Not only do wealthy homebuyers have more money than the rest of us to spend on a house, but when they do pick up a little Palm Beach mansion or a Nob Hill pied a terre, they often end up owning their residences differently, too.
Advised by a phalanx of attorneys, accountants and financial advisers, the wealthy can take title using a variety of techniques designed to make them and their heirs, well, even wealthier. The goal is to minimize the amount paid to Uncle Sam, and some of the plans may work for the less well-off, too.And you don't have to be all that well-off, either. If you are successful and own property in California, New York or another high-price state, you could easily be past the IRS's first rung on the wealth ladder: a husband and wife who have assets of $1.2 million, based on the federal rule that allows every person to pass along $600,000 free of estate or gift taxes. After that, taxes take progressively rising chunks of your holdings up to the $3 million mark. That is where a 55 percent estate tax kicks in.
Here are a few ownership techniques you may want to consider:
- Qualified Personal Residence Trust. This popular way to transfer property between generations cuts the potential tax burden while still letting you or your heirs enjoy a property's appreciation. The strategy allows you to live in your home, give it away and remove it entirely from your estate.
"The greatest advantage is that if the house appreciates, the beneficiaries receive the appreciated value without additional gift tax," says Stuart Tobisman, a partner with the Los Angeles law firm O'Melveny & Myers. "This strategy is most effective for a vacation home that is going to stay within a family even after the parents are gone."
It works like this: Say, for example, a 65-year-old man places his $1 million hunting lodge into a 10-year trust naming his children as beneficiaries. IRS tables place a value of $380,000 on the property. Dad uses the lodge for the term of the trust; the market value of the lodge rises over the decade. When the trust expires, the children take over ownership but pay taxes on just $380,000, or none at all if Dad hasn't exercised his $600,000 lifetime gift credit.
There are a couple of drawbacks. You can transfer no more than two houses this way, and you must outlive the trust term. If you die too early, the trust will dissolve and the house will revert to your estate.
If you live to the end of the trust term, however, you can continue living in the house and pay rent to the children. Or you can buy the appreciated house back from the trust and give the children cash instead of property.
- Living Trust. A residence may be held in a living trust, which serves as a substitute for a will and generally keeps your heirs out of probate court.
"Using a living trust does not allow for tax savings, but there is certainly a greater ease in administering a mid- to large-size estate," says Michael Fredlender, a partner with the accounting firm Ernst & Young in Los Angeles.
The appeal of a living trust may be privacy. According to Lyman Welch, a lawyer with Sidley & Austin in Chicago, living trusts aren't public documents, as wills are.
"Nobody can get a copy of your revocable living trust, unless you are a party to the estate and trying to sue," Welch says.
- Family Limited Partnership. Another way to hold property is through a family limited partnership, usually a vehicle for very wealthy individuals.
Typically, this type of partnership is created and controlled by parents, who make gifts of interest in a residence to children. As limited partners, the children don't manage the property, and these restricted rights discount the value of the gifts below the fair market value of the assets. This results in lower estate and gift taxes on the transfer.
- Corporation. A corporation can also take title to a home if an owner wants to shield his or her identity from public records. For example, pop star Whitney Houston purchased a home in Atlanta from her husband, Bobby Brown, through her Fort Lee, N.J., management company, Nippy Inc. In most of these instances, the owner signs an agreement with the company that the property and costs associated with the house solely belong to the owner and that the company is the owner in name only.
- Charitable Remainder Trust. Those who are altruistic can create a charitable remainder trust. This technique is most suitable for people with significant assets that have appreciated over the years.
Selling a home outright subjects you to capital-gains taxes. But you can place the house in trust for a charity and then sell it tax-free. You use the proceeds of the sale to set up an annuity paying you an income for the rest of your life. Upon your death, the money goes to your designated charity.