for contracts provided by these parties to include a clause having you, as owner, guarantee the debt of the limited liability entity. Most business loans and commercial leases contain such clauses, especially if your limited liability entity is small or has an unproven track record of paying its debts. To risk stating the obvious, if you as owner contractually agree to be personally responsible for a debt, you cannot use your limited liability entity as a shield to block such obligation. Keep track of what debts you have guaranteed and what debts you have not – if your business becomes insolvent, having such information on hand can prove important to properly allocate the remaining funds to creditors. If you have a business partner, you should also ensure the personal guarantees on the debts are spread over the owners equitably to avoid a situation where the business fails, they walk away free, and you are held liable for numerous company debts.

    If you have any questions about your LLC, please contact one of our experienced Business Attorneys.

Real Estate Interests

Real Estate Interests

Legal interests in real estate seem simple upon first consideration – someone may own a home, and when they sell it, the buyer owns it. However, even such “simple” purchase and sale arrangements are often layered with other forms of legal interests being retained or changing hands, such as mortgage lien rights, easements, tenant rights and restrictive covenants. Holding an interest in property does not mean just one thing and even the descriptor of “ownership” fails to identify important differences among ownership types. Financial, tax and estate planning goals often are best accomplished by using forms of property transfers outside of traditional sale and purchase agreements and understanding such mechanisms is important to making efficient decisions about your real estate.

It is helpful to first present a framework for which to analyze the differences between types of interests. The classic real estate analogy to help frame the various rights and obligations of land ownership is the “bundle of sticks” thought exercise. First, imagine a bundle of sticks, where each stick represents a right or obligation regarding a particular piece of real property. One stick, for example, is the right to occupy the property, another may be the right to build or destroy structures on the property. When someone has all of the sticks, representing every conceivable right to the land, they are the “owner” in the truest sense of the word for the land associated with the sticks. However, individual sticks are often removed from the bundle and given to others – thus the rights to the property are divided among different people and entities. In fact, no individual holds all the sticks to any given bundle because certain property rights are held by the government. Some examples of this are: the right to tax, to prevent certain uses of the property through zoning and permitting requirements, and to forcibly acquire property through eminent domain. The remainder of the rights are typically divided in one of the following classifications of interest in real estate:

Fee Simple Interest. An owner in “Fee Simple” holds the most rights to real estate any individual can enjoy. They can occupy and use the property as they see fit, exclude anyone they do not want to be there, sell or rent to whomever they like, and build or tear down any structures so long as they comply with the governmental limits to such powers. Their use of the property exists currently and there is no time limit on such use.

Leasehold Interest. The first interest in real estate most people acquire is the leasehold to their first apartment. This interest is also referred to as a “Lessee” or “Tenant” interest. Lease rights vary tremendously based on the terms of the lease contract, but in general, ownership is retained by the landlord and the right to occupancy, use, and enjoyment for a set length of time is sold to the tenant for the price of rent. While the ownership of the property is retained by the Landlord, those occupancy rights are temporarily transferred away from them. This transfer of rights is what separates a “tenant” from a “guest.”  For example, despite being the “owner” of the property, Landlords generally do not have the right to sleep or live in the rented space, invite guests over or tell their tenants who is and is not allowed on the premises – these rights are retained by the Tenant for the duration of the lease.

Landlord Interest. The opposite of the leasehold interest, the Landlord, also known as the “Lessor,” retains the rights not traded for rental payments to the Tenant. This typically includes the rights to make decisions regarding the improvements on the property (although some leases allow Tenants wide discretion to remodel or even build improvements), the right to sell the property to others, or encumber it with a mortgage to finance other projects, and to have the property returned to them at the end of the lease.

Life Estate Interest. Life estate arrangements transfer the “sticks” associated with a property after the owner’s death to another party, often as a gift but sometimes as a sale, but keep the “sticks” for use during one’s life with the owner. The rights to use the property during life is called the “Life Estate Interest.” This typically involves the holder being able to live in the property rent free for the duration of their life. In theory, the “Life Estate interest” can be sold to a third party, but because it terminates on the death of the original holder (it does not reset to the lifespan of the buyer), few people are interested in purchasing such rights. Life Estate interest holders are usually required to pay the property taxes and keep the improvements in good repair to protect the value of the remainder interest holder’s rights. Granting a Life Estate is fundamentally different than naming someone in a will, as the legal ownership of the right to use the property after the grantor’s death irrevocably transfers to that individual and cannot be rescinded.

Remainder Interest. The opposite of the Life Estate Interest, the holder of the remainder interest has no current use or occupancy rights but will assume full ownership of the property when the Life Estate interest holder dies. They also have certain rights to ensure the Life Estate Interest holder keeps the taxes paid and the property in good condition, as failure to maintain the property damages their future rights. A remainder interest holder can sell their remainder interest to other parties. The value of such interests is typically determined by the life expectancy of the Life Estate interest holder.

Mortgage Liens. Banks and other financial institutions own interests in a huge number of properties in the form of mortgage liens. Individual lenders may also acquire such rights. When a bank lends you money to purchase a home, or sometimes for other reasons, they may “secure” that debt by placing a mortgage lien on the property. This grants a “conditional right,” meaning that if certain events happen, the right comes into effect. The main conditional right with a mortgage lien is the right to seize the property from the borrower if payments are not made or if the borrower attempts to transfer the property without their consent, which is frequently called the “due on sale clause.” Lenders require these liens be granted to them to ensure that they will receive their money back from the sale of the seized home in the event the borrower stops paying the loan.

Land Contract Vendor. The Vendor of a land contract makes a contract with a purchaser or “Vendee” to sell specific land in exchange for a promissory note which is paid over time. In a traditional mortgage financed transaction, the seller is fully paid at closing from the money the borrower got from the bank and transfers the full interest at that time. In a land contract however, the payments are made directly to the Vendor over a number of years, and the title is retained until it is paid in full, at which point the Vendor is required under the contract to transfer the property by deed to the Vendee. Although title remains with the Vendor until the note is paid, for most practical purposes, the use and occupancy rights to the property transfer to the Vendee upon signing the Land Contract, at least for so long as the Vendee stays current on their payments.

Land Contract Vendee. The Vendee of a land contract agrees to purchase the property from the seller, or “Vendor.” The Vendee has a right to acquire the property when they have completed the payment schedule called for in the Land Contract. They typically have broad rights to use the property while paying off the debt, but also are typically required to maintain insurance and maintenance to protect the security of the Vendor. If they fail to make the payments, the Vendor may be able to seize the property back from them, as the legal title to the ownership never changed hands.

Easements. The owner of an easement right does not own the property it pertains to, but rather has specific rights to use that property for specific purposes. The most common form of easement is for access, also known as “ingress and egress easements.” If a lot is created that has no access to a public road because it is surrounded by other lots, it is common for the owner of that lot to negotiate for the purchase of an easement on someone else’s property for the right to travel across it to get to the road. Other common easements are for hunting or recreational use. Easements are presumed to be “appurtenant” to the land, meaning future owners automatically get the rights and obligations transferred to them when they buy the property. However, some easements are “in gross” meaning an individual owns the easement right (common with hunting easements). If an easement is vital to the use of a property, buyers should carefully ensure the rights will continue after the property changes hands.

Restrictive Covenants/Deed Restrictions. Where an easement is a right of another to use someone else’s property for a specific purpose, a restrictive covenant or deed restriction is the right of another to prohibit certain uses of a property by its owner. For example, the owner of a house on a hill may decide to sell some of their land at the bottom of the hill. Because they are worried about their view being blocked if the new owner builds a tall structure, they retain for themselves the “stick in the bundle” that represents the right to build structures over a certain height. The new owners take title to the land, but never obtain the right to build any structure that would block the view. The most common type of restrictive covenants are found in property developments, where the developer, to increase the value of the land or houses they are selling, puts use restrictions on all of the lots. While the value of a single property may be decreased if it comes with rules about what the owner cannot do with it i.e., “no barking dogs on the property” and “no non-running cars in the driveway,” the value may increase significantly if all the neighboring properties also are prohibited from owning barking dogs or leaving junk cars out front as buyers get the peace of mind in knowing their neighbors cannot do these things.

Option to Purchase. An option to purchase grants the legal right, but not the obligation, to acquire a property at a set price during a window of time. If exercised by the option holder, the owner is legally required to sell them the property. The owner may still occupy and enjoy the property during the interim and the option holder has no rights to the property unless they exercise the option. Options become more valuable if the land value increases, as the right to buy a property for $100,000 that has doubled in value since the option was granted obviously is quite valuable. Option rights are typically sold to purchasers when they express interest in a property they cannot currently acquire and want to secure their right to buy it in the future.

Right of First Refusal. A right of first refusal is a contractual right to have a property offered to be sold to the holder for a set price and terms before the owner can sell to anyone else. The right holder does not own the property or have any ability to force the sale, but if the seller wishes to sell, the right holder will be guaranteed a chance to buy the property themselves. The price is sometimes set to match the offer made by another party, requiring the right holder to match the outside offer to acquire the interest. Sometimes the terms call for a formula or appraisal-based price determination instead. Rights of First Refusal are often utilized in family land transactions when the real estate is sentimental in some way. For example, if two siblings inherit their family home, one sibling may wish to purchase it from the other to live in. That sibling may agree to the sale but only on the condition that before they could sell it to someone else, they would have to first offer it back to them.

If you have any questions about these types of interest in real estate, please do not hesitate to reach out to one of our experiences real estate attorneys.

How do Gift Taxes and Annual Exclusion Gifts Work?

How do Gift Taxes and Annual Exclusion Gifts Work?

Many people are aware that gift taxation rules exist, but do not understand the actual process for determining when reporting or payment is required. Fortunately, the types of gifts most people make each year fall under broad exclusions to the gift tax rules such as charitable giving, interspousal gifts, or annual exclusion amount gifting. This article focuses on annual exclusion amount gifting. Most individuals in the United States regularly rely on annual exclusion amounts to avoid filing burdens, for things like buying Christmas presents or treating someone to lunch, without ever realizing the exception is operating. However, relying on the annual exclusion amount without understanding it can lead to negative tax ramifications.

Before discussing the exception, we need to begin with the general rule. Internal Revenue Code Section 2503(a) provides that “taxable gifts” means the total amount of gifts made during the calendar year. A “gift” is a transfer of any type of property from one person to another for no or less than full fair market value. For example, if a person sells property with a fair market value of $100,000 to another for $100,000, no gift has occurred because the property was transferred for full value. If the property is instead given away for no payment, a gift of $100,000 has occurred. You may also be making a gift by allowing use of property without fair payment, even if the property itself is not outright transferred or is set to return to you. An example could be, residing in a property without rent or making an interest free loan. Determining “fair market value” can sometimes be difficult, but generally is the price which the property would trade hands for between unrelated individuals, both of which are fully informed about the characteristics of the property and under no compulsion to buy or sell it. Between unrelated parties, the presumption is that the transfer price is the fair market value. Between related parties, higher scrutiny is applied as it is more likely the transfer price was determined not by market value, but instead by charitable motivations.

IRC Section 2503(b) provides the annual exclusion rule. This rule exempts from “taxable gifts” an inflation adjusted at $10,000 (adjusted to $16,000 in 2022) annually made by any person to any other person. This annual amount prevents routine transfers like Christmas presents, birthday cards and paying for meals from requiring any special tax filings. Using up to the maximum amount each year for cash or security transfers is a common tool used by wealthy estate planning clients seeking to shift money out of their estates whose value may otherwise incur estate taxes at death. While $16,000 may not seem like much in the context of multi-million dollar estates, the multiplying force of “per donor” and “per recipient” can allow significant annual transfers. Consider a wealthy married couple with three children, each of whom are married with two children of their own. By using annual exclusion limits, each spouse can give to each child $16,000. They can give $16,000 to the spouse of their child plus additional $16,000 gifts from each grandparent to each grandchild. In this example, $384,000 a year could be transferred gift and estate tax free. The “annual” nature of the exclusion is measured by the calendar year, so it is common for transfers that may otherwise not qualify for the exemption to be split into separate smaller gifts on a December-of-one-year then January-of-the-next schedule.

Making annual exclusion gifts needs to be weighed against other options for the assets. Highly appreciated assets in estates without estate tax exposure would typically be better off being held until death to benefit from tax basis adjustment rules. Gifted assets generally have a “carryover” tax basis from the donor. Conversely, newly acquired stock expected to rise in value makes for a powerful transfer option, as the growth in value will occur under the new owner and has been removed from the donor’s estate at a relative discount compared to its anticipated future value.

To count as a gift completed in any given year, the gift must be of a “present interest” and “complete”. These requirements can become quite complex in certain types of advanced planning – such as Crummey withdrawal notices for gifts made with the intention to fund trusts or the ownership interests in highly restricted Family Investment LLCs. Generally, the requirements mean that the value and use of the property needs to have changed hands in an irrevocable manner and without contingencies. For example, telling a child in college “If you get all A’s this semester, I will give you $1,000” does not constitute a gift, but once the funds have changed hands, the gift would be complete. The same would apply to naming someone a beneficiary on a bank account as the designation is both revocable and payment is contingent on the grantor’s death. This differs from naming someone as a joint owner on an account, as that conveys an ownership interest at the time it is made. Failing to satisfy this requirement can create problems if large gifts are made in consecutive years. For example, if in 2022 a father gifts to their son a car worth $15,000 and then in 2023 gifts $15,000 worth of stock in their family business, then the gifts each year were under the annual exclusion limits. Conversely, if in 2022 the father tells his son, “Consider the car yours, I will get the title transferred soon”, then in 2023 the car is actually transferred and the gift of stock is made, then, because the gift of the car was not complete in 2022, both gifts took place in 2023 and the exemption is not large enough for both 2023 asset transfers.

If gifts are made in excess of the annual exclusion limit and no other exemption applies, then under the general rule of IRC Section 2503(a), the gift is a “taxable gift” and needs to be reported on IRS Form 709 – the gift tax return. However, this does not necessarily mean that any tax is owed – in fact it rarely does. Taxable gifts made during life reduce the amount of exemption available for the donor to use to protect assets from the estate tax at their death. To summarize, estate taxes operate by valuing the assets a person owned at their death, then applying a heavy tax on the value of assets over their exemption amount ($12,060,000 per person in 2022 – a historically high figure). So taxable gifts made during life reduce that exemption amount at death. If a person dies without owing estate taxes under the reduced amount, then no tax is collected at any point for the gifts made during their life. If the exemption is entirely used up, either during life or at death, then a tax is owed.

This combined system of gift and estate taxation makes sense when the legislative objectives are understood. Gifts and inheritances share the common trait of passing assets without compensation, usually to younger family members. Without the unified credit, large near-death or deathbed gifts could be used to avoid estate taxes, which are important for both revenue generation and curbing wealth inequality. However, without the annual exclusion exemption, the general rule of taxability would mean that every small routine gift would be a reportable gift. This would create a paperwork nightmare, both for average citizens whose tax filing burdens would substantially increase and for the IRS who would need to review and process these submissions. Further, because no tax is owed as long as there is available exemption, this massive paperwork burden would generate very little tax revenue as the vast majority of people do not have estates large enough to trigger the estate tax (at least under current exemption limits).

As a final note, it is important to understand that the annual exclusion gift exemption only applies for purposes of calculating taxable gifts – the exclusion does not apply for determining Medicaid eligibility and reportable transfers during the look back period, which are governed by entirely separate and far stricter rules. This article is meant to provide a basic overview of the gift tax system and annual exclusion gifting. As always, professional advice from an attorney or accountant should be sought when determining the effects of any specific course of action.

Can I Disclaim an Interest in an Estate?

Can I Disclaim an Interest in an Estate?

When someone dies and leaves you property in their will, by beneficiary designation, or through the intestate beneficiary laws of their state, it is possible, and sometimes wise, to reject the would-be inheritance by “disclaiming” your legal interest to it. However, there are certain procedural rules and mechanics necessary to effectively complete the disclaimer.

Someone may choose to disclaim their interest in an inheritance for a variety of reasons. They may simply not need it or would prefer another person to receive it. Disclaiming in these circumstances may be preferable to accepting the asset, then gifting it to the recipient. Disclaiming may also be warranted if receipt of the asset could lead to it being seized by creditors, impacting the person’s tax planning, or affecting their eligibility for certain government programs. For very wealthy individuals, receipt of additional assets through inheritance may prove problematic for purpose of the estate tax and later cause taxation at the recipient’s death that could have been avoided by a timely disclaimer. In fact, some types of trusts, commonly known as Disclaimer Trusts, anticipate the disclaimer process being utilized for estate tax purposes and create mechanisms to take advantage of the disclaimer process to minimize the repeated taxation of assets as they move through a family tree.

Wisconsin Statute § 854.13 governs the rules for disclaiming assets in Wisconsin. To be a valid disclaimer under the statute, the disclaimer must meet certain technical requirements. It must contain a description of the asset to be disclaimed, declare the intent to disclaim, the extent to which the disclaimer applies, and must be signed by the disclaimant. The disclaimer must be delivered within nine months after the effective date of the transfer, although extensions are sometimes possible “for cause” with court permission. The disclaimer must be delivered to the party identified under WI. Statute §854.13(5), which is typically the personal representative of an estate or the trustee of a trust holding the relevant asset. The delivered disclaimer must then be filed with the probate court with jurisdiction over the estate and, for real estate, recorded with the Register of Deeds of the county the real estate is located in. When the individual disclaiming the interest is a minor or incapacitated, the statute includes special rules which apply to ensure their guardian or agent acting under power of attorney is acting in the best interest of the disclaimant.

Importantly, the disclaimer must also be made before the individual accepts the asset or any benefit from the disclaimed asset. For example, if the contents of an investment account are liquidated and transferred to the beneficiary’s account, those funds have been accepted and the person can no longer disclaim them. Similarly, if someone is to inherit a vehicle and drives in it, they have accepted the benefit of the asset and can no longer disclaim it. Accidental acceptance of an asset can sometimes be disastrous, so if you are considering disclaiming your interest, make sure to be mindful of the management and use of the asset so you do not accidentally bar yourself from disclaiming it by accepting the asset or its benefit. The possibility of accidental acceptance is also a limitation of the Disclaimer Trust described previously, and some estate planning attorneys choose to avoid it in favor of other methods – like formula funded trusts – to avoid this risk.

To be valid for federal tax purposes, the IRS also imposes requirements for a “Qualified Disclaimer” in Section 2518 of the Internal Revenue Code, which are similar, but distinct from the Wisconsin rules.

A properly executed disclaimer is irrevocable and causes the asset to be treated as if it never vested in or transferred to the disclaimant. Assuming a divestment is effectively made, the asset passes under the rules set forth in WI. Statute §854.13(7) through (10). The general effect of the disclaimer is that the asset would pass as if the disclaimant has died before the decedent. For example, if a person dies without a will and the laws of intestacy direct that the asset would pass to the decedent’s surviving parent, who then disclaims, the asset passes as if the parent has predeceased and it passes to any living siblings of the decedent. As another example, if an individual dies with a will providing all assets would pass to their surviving spouse, and to their children if the spouse predeceases them, a disclaimer by the surviving spouse would cause the assets to pass to the children.

Despite the “general rule” outlined above, the statutes contain many exceptions and special rules for certain scenarios. Because a disclaimer is irrevocable once made, it is important to fully understand where the asset will pass before completing the disclaimer. If you have any questions about disclaiming assets from an estate, please do not hesitate to reach out to one of our attorneys.