Small Business Reading Room

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Challenges to Partnerships for Estate Planning

I read an article in Tuesday’s Personal Journal section of The Wall Street Journal called “Popular Tool For Estate Plans Under Scrutiny”. The article focused on the recent U.S. Tax Court ruling involving the Albert Strangi family limited partnership where a judge forced the heirs of the deceased Texas businessman to cough up about $2 million in taxes.

By and large family limited partnerships, and more recently LLC’s, are used to avoid estate and gift taxes by moving assets out of an estate into a partnership type entity. For years, the Tax Courts have upheld family limited partnerships, and allowed countless parents to pass on their wealth to their children virtually tax-free. This recent case involving the Strangi family has sent shockwaves through the estate planning community.

How did this happen?
- Among other things, the court ruled that Mr. Strangi maintained too much control over the partnership & the partnership assets. In a nutshell the judge determined that the general partner had simply mixed his assets with the partnership, and continued to use those assets independently. In a true partnership, this would not occur.

How can we prevent this from happening again?
- Before everyone panics, remember that the IRS has regularly challenged family limited partnerships in court, but properly created and run structures have largely been upheld. To this end, the Strangi Estate has already appealed the decision against them to Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, there are some things you can do while waiting on the edge of your seat for the next court decision. Raise an eyebrow and revisit the structure of your partnership agreement.

If you use or have a family limited partnership, talk to your accountant, attorney or estate planner! These professionals should be able to help you to demonstrate separation and lack of control over the partnership, and thereby avoid some mistakes that may end up hitting your estate in the wallet. The article published in the WSJ on Tuesday, December 2, 2003 contains the following informative list you may want to include in your discussion:

“Avoiding Trouble
Some ways to do family limited partnerships
so they are less likely to run afoul of the IRS:
-Set up the partnership while you are in good health
-Don’t put personal assets like your home into the
-Consider naming your children as the general partner”

The Strangi case is a lesson in duality. It reminds us of how flexible the law can be in regards to protecting your estate and assets, and at the same time demonstrates the need to respect it. Remember, your partnership must be a functioning business enterprise and not just a vehicle used to trim your tax bill!


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