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By Ted Lanzaro, CPA
Over my 25 year career as a real estate CPA, I have met with thousands of real estate investors. It never ceases to amaze me how many of these successful, intelligent people are clueless when it comes to structuring the ownership of their real estate investments.
Let’s face it. We live in a litigious world. Anyone who has assets is walking around with a bulls-eye on their back. If your real estate investments are held in your personal name and not in an entity such as a limited liability company (LLC), you are begging a rapacious attorney to relieve you of all the investments you worked your butt off to acquire.
A Real World Story
I met Charlie (not his real name) a few months ago. He was a successful business owner and real estate investor. Charlie owned two apartment buildings, 2 small commercial shopping centers, 4 single family rental properties and 7 building lots.
All together, Charlie owned investment real estate worth over 12 million dollars with equity of 7.7 million. Every single piece of real estate Charlie owned was in his personal name.
What Could Have Happened IF
One cold night during the winter, one of Charlie’s residential tenants turned on his heat. The furnace was broken and leaking carbon monoxide. Charlie had meant to get the furnace serviced over the summer because it was old but failed to do so because he was so busy. In addition, he never installed carbon monoxide detectors in the house. The tenant’s child was poisoned to death by the carbon monoxide. He got an attorney to sue Charlie. The first thing the attorney did was to find out about Charlie’s financial situation. After seeing all the real estate Charlie owned, he sued Charlie for 10 million dollars for negligence in causing the death of his tenant’s child. He won. Charlie lost everything he owned even though he had liability insurance and a large umbrella insurance policy.
Charle Could Have Protected Himself
Insurance is important but it is only part of the solution. Here is what we did to protect Charlie. We designed a custom entity structure asset protection plan for his rental properties. Using a combination of LLC’s and trusts, we separated the liability exposure on each of Charlie’s rental properties and provided him with privacy so that no attorney could easily find out the extent of his real estate holdings.
What Would Happen Now
Let’s assume the same tragic scenario as above, except that Charlie has his asset protection plan in place. The tenant gets an attorney. The attorney attempts to figure out whether it is worth his time to sue Charlie but he can’t find any other properties in Charlie’s name. He sues the LLC that owns the rental property, wins and collects the insurance proceeds and the equity in the rental property that caused the problem. All Charlie’s other assets are safe because they are owned by separate entities. Charlie retains the bulk of his wealth
Make sure that you properly structure your real estate investments to maintain both separation between properties and maintain your privacy so that nobody can figure out what properties you own without a timely effort. In this manner, you can put up the necessary blocks to prevent a tragedy from liquidating your wealth.
For more information about real estate entity structure and asset protection plans, contact CPA Ted Lanzaro by clicking here.