[caption id="attachment_52690" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Joe Kitts, Albert Handelman, Deborah Corlett"][/caption]
NORTH BAY – While always a top concern among planners, business succession planning has been thrust into the limelight recently, with the convergence of lower-than-typical valuations and a number of favorable tax provisions making it easier and cheaper to pass off ownership and other assets.
When that succession plan involves passing a business to the next generation, North Bay professionals in the field said that one mechanism – a trust – can allow a well-controlled ownership transition to occur earlier and open up further options for tax planning.
“Ideally, you want to start your succession planning earlier. When you’re starting it earlier, your children are usually younger, and when they’re younger, the best vehicle is often a trust,” said Joe Kitts, CPA and partner-in-charge of the Trust & Estate Tax practice of Burr Pilger Mayer in the North Bay.
While trusts can take a number of different forms, they share common threads in respect to business succession: protecting and controlling the passing of ownership and the perks to having a stake in the company.
“Often times, you have those trusts because you don’t trust the beneficiary,” Mr. Kitts said.
On the tax benefit side, one popular type of arrangement is the so-called “intentionally defective grantor trust," he said. By “defective,” the arrangement describes a situation where the current owner gifts his or her ownership interests to their successor through a trust, yet retains control of those assets.
Since the owner is required to pay taxes on those interests, the arrangement shields the beneficiary or beneficiaries of the trust from what could be a high and untimely tax burden, increasing the scope of the gift. From an estate planning perspective, the payment of those taxes also allows the owner to remove more money from his or her estate, which is likely to be taxed at a higher rate than that of the offspring.
“The effectiveness is – you’ve passed on the value of the ownership interest to the child for gift and estate purposes, but you retain ownership from an income tax standpoint,” he said. “It leverages more of the gift and estate benefits.”
Mr. Kitts noted that earlier transferring of ownership – likely when the successor is young – can have benefits not just from the perspective of prudent planning. Those assets would have more time to grow within the trust before they were ultimately given to the beneficiary, meaning greater value at that point and less of an effect to the owner’s lifetime gift tax exemption.
“You want the business to appreciate outside of your estate,” he said.
From the perspective of future ownership, trusts offer several configurations to control the way ownership is structured in a transition while working with arrangements like limited liability companies, said Albert Handelman, an attorney specializing in trust and estate law at the Santa Rosa law firm Spaulding McCullough & Tansil, LLP.
“When I think in terms of succession planning, one of the big hurdles people often fail to clear is that, after they’ve identified and properly groomed a successor, making sure that person is in a position to take control of the business,” he said. “A trust might make the structural environment to do that.”
Mr. Handelman said that one can use a flow chart to graphically represent the structure of the proposed trust and how the current business structure – be it an S corporation, LLC or otherwise – can fit without jeopardizing the vision for future ownership seen in the family succession.