More than Just the Tetons: A New Chancery Court Makes Wyoming Well Worth Discovering

Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Park, Wyoming (like the title says, more than the Tetons)

But for the missing photo of the magnificent Tetons, volume 11, number 1 of the 2011 Wyoming Law Review might be mistaken for a sales piece published by the Wyoming Business Council—the state’s economic development agency. Two articles in the journal tout Wyoming’s business and trust friendly laws. “The Undiscovered Country: Wyoming’s Emergence as a Leading Trust Situs Jurisdiction,”[1] Christopher Reimer argues that the state’s laws on directed trusts, trust protectors, self-settled trusts, and private trust companies, among other tools justify that claim. A few pages earlier, Dale Cottam and four others make similar claims with regard to limited liability companies. Not only did the new 2010 Limited Liability Company Act (“LLC Act”) replace Wyoming’s original—and first-in-the-nation—act, they point out, it included some “home cooking” that makes the Cowboy State the place to be . . . organized.[2] Come for the Tetons; stay for the business and trust friendly laws and the lack of a state income tax.

Seven years later, Amy Staehr revisited that theme in her piece “The Discovered Country: Wyoming’s Primacy as a Trust Situs Jurisdiction.”[3] In it, she updates what Wyoming’s part-time legislature had been up to in the intervening years. Among other things, new legislation provided more privacy protection to trusts and better asset protection with a new Wyoming Qualified Spendthrift Trust. Likewise, limited liability companies could now have a more flexible management structure. The message was again clear: Yes, the vistas are expansive and the sunsets beautiful, but have you looked at our business and trust friendly laws lately? “I think it’s exciting what Wyoming’s trying to do with its laws,” says Michael Greear, a state representative and member of the state’s Chancery Court Committee. “Anything we do to get more business and still keep the population at 500,000 is all good.”

But there was a hitch: Wyoming’s court system. It had essentially two tiers: Nine District Courts of general jurisdiction and a Supreme Court, the state’s only appellate court. And only the Supreme Court reported its cases online. In 2019 it issued 151 opinions, just 3 of them involving trusts and businesses, down from the 159 it heard in 2018, again, only 3 of them dealing with trusts and businesses. In short, Wyoming had great new business and trust laws, but too few court opinions published online to help interested observers discern how Wyoming courts might interpret those laws, an essential ingredient to a stable climate for business entities and trusts.

It didn’t help that recently—and unfortunately—the Court’s 2014 GreenHunter Energy case put the fear of creditors into the hearts of businessmen and women. The case’s result was certainly just, but the rule of the case appeared to ignore new veil piercing provisions in the LLC Act. It’s worth noting that the Wyoming legislature did its part to provide stability. Almost immediately after the Court issued its opinion, the legislature amended the LLC Act to essentially reset the law clearly and unequivocally to pre-GreenHunter days.[4]

In its 2019 session, the Wyoming Legislature acted again, this time to increase the size and density of the paper trail created by Wyoming courts in hopes of becoming the Delaware of the West. Delaware has a Chancery court, its docket devoted to trusts and business; so should Wyoming. And voila! After a concerted effort by some forward-thinking legislators and a stroke of the Governor’s pen, Wyoming has a Chancery Court dedicated to hearing nothing but trust and business cases.  Senate File 0104, the bill that started it all, now sits ensconced as Chapter 13 of Title 5 of the Wyoming Code. Where the court will sit and when it will open is another matter. “Two things will dictate when the factory is up and running: the adoption of court rules and making sure we’ve got the IT—the caseload management system and e-filing—in place,” says Senate President Drew Perkins, sponsor of the bill.

The Act mandates $1,500,000.00 of initial funding for the court and contains a broad outline for how the court should operate, among other things. In April 2019, the Supreme Court issued an order establishing the Chancery Court Committee to fill in the details of that outline. Justice Kate Fox was appointed its chairperson. “She gets two thumbs up,” Greear says. “She put together a great committee.”

The Committee did its job, particularly in developing court rules. Finally on January 7, 2020, an email went out to the Wyoming Bar, asking for comments on the proposed rules. The comment period ends on May 15, 2020, and final rules will go into effect six months later on November 15, 2020. That date makes sense because there is still a lot to work through, according to Justice Fox. That includes the rules, but also who the judges will be and where their court will sit. “The plan is to appoint judges with expertise in the statutory areas, much like in Delaware. Wyoming Chancery Court judges must be experienced or knowledgeable in the subject matter jurisdiction of the court,” she explains.

The court’s jurisdiction includes everything from breach of contract to fraud and misrepresentation, from statutory violations of laws governing asset sales and protecting trade secrets to transactions involving the Uniform Commercial Code and the Uniform Trust Code. Disputes concerning employment agreements, insurance coverage, and dissolution of corporations, LLCs, and other entities can all be heard by the Chancery Court. The statute says the Court “shall employ “alternative nonjury trials, dispute resolution methods and limited motion practice and shall have broad authority to shape and expedite discovery,” [5] a good idea, given that the new law requires “effective and expeditious resolution of disputes,” a term of art that means a majority of the actions filed in the court must be resolved with 150 days of filing. “The sponsors of the bill view the Chancery Court as kind of a business draw,” Fox says. “A speedier court with more particular [business and trust] expertise should be attractive to businesses who are considering incorporating in or coming to Wyoming.”

As for where the court will sit, “it will likely be in Casper or Cheyenne, just because they are bigger,” she continues. “But it’s also possible, depending on the case and where the parties are, that the judges could be mobile and hear cases in places like Jackson.”

The smart money is on Casper. It’s centrally located, new money was recently appropriated for a new state office building there, and it has good air service. “Last week I had meetings in New York with our investment bankers,” says Greear, who lives in Worland, Wyoming, where he’s the CEO of Wyoming Sugar Company. “I flew out of Casper, had a nice dinner in New York, met with my bankers and was home the next day. United and Delta service Casper really well.”

Perkins, who lives and works in Casper, hopes there will eventually be one or more courts outside of his hometown, maybe one in Cody or Sheridan and one in Cheyenne, for example. “That’s my vision for it, anyway. The idea is not about having the court in Casper; it’s about having the court available for quick resolution.”

As they say, time will tell. The job now is to get the first court up and running with a judge knowledgeable about business and trust law expeditiously issuing opinions. The hope is that, when published, those opinions will consistently and clearly demonstrate how things are done in the Wyoming. And done right, it’s all good—for the Equality State and the businesses that locate there.

[UPDATE] After this story went to press at the ABA, the Wyoming legislature failed to fund a variety of construction projects during the recent legislative session, including the construction of the Chancery Court in Casper. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the drop in oil prices, even Drew Perkins, a sponsor of the Chancery Court, thought it good to wait and watch.


[1] Pg. 165 (2011).

[2] “The 2010 Wyoming Limited Liability Company Act: A Uniform Recipe with Wyoming ‘Home Cooking,” pg. 49 (2011).

[3] Wyoming Law Review, Volume 18, Number 2, pg. 283.

[4] See “Wyoming Supreme Court Upholds Decision to Pierce the Veil of Single-Member LLC,” Rutledge, Thomas; November 13, 2014, https://kentuckybusinessentitylaw.blogspot.com/2014/11/wyoming-supreme-court-upholds-decision.html (accessed 2/26/2020); and “Wyoming Cleans up Veil Piercing in LLC Act,” Fershee, Joshua; March 29, 2016, https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/business_law/2016/03/wyoming-cleans-up-veil-piercing-in-llc-act.html (accessed 2/26/2020).

[5] Wyo. Stat. § 5-13-111

I wrote the piece above for the April, 2020 issue of The LLC & Partnership Reporter, a publication of the ABA.

DIY Investment Management of Retirement Assets: Is There an LLC in Your Self-Directed IRA’s Future?

An idea worth considering.

As baby boomers begin to retire, the burden of making management decisions regarding their retirement assets may seem daunting. This is especially true for those who choose to forego using professional investment advisors and instead manage their assets by themselves. If DIY appeals to you, just know there are many pros and probably as many cons.

 First, the pros of choosing to manage your own retirement funds, particularly if you are a business owner with expertise in the area in which you invest. By doing it yourself, you can:

  • Exercise greater control over investment choices,
  • Enjoy greater flexibility in allocating and diversifying these investments, and
  • Avoid high fees associated with having a financial advisor.

If you choose to pursue the DIY method, a reasonable option for you to explore is the self-directed Individual Retirement Account (IRA). A self-directed IRA is like other retirement accounts that allow individuals to save for retirement. A self-directed IRA can take the form of any of the more common ROTH, SEP, and traditional IRAs, allowing your investments to enjoy benefits like tax-free growth or specified tax-deferment. The self-directed IRA’s unique attribute relates to the types of investments that are permitted. Unlike standard IRAs, a self-directed IRA extends beyond mutual funds and stocks. With a self-directed IRA, a custodian can also invest in real estate, private company stock, precious metals, and all other investments available by law.

(Some investors have taken the self-directed IRA a step further and set up what is referred to an “IRA/LLC” or “checkbook control IRA,” an arrangement by which investors may directly manage their IRA investments through an LLC owned 100% by a self-directed IRA. This arrangement is beyond the scope of this short blog post, but since it’s an option worth considering, it’s one worth mentioning.)

Pros inevitably are accompanied by cons. Self-directed IRAs are no exception. In fact, there are considerable risks and other considerations, you should take into account:

  • Clarity of Goals. One significant limitation for individuals attempting to manage their own retirement accounts is that they haven’t given serious thought to their financial goals, let alone their retirement plans. To successfully manage retirement assets, you must understand exactly what you are trying to achieve and strategically align your investments with those goals. Failure to do so may result in inadequate savings or over-spending. Both mistakes can lead to complications once you retire.
  • Understanding of Financial Concepts. In addition to having a clear vision for your financial future, you must understand basic financial concepts associated with investing. For example, anyone interested in managing their retirement funds should be able to develop an asset allocation strategy that incorporates factors like tax rates, age of retirement, required income, and current assets. Without a solid understanding of how these various factors influence each other, you could under-save and outlive your retirement funds.
  • Compliance with complex investment rules. Understanding your goals and navigating complex financial concepts will not matter if you violate one of the many rules associated with investments. The federal government has a variety of regulations that govern the types of permitted transactions, who can be a party to such transactions, and the extent to which various taxes apply. For example, in a self-directed IRA, clearly defined rules prohibit certain transactions characterized as self-dealing. To that end, your self-directed IRA is not allowed to engage in transactions with certain people, including the account owner, family members, and business partners. What constitutes self-dealing is defined by the Internal Revenue Service and case law. Figuring out which transactions are allowed is tricky, and failure to comply with IRS rules can result in hefty fines.

In short, going DIY? Be careful out there. Better, don’t DIY in every aspect of managing your retirement funds. Be honest with yourself: Seek advice where you lack knowledge.

Celebrity Estate Planning Mistakes that Keep on Giving–to the Wrong Person

My dad was a life insurance salesman. I remember rummaging around in his sales materials and finding a service he subscribed to that reported on the estate tax problems of the rich and famous and even the not-so-famous. He used the  reports to make the point that his prospective clients needed to do some estate and insurance planning, so their families wouldn’t face similar fates.

I was reminded of this when I stumbled upon this 2013 article from Forbes, “Monumental Estate Planning Blunders of 5 Celebrities.” The piece details the woes of rocker Jim Morrison, Rat Pack icon Sammy Davis Junior, hotelier Leona Helmsley,  QB Steve McNair, and, my favorite sad story, actress Marilyn Monroe:

Some celebrities have erred by not going far enough with their estate planning. For instance, famous actress and model Marilyn Monroe left most of her estate to her acting coach, Lee Strasberg.

“She left him three-fourths of her estate, and when he died, his interest in Marilyn’s estate went to his third wife, who did not even know Marilyn. Marilyn’s mistake was not putting her assets in trusts,” says Nass.

Strasberg’s third wife, Anna, eventually hired a company to license Monroe’s products, which involved hundreds of companies including Mercedes-Benz and Coca-Cola. In 1999, many of Monroe’s belongings were auctioned off, including the gown she wore to President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party, for more than $1 million. Strasberg ended up selling the remainder of the Monroe estate to another branding company for an estimated $20 million to $30 million, according to a remembrance of the star by NPR in 2012.

It’s unlikely Monroe would have wanted someone she didn’t know to profit so handsomely from her belongings. A trust would have provided for Strasberg while he was alive and then after his death could have directed the remainder of her estate to someone of her choosing.

Yes, I imagine was very unlikely that she wantedStrasberg’s 3rd wife to laugh all the way to and from the bank. But poor planning allowed that to happen.

The Donald’s Impact on Estate Planning: Good or Bad?

Jonathan G. Blattmachr & Martin M. Shenkman, two major gurus in the estate planning field, seem to think a Trump administration will lead to the need for most of us to engage in some planning:

The election of Donald J. Trump as President, along with a Republican-controlled House and Senate, may lead to the most radical changes to the estate tax since it was first enacted.

I’ve only read a brief abstract from the article at this link. I’ll report back after I’ve read the actual piece. (I’m not a fan of the online viewing option for this story. Hard to read.)

And You Thought the IRS was out to Get You

Good news from the land of taxes. The IRS audit rate of individuals (.07%) and businesses (.05%) fell to a 10+ year low due to budget cuts.  Even high income taxpayers can feel the love:

Audits declined even for the high-income households that have been an enforcement priority for the IRS. In 2016, the agency audited 5.83% of returns with income over $1 million, down from 9.55% in 2015 and marking the lowest audit rate for that income group since 2008.

 

Just Leave It Alone?

As many will recall, then candidate Trump promised to eliminate the estate tax. That was then. This is now–he’s the President. What will he actually do? Will he also eliminate the estate tax’s two siblings: the gift tax and the generation skipping tax? No one knows, though many people care, especially those who preach tax fairness.

Given that married couples currently have to be worth almost $11 million dollars before  the estate tax kicks in–it’s more complicated than that, but still–eliminating the estate tax is going to help only the very, very wealthy. And maybe that’s a bad (or a good) thing.

I’m here to argue for the advisor. Estate planning attorneys, life insurance and investment advisors, CPAs and financial planners. I’m betting that each and every one of them agree with the following:

Because the estate tax generates a meager 0.005 percent of annual tax collections, according to I.R.S. figures, it generates far more political debate than federal revenue. And among many tax planners, the calls aren’t so much for reform as for stability, or at least a period of benign neglect.

“Just leave it alone so we can plan,” Mr. Jenney said. “But every administration seems to want to put their own twist on the estate tax.”

IRA Rollover Gotcha Down?

We all know the rule:

Sections 402(c)(3) and 408(d)(3) provide that any amount distributed from a qualified plan or IRA will be excluded from income if it is transferred to an eligible retirement plan no later than the 60th day following the day of receipt. A similar rule applies to § 403(a) annuity plans, § 403(b) tax sheltered annuities, and § 457 eligible governmental plans. See §§ 403(a)(4)(B), 403(b)(8)(B), and 457(e)(16)(B).

No, actually, we all know that rule stated this way:

You have 60 days to get your distribution from one IRA or retirement plan to another IRA or retirement plan, or you suffer the tax consequences. The “getting to one from another” is called a rollover–typically an IRA rollover.

If you fail to complete the rollover within 60 days, the penalties can be severe, including income and excise taxes, interest, and penalties.

get-out-of-jail-freePeople do rollovers for a variety of reasons. They retire. They change jobs. They become dissatisfied with their current IRA provider. In those cases and others, there’s a need to change move your retirement money from one plan to another. And typically the move goes smoothly–without a hitch.

Except when it doesn’t. What if the rollover takes more than 60 days? Then what?

Well, the IRS recently issued a new rule, Revenue Procedure 2016-47, that recognizes certain realities: Life happens.

  • Checks get misplaced
  • Houses burn down
  • The Post Office screws up
  • The fish were biting (just kidding)

Yup. If life hits you in the face, the IRS is going to wipe the tears away and tell you to go back outside and play–that is, they’re going to waive any penalties. There is a catch–of course:

  • What hit you in the face must be among the many excuses the IRS lists in the Revenue Procedure 2016-47 AND
  • You must complete the rollover “as soon as practicable” after the intervening reason no longer exists (there’s a 30 day safe harbor, though you can take longer) AND
  • You must self certify to your new plan administrator or IRA trustee that you meet the requirements of the Revenue Procedure AND
  • The IRS previously must not have denied a waiver.

The Revenue Procedure provides a  handy self-certification letter, the wording of which you must follow almost to the T.  You can find the sample letter here, in the appendix of the actual Revenue Procedure. Enjoy the read.

Gift and Estate Planning Coupons May Worth Less After This Election

When you give money or property to someone while you’re alive, you make a gift. If that gift is beyond a certain size, you will also have to pay a gift tax on it. When die, your money or property will go to those whom you name as your beneficiaries in your will or trust. But yet again, if your estate is beyond a certain size, your estate will have to pay a tax on it, this time an estate tax.

clinton-trumpNow Uncle Sam has, of late, been pretty generous**. He’s given each of us coupons* to pay that tax–up to a certain amount. Currently, each of us has a lifetime coupon worth $5,450,000; that is, each of us can give away (or devise or bequeath upon our death) $5,450,000 without having to pay any gift or estate tax. And if we’re married, we can combine these “applicable exclusion amounts” so that as a couple we can give away twice that amount, or $10,900,00 without any gift or estate tax being assessed.

It gets better. In addition to the amounts I just mentioned, each of us can make annual gifts of $14,000–an annual coupon, if you will–to as many people as we want, family, non family, friends, and enemies. Every year! And if we’re married, we can combine our gifts. That’s $28,000. Gift tax free.

And if you finally do have to pay an estate or gift tax? The top rate is 40%.

All that was to tell you this: If Hillary Clinton is elected, she’s promised to reduce the applicable exclusion amount–the large lifetime coupon–to just $3,500,00 for an individual, $7,000,000 for a married couple. That’s almost a $4 million drop from present levels. I’m unsure at this time if she had any plans to reduce the annual gift coupon.

Donald Trump wants to repeal the estate tax.

FWIW, this is not a political post, or at least I don’t intend it to be. Just the facts. And that’s that.

*In addition to the two “coupons” discussed in this post, there’s a third, the unlimited marital deduction, which allows spouses to pass property between one another without tax consequences. Ultimately, the last to die may have an estate tax bill to pay.

**Generous is being generous. We’re talking about money that is not Uncle Sam’s to begin with, but humor me here.

What is Probate Anyway?

Everybody wants to avoid probate, but far too many of those who want to avoid it, know what is. Here’s a primer:

Probate is the legal process in which a deceased person’s will is proved valid; her personal representative or executor appointed; her property collected and preserved; and her debts, including taxes, paid. Usually, the deceased’s family hires an attorney to file the appropriate papers with the probate court to begin the process. Depending on the state and the complexity or size of the state, the probate process can be complicated or streamlined. In Utah, for example, if the deceased’s estate is under $100,000, probate can be handled via a s0-called small estate affidavit, a much more simple process.

The deceased person’s personal representative (another term for executor) is the point person in the process. Essentially, a personal representative fills the shoes of the deceased. What the deceased could do if she were still alive, the personal representative does instead. Need to transfer title? The personal representative does that. Need to close a bank account. Again, the personal representative steps up. Often (but not always) named in the deceased’s will, the personal representative, once he has the court’s blessing, is the one who goes about collecting property, paying debts, and–finally–distributing what’s left to the deceased’s heirs. Often (but again, not always) this is done under court supervision, depending again on the state and the size/complexity of the estate.

Why do people say they want to avoid probate? Probably because they’ve heard it’s expensive–which it can be–or because they’ve heard it’s public–which it is; that is, it’s public in the sense that your nosey neighbor can walk down to the courthouse and ask the clerk to see your probate file. Then it really becomes public.

There are a number of ways to avoid probate the attendant publicity and some of the cost. One is to establish a revocable or living trust. For more on that, go here.

Get Your (Valuation) Discounts Now!

Two weeks ago, the Treasury Department released proposed IRS Code Section 2704 valuation regulations that, as proposed, will dramatically change the discounts currently allowed, including so-called minority and marketability discounts. Thus, gift and estate tax planning strategies that rely on such discounts to transfer property from one individual to another via the use of limited liability companies, family limited partnerships, and other such entities may not work so well in the future.

The IRS has scheduled hearings on the proposed regulations for December 1, 2016. Sometime after that hearing the regulations will become final; thus, anyone planning on taking advantage of such discounts has little time to waste.

As I learn more about the proposed changes, I’ll follow-up on this blog. If you can’t wait that long, the AICPA has a number of helpful resources.

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