Estate Planning property transfers and gifts-the hidden trap of fraudulent transfer liability

Lately I have read two articles in bar journals discussing aspects of “estate planning” involving transferring property to relatives or into self-settled “special needs” trusts. Neither article mentions much less discusses the New Jersey Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act. Yet the prospect of a transfer being unwound by a creditor or creditor representative (such as a bankruptcy trustee) is a real concern. Both those engaged in such planning activites and their lawyers need to keep this in mind.

Under both state and federal law (11 USC 548), a transfer can be “avoided” and the transferred property or its value recovered by creditors where the transfer was either with intent to “hinder delay or defraud” creditors, OR the transfer was made for less than “reasonably equivalent value” in exchange, at a time the person making the transfer was insolvent, rendered insolvent, or put into a position of not being able to meet current or reasonably anticipated future debts.

Stated in simpler terms, you cannot give away your property that creditors could seize to pay your debts, unless you get money or value in exchange that is roughly equivalent to what it is worth. Of course, if you pay off all your debts and stay debt free for a reasonable period of time afterwards, this may not be a problem.

Claiming that you intended to do estate planning rather than depriving your creditors is a defense that any good attorney can defeat, especially if the transfer was made to close family members, or creditors were starting to hound you. Intent to defraud can (and usually is) proven by looking to various “badges of fraud”. Not getting fair value in exchange is one of them.

Transferring your assets into a trust for your own benefit does not protect them from the claims of creditors. These “self-settled” trusts cannot, under New Jersey statutes, be used to insulate the property from creditors.

Most importantly, the creditors who can pursue fraudulent transfer claims include “future” creditors, not just those who were owed money when the transfer was made. While a 4 year statute of limitations applies to many such  state law claims, even after the 4 years is up, a creditor can sue up to a year after he or she learns of the transfer. And federal agencies, such as the IRS (or a bankrutpcy trustee in a bankruptcy case where taxes are owed) has up to 6 years.

We often say that those who want to engage in “asset protection” need to do it at a time when they do not need it. Usually, the impetus to these efforts is some impending problem, legal, medical or otherwise. Like so much else, timely counselling by someone who knows this area and has both pursued and defended these types of claims is invaluable. With proper guidance and planning, the problems I have outlined here can be minimized or avoided.

Starting over after business failure: your debts can follow you if you get it wrong

We have seen a lot of business owners whose businesses are failing and who want to start over. That is not as simple as it sounds, and doing it wrong could result in the old creditors coming after the new business and its owners.

Usually, the owners want to just start up the same business, with the same customers at the same location with the same owners. That is a recipe for problems. The problems come from two principles.

The first is successor liability. The second is that business owners operating a firm in the “zone of insolvency” have a “fiduciary duty” (or an obligation to serve as a trustee) to their creditors. A detailed discussion of these principles is beyond the scope of this article.

Starting Over After Business Failure

In New Jersey, a new business can have successor liability for the debts of the old if a court finds that a “de facto merger” occurred, or if the business is the “mere continuation” of the old. This means that the old creditors can pursue the new business for payment, providing they can convince a court that this is the case. Courts look for the following to show a defacto merger/mere continuation:

1. the new business has the same ownership, management, personnel, physical location, assets and/or general business operations as the old one;

2. the old business shuts down suddenly at about the time the new business starts up.

3. the new business or its owners assume some but not all debts of the old business, especially those ordinarily needed to continue business;

4. the new business holds itself out to the public as continuing the old business.

Any time business owners start a new business under a new name, successor liability is a risk. There are steps that can be taken to minimize the risk. Each case is different, and a detailed review by a knowledgeable and experienced bankruptcy or business attorney is needed, in advance of any such move.

The second trap is fiduciary liability of business owners. Violating this duty could expose the business owners to a later lawsuit and debts that might not be dischargeable in a personal bankruptcy. Simply put, business owners are held to a high standard of care towards their creditors when a business is failing. They have a duty to maximize the value of the business, and to not take steps which benefit themselves unfairly at the expense of creditors or which treat creditors unfairly. This does not mean that business owners are not entitled to be paid for their services, or that they have to put more of their own money into the failing business.  But lining their own pockets, or transferring assets to themselves or others without the company getting fair value in exchange; engaging in preferential treatment of certain creditors; or making false statements to creditors are some of the “no-no’s” to avoid. Again, this is not a complete list and what can or should be done is very fact sensitive and requires careful review by an experienced attorney. As always, careful planning and advice are critical

Business owners are entitled to try to start over, but without careful planning and the right advice, the result could be that the old debts beleager the new business

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