New Estate and Gift Tax Law will be Good for Farmers

Friday, January 4, 2013

Late on January 1, Congress enacted "The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012." I won't go into great detail about the act (there is a lot about it we still don't actually know and will have to wait for the analysis of people more capable than I am), but will point out the highlights of the Estate and Gift Tax provisions which are of considerable importance to Estate Planning.

The Act preserves the $5 million per person ($10 million per married couple) "unified"estate and gift exemption, indexes for inflation, and makes the concept of "portability," a permanent feature

The Act preserves the 2012 levels of a $5 million per person exemption, maintains the "unified"estate and gift structure (meaning the $5 million threshold applied to total transfers, whether by gift during lifetime or inheritance on death), and indexes them for inflation. The Act also makes the concept of "portability," which was added in the 2010 extension for the first time, a permanent part of the tax structure. What "portability" means is that for married couples, the $5 million credit can be allocated or "shared" between them at any time, including after death. This effectively eliminates–in most cases–the need for those "clunky," inconvenient, "AB Trusts" ("his and hers"), and all the allocations and adjustments we were constantly making in those plans. This should have the effect of greatly simplifying the planning process in all but a few instances. The only real, substantive change in the law is a (modest?) increase in the rate (which will only apply after the $5/10 million credit has been used up).

For the first time in the past 12 years, planners will be able to tell clients what to expect in this area. As we move forward in 2013, I expect that many of our clients will be looking at much simpler estate planning devices.  I think that is a plus

Most importantly, the Act makes the current Estate and Gift tax laws permanent. One of my colleagues asked me, what does "permanent" mean? I think that is a fair question. In 2000, the so-called "Bush Tax Cuts" were implemented and because of internal machinations in Congress, were built around a 10-year "sunset." This meant that unless Congress acted during the 10-year period, the laws would automatically expire on December 31, 2010. In a demonstration of the "brinksmanship" for which our modern Congress has become so famous for, in late December of 2010, they "extended" the law for 2 more years.

But when they extended the general tax laws, they made unanticipated major changes to the Federal Estate and Gift tax. This was in every way a good change. But it was "temporary," because it was part of an extension, again due to expire recently on December 31, 2012. The new law does not have a "sunset" provision. This means that until Congress acts by legislation to change it, it is permanent. That is as "permanent" as any law gets these days. My personal view, and what I have been able to glean from reading other sources, suggests that Congress has no appetite to make future major changes to this area, for a number of reasons. So, what we now have is some consistency and something on which we should be able to rely for the foreseeable future.

The new "permanent" rules will be a good thing for farm succession and estate planning. We will now be able to deal with farmland issues and trust funding in a simpler and more straight-forward manner. The permanent exemption levels means that we will have more "headroom" to work with farm families to preserve the unprecedented "wealth" that has accumulated as land values have skyrocketed.

For the first time in the past 12 years, planners will be able to tell clients what to expect in this area. As we move forward in 2013, I expect that many of our clients will be looking at much simpler estate planning devices. I think that is a plus.



Navigating the Michigan General Property Tax Qualified Agricultural Property Exemption

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Michigan General Property Tax grants two significant exemptions from the levy of taxes by school districts. They are the qualified agricultural property exemption, and the personal residence exemption (see, The Michigan Property Tax Personal Residence Exemption, in Michigan Estate Planning Blog). The agricultural exemption is obviously important to farm clients. However, the personal residence exemption is also important the two interrelate in some unexpected ways. It will be well for a farmland owner to familiarize her/himself with both exemptions and their quirks.
Exemption From School Tax
Both of these exemptions provide essentially the same relief from real property taxation; exemption from the school tax. Because the school tax is generally the largest of taxes levied in a particular locality, this is an important exemption. In the case of farmland owners, there is some real fairness to this in a land-value based tax system. A single farmer may own 100's or even 1000's of acres of land, all subject to Michigan's ad valorem land – based tax. A typical non-agricultural homeowner generally will own their home, but a fractional amount of acreage. Yet each has essentially the same statistical family, and therefore each sends the same statistical number of students through the local school system.
Land that is classified as "qualified agricultural land" in Michigan is automatically exempt from the school tax. With the personal residence exemption, the homeowner must qualify by demonstrating that they intend to live there permanently and must file an Affidavit of Personal Residence with the local assessor. The mere classification of land as residential has no bearing on the exemption (other than only residential classified land qualifies, of all other conditions are satisfied). An owner of qualified agricultural - classified land does not need to file anything. However, if the land is not classified by the local assessor as "qualified agricultural land," and the owner is conducting agricultural activities on it, there is authority under the statute for the owner to file an Affidavit. In the case where an Affidavit needs to be filed, it must be done by the same May 1, deadline as the personal residence exemption.
Another difference between the two exemptions is that, unlike the personal residence exemption, the land may be owned by a corporation, partnership, LLC, Trust or similar entity and still qualify for the exemption. A transfer of farmland to one of these entities for estate or succession planning will not rescind or otherwise harm the exemption. However, the law indicates that if there is a personal residence on the agricultural property, the owner-occupant may not claim a personal residence exemption on another property.
The local assessor may allocate properties that are in "mixed – use," applying a percentage of exemption to the parcel. This can be tricky. The ad valorem tax nature of the tax means that the allocation must be made based on the value of the particular percentage of the property being used, rather than a straight geographical determination. In other words, a 40-acre parcel may have a commercial facility occupying 1 acre. It is not correct to assume that the parcel remains 98% (39/40) exempt. Rather, a fraction of the value of the commercial facility divided by the overall value of the 40 acre parcel would be the correct way to determine the amount remaining qualified and therefore exempt. This is a lot more subjective and perhaps lends itself to a certain amount of uncertainty and lack of clarity.
It is also problematic, in my view, that the guidelines published by the Michigan Department of Treasury ("State Tax Commission Qualified Agricultural Property Exemption Guidelines"), define "agricultural use," but they do not define other uses such as "commercial / industrial" use, even though they make reference to it. One question this leaves open to interpretation is what the effect is of incidental non-farm related use and how much and how often an agricultural facility must be used for activity (e.g., temporary storage of agricultural commodities for a commercial operator).
Practical Concerns
have often said here (and elsewhere) that farmers and farming are unique businesses and landowners. There are a lot of things going on with most farmland parcels. In addition to the "qualified agricultural property" tax classification, farmland is also often subject to Farmland Development Agreement Liens (so-called P.A. 116 Agreements), FSA agreements, wetlands agreements, and conservation easements. Transfer and conveyance of farmland often triggers issues regarding the Michigan Land Division Act, and "uncapping" issues.

More often than not these days, I find myself beginning my conversation with farmers in the "apology mode," explaining that unfortunately, what seemingly used to be relatively simple matters of the proverbial "quit claim deed," have now become very complex real estate transactions. I am not saying that all these rules, liens, taxes and exemptions make transactions unfeasible or impossible. But I am saying that it is important that all the proverbial "I's" and "T's" are dotted and crossed.
typical farm real estate transaction today involves analysis of many issues. In addition to correct legal descriptions and title evidence, we need to determine tax code parcel identification codes to see that they are accurate; P.A. 116 Agreement numbers (if applicable) and expiration dates, and whether a transfer is required; whether the proposed parcel transfer will itself qualify for P.A. 116; whether the transfer of a parcel involves a "division" or is exempt, whether a parcel contains a personal residence on which a personal residence exemption is being claimed; just to name a few of the issues. When transfers occur, we need to file a Property Transfer Affidavit and where applicable, an Affidavit of Agricultural Use to exempt the transaction from and "uncapping" transfer.

Unfortunately, gone are the days when a simple deed from one party to the other would suffice. Competent, experienced professional assistance needs to be sought when there are farm real estate transactions.


Should You Convert Your Land Partnership to an LLC?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Since 1997, the Michigan Limited Liability Company Act has provided for an "automatic conversion" of Michigan Partnerships (both regular and Limited Partnerships) into a Limited Liability Company. Over the years, a lot of land-owners formed partnerships for various reasons, including succession planning, rent and tax considerations, and joint-ownership buy and sell provisions. In many (if not most) cases, there is little reason not to consider the conversion from a Partnership to a Limited Liability Company (LLC). There is a one-time filing fee for filing the Articles of Organization for the LLC, and an nominal annual fee and relative simple Michigan Annual Report. These are the only real changes to reporting and bookkeeping requirements. The organization will continue (in most cases) to file the Federal Income Tax Form 1065 (and MI 1065) with no substantial changes.

In return, the partners (now called "members") gain something pretty valuable—limited liability. Note that this limited liability only applies to incidents and occurrences after the conversion. You cannot use the conversion to "cure" a problem that arose prior to the conversion. In a traditional co-partnership, a partner is personally liable for all of the activities and liabilities of the partnership, even if it is one of the other partners who created the problem. Worse, a creditor can pick and choose which partner they want to pursue and can hold that one partner liable for 100% of the liability. The law takes the position that it is between the partners to allocate losses due to liability among themselves and not the problem of the creditor. Moving forward, the LLC form of business offers many opportunities to arrange the affairs and agreements among the members in some very flexible ways.

One concern about making the change is the so-called "domino-effect" it might have with all of the different facets of land-ownership. In most cases, there are mortgages, lease agreements, and often P.A. 116 Farmland Development Rights Agreements. The tax status of the property is also a potential problem.

Section 707 (5) of the Michigan Limited Liability Company Act provides that when an automatic conversion is done, the resulting limited liability company is "considered the same entity that existed before the conversion." The provision goes on to say that all the property rights of the prior partnership remain vested in the limited liability company. This means that on the record, nothing really changes. There is no requirement in the Act, other than the filing of the Certificate of Conversion (built into the Articles of Organization, if the proper form is filed), for filings, notices, or recording of new deeds. This should mean, as a legal matter, that no change in ownership, or transfer has occurred.

While it should be noted that specific situations are not directly addressed by the statute, the following concerns should be covered:

  • Mortgage "Due on Sale Clauses" should not be triggered
  • There should not be an "uncapping" for purposes of Michigan ad valorem real property taxes (while the Michigan Tax Tribunal has indicated that a transfer to or from a limited liability company is a "transfer" – and therefore an "uncapping" event – as a practical matter, the filing of an "Affidavit of Agricultural Use" generally cures that problem and unless there is a good reason not to, should probably be filed simply to take a conservative approach).
  • A recent conversation with the Michigan Department of Agriculture informally confirmed that neither they nor the Michigan Department of Treasury require a transfer of existing P.A. 116 agreements upon an automatic conversion.
  • Leases are rights in property and in accordance with the Act language, neither Lessor nor Lessee's rights and obligations should change or be effected by the conversion.
  • Nor should Land Contracts, Purchase Agreements, Joint-ownership agreements, easements, licenses or any other property rights be effected by the conversion.
  • The rights and liabilities of the Partners to each other should be essentially unchanged, and any Partnership Agreement should continue to be effective unless and until an new "Operating Agreement" is executed. Since banks and other third parties commonly request or require copies of the Operating Agreement, it may be advisable to either create a new agreement, or create one which "adopts" the existing partnership agreement.

As always, when dealing with legal matters, it is very dangerous to take a "one-size-fits-all" approach. Before making a conversion, it is critical that you consult with both tax and legal advisors to be certain there are no unintended negative consequences. For example, in some limited cases, if the Partnership/LLC is also the operating entity, certain third parties (notably the Farm Services Administration) may treat a LLC differently than a Partnership. That could have significant economic consequences. LLC's, by their statutory nature, can be very difficult to exit as an individual member, unless there are clear terms in the operating agreement. It is important to discuss all of these issues prior to making the conversion. As a practical matter, many of the Partnerships I work with have been in existence for many years, and it is often a good time to "dust off" the Partnership Agreement and revisit its terms anyway.


Effective Estate, Succession and Business Planning for Farmers

Monday, March 19, 2012

Family Farm businesses are unique. Family farming may be the only industry where the owners live and work in the same place. Farm children grow up going to work with their parents every day. Many farm children ultimately become next-generation owners of the business.

But while they are family owned and oriented, most farming operations are also sophisticated and complex, capital intensive, multi-million dollar businesses. Farmers must be scientists, financial managers, personnel specialists, mechanics, and gamblers. They must also be well versed in land management, and government programs, including "Oil and Gas" lease issues and Wind and Alternative Energy leases and programs.

Family farm businesses are unique

Over nearly 30 years of representing family farm businesses, I have observed that an essential part of their success requires careful Estate, Business and Succession Planning. Because farm businesses are a mix of family and farming there are unique Estate Planning concerns that must be addressed. At the same time, because of the complexity of farm businesses, advisors must have a sound knowledge of the industry. Land use rules such as the Michigan Farmland Preservation Program (P.A. 116), the Michigan Land Division Act, the real estate and transfer tax rules for Agricultural property and homesteads, and Federal Land Programs need to be considered. When setting up a business entity such as a Corporation or Limited Liability Company (LLC), it is important to know not only what the tax consequences of such an entity will be to the farmer, but how federal and state government programs will treat them. It is also important to know how the Secretary of State will view the transfer of trucks and equipment within such entities. Finally, consideration must be given to ensuring that adequate and thorough insurance coverage will be maintained.

Every significant participant in the family farm should have a personal Estate Plan, including appropriate documents designating appropriate distribution of assets and management of their affairs in the event of incapacity. A good, comprehensive Estate Plan should include, where appropriate:

• Trusts,

• Wills,

• Durable Powers of Attorney and

• Health Care Designation of Patient Advocate

Every significant participant in the farming operation should have their own estate plan

Importantly, the advisor needs to truly understand how these tools should be integrated to coordinate with the overall business and plan.

In today's farm industry, it is not uncommon for a farm to have several entities which may own "operations," land-holding entities, equipment, and other valuable assets. Part of the plan may be to segregate or compartmentalize different assets or asset groups. This can help with the incremental transfer of assets to the next generation and can also result in more effective asset protection for the owners. Entities and related tools which should be considered are:

• Limited Liability Companies (LLC's)

• Corporations (often "sub-chapter S" corporations)

• Land Ownership Agreements

• Lease Agreements for Farm Land, Oil and Gas, Wind, and Solar energy

• Equipment Lease Agreements

Occasionally, more sophisticated arrangement, like Family Limited Partnerships and special trust arrangements may be called for, but most often they can be handled adequately with the above listed tools.

When planning to transfer assets to the next generation, there are numerous concerns that both generations have. These concerns can create tension between the participants before and during the planning process. However, experience teaches us that we are better off to address the concerns head on and have a plan in place than to simply bury our heads and "hope." The current owners are often concerned that the next generation is not ready to shoulder the significant responsibility, that their decision-making is often driven by less practical and more theoretical objectives. They are fearful of over-extension of debt and of decisions that are not informed by experience. The older generation often perceives itself to be more frugal than the younger generation.

The younger generation can at times feel unappreciated and feel that the older generation's hesitance is holding the operations back. And, often, they are not given any concrete assurance that they will eventually play a significant part and become an owner of the farming business.

Reality is often somewhere in between. Good succession planning will allow the older generation to transfer significant wealth to the younger generation, but retain substantial control over the operations. It can also assure desired income for retirement to the transferring generation. With proper planning, we can transfer wealth, reduce or eliminate taxation, and give the younger generation an incremental part in the business and—eventually—succession to ownership.


Update on Farmland Development (P.A. 116) Situation

Thursday, July 7, 2011

In March I blogged about Governor Snyder's proposed budget plan, which purports to eliminate all tax credits, in what he articulates as a "leveling of the playing field." Whether you buy that or not, it is clear that his approach is moving in that direction.

Last month, the new Michigan Corporate Income tax was enacted and signed into law by the Governor. Somewhat to the surprise of many of us, this new corporate tax is the primary significant new tax. While there are also adjustments to the credits allowed for certain personal income tax returns beginning in 2012, the proposal to eliminate the P.A. 116 credit was not part of the new legislation, except as it relates to corporate-owned farmland. The law recognizes a potential unfairness to corporations that have unused credits, and provides for an election to continue filing under the former "Michigan Business Tax" until they have exhausted their unused credits. This would, presumably, include P.A. 116 credits available to the corporation for land it owns.

It is very important not to confuse this with corporate farming operations, which are common in Michigan. Usually, these farming corporations involve some aspect of operations, only. They generally do not own land—or if they do—it is small parcels which house barns, elevator operations, offices, tool sheds, and the like. Unless the acreage is significant, it is probable that the benefit from the P.A. 116 credit alone is not enough to cause a taxpayer to elect under the old taxation scheme.

On June 30, Michigan Farm Bureau's Michigan Farm News reported that the Snyder proposals have yet to be introduced in the Michigan Legislature. Thus, at this point the proposal to eliminate the P.A. 116 tax credit program remains conjecture. However, numerous factors, including continuing state budget deficits, the current administration's views, and a currently supportive legislature, strongly suggest it may still be coming.

The "reprieve" does not appear to have impressed the majority of my farm clients. I am still being told by most of them that it is their intent to extend all their agreements, and enroll land that was not previously enrolled, at the earliest possible opportunity. Many have already officially made this request. We are currently assisting a number of others with that.

As I noted in my previous blog, the analysis has changed. Where many farmers previously "managed" the agreements for the shortest duration with a plan to extend periodically, today farmers are looking at how long the extension should be. For "legacy" operations, the consensus seems to be to extend to the maximum allowable duration (90 years from the time the land was originally enrolled). Others are trying to make the difficult prediction of how long the land might stay in agricultural production and whether they have heirs that will continue to maintain farming operations.

The MDA-Farmland division is significantly backlogged with extension requests. The Michigan Farm New article above, quotes Richard Harlow, director of the MDA-Farmland Program as saying they had received, over 10,000 contract renewal/extension requests already in 2011. He notes that in a normal year, they get round 3,000 annually. With a November 1 deadline in order to be eligible for 2012 credits, I expect this number to increase significantly. Do not expect a rapid turnaround. As far as I am aware, there has not been a significant increase in resources available to process these requests.


Snyder Budget Targets Farmland Preservation Credits

Friday, March 11, 2011

Governor Snyder's proposed budget focuses on removing tax credits he regards as benefitting special interests. In my view, we all have our own special interests, and our economy is made up of many, many such special interests. In this case, the special interest is owners of farmland and open space land which is subject to (or could be subject to) a Farmland and Open Spaces Development Agreement. The act, so-called P.A 116, provides that qualifying lands can be enrolled in a program administered by the Michigan Department of Agriculture, for a period of years (generally from 10 years to 90 years). The agreement provides that such lands may not be developed or used for purposes other than agricultural production (or in the case of open spaces, left open or for recreational use) during the pendency of the agreement.

In return, the landowner is give a tax credit which is based upon the acreage enrolled and the "household income" of the landowner under Michigan's income tax law. The agreements also exempt the landowner from special assessments on the property for adjacent services during the term of the agreement. If the land is removed from the agreement at its expiration, a lien for the past 7 years of credit claimed is placed on the land and will become due upon the transfer of the land to another owner.

Conventional wisdom (well, mine, anyway J ) said that an agreement should be entered for the minimum period allowed and then extended for the minimum period each time (extensions could be a minimum of 7 years). However, if passed the Snyder budget (and subsequent enabling legislation) will change that convention. In a recent interview, the governor acknowledged that the existing agreements are a matter of contract to which the state is obligated. In other words, regardless of the result of the budget act, existing agreements will continue to be honored. This will include agreements due to expire in the future, no matter how far out into the future. However, it is probable that on passage of a new law in concert with the Snyder proposal, after some period of time (presumably as soon as November, 2011), new agreements will no longer be enrolled.

This gives rise to an interesting and different analysis. P.A. 116 allows a landowner who has a current contract to extend that contract. The contract may be extended at any time during the agreement. Now there is some incentive for farmland owners to at least consider extending their contracts for a longer term, in order to insure continued P.A. 116 credits. As well, landowners who have not yet enrolled their land in the program now have a potential looming deadline, as well as an opportunity to preserve the credits going forward. At the same time, any analysis should also include consideration about intended and potential future uses of the land. Once in the agreement, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to remove the land from the agreement in order to sell or use it for purposes other than the production of agricultural crops or open space and recreation.


New Estate Tax Laws Will Benefit Family Farm Succession Planning

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Someone recently asked me if I believe in miracles. I do now! On December 17, 2010, after more than 6 years of inaction, bickering, hemming and hawing, Congress, suddenly and unexpectedly, miraculously acted to create what I believe is likely to become permanent change to the Federal Estate and Gift Tax Laws.

Acting to "extend" the so-called "Bush Tax cuts," for two years, the Congress actually enacted some wholly new provisions in the Tax Code relating to Estate and Gift taxes. While most of the "extension" will be, in my view, a "wait and see" proposition during and after the next 2 years, the Estate and Gift provisions seem to me to have set a "new bar" for certain provisions, from which it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Congress to turn back. In this season of "joy," I say Hallelujah!

I have been saying to clients for a number of years that aside from philosophical views on taxes and tax policy, what we really need Congress to do is just give us some law that is consistent. Planning requires consistency and some semblance of permanency so we can rely on our planning to work. So the new provisions come as a welcome surprise and relief. Many of us have been calling for some "common sense" provisions like a reasonable figure for the size of a taxable estate, and indexing for inflation. They did that. Wow! I write another blog (linked in the header above), the Michigan Estate Planning Blog, and back in February, I wrote a rather scathing (for me, anyway) scolding to Congress for its inaction and gridlock in the name of partisan politics. I recently posted a new Blog, jokingly suggesting that Congress read my Blog. They seriously seem to have addressed all of the items on my "wish list." The highlights of the new law are:

  • The taxable estate figure (formerly known as "unified credit," now known as "exemption equivalent) has been set at $5 million
  • The exemption equivalent was "decoupled" under the "Bush Tax cuts," so while the estate tax amount was increased and eventually (temporarily) eliminated, the Gift Tax amount was inexplicably frozen at $1 million. The new law reunifies this so that both figures are now set at $5 million.
  • There is a new concept (referred to a "portability") which now allows a married couple to "share" their unused unified credit, I think effectively eliminating the need to create and maintain complex dual trust plans in many, if not most circumstances.

These developments are bound to help us in planning for farm families with multiple generations involved in the business. One of the big issues with agribusinesses is that they are generally capital intensive and cash poor. This means that while Uncle Sam is looking for payment of Federal Estate taxes on a multi-million dollar estate, the heir's ability to pay is hampered by the fact that the assets are capital which must be used in the operation. Giving us a $10 million threshold to work with will make family succession planning for family farms much more tenable.

At the same time, the portability feature will make lifetime planning simpler and therefore more effective, and will give added flexibility to make after-death adjustments to plans which may have been difficult or impossible under the old rules.

The nature of successful family farm businesses is that assets tend to continue to grow in value. Raising the Federal Gift tax threshold to the same $5 million mark as the Estate tax threshold makes lifetime gift planning much more effective, allowing substantial gift transfers of farm assets to the next generation before they appreciate significantly in value.

These new provisions were made retroactively effective as of January 1, 2010. In an uncharacteristic move, Congress not only made these fundamental decisions, but they anticipated some of the problems that might be caused by their inaction during the first 11 months of 2010. They appear to appreciate the potential unfairness of imposing a retroactive law people who had the misfortune to die before its effective date. For estates of individuals dying between January 1, 2010 and December 17, 2010, the administrators are given the right to elect between the prior 2010 law and the new law. And, in order to give these persons the time to analyze the effect of their election, the deadlines for filing Estate and Gift Tax returns and for making "qualified disclaimers" has been extended until 9 months after the December 17 date.

The details of the new provisions will undoubtedly come to light during the next several months and it will make for interesting times. Farm clients who have not done the Estate Planning they should do will now have an opportunity under the new laws to do so in a more palatable and simple manner. For those who have done their planning, this will be a great opportunity to review, upgrade and perhaps simplify their existing programs, while taking advantage of some of the new opportunities under the new rules.

We will likely be reporting on developments in the new law frequently over the next months. Stay tuned.


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