Welcome Clarification on Family Transfers of Residential Real Property and “Uncapping”

Nov 17, 2014

The new law now provides that transfers of property into and out of a trust, and via an estate, to these family members, are exempt, in addition to direct transfers.

Beginning December 31, there is yet another beneficial new exception to “uncapping” of transfers of residential real property between certain family members.

In the early 1990’s the Michigan Legislature passed legislation that “capped” the ability of local taxing bodies to increase the “taxable value” of real property to a the lesser of (currently 1.05%) and the rate of inflation for the year.  The statute attempted to define “transfer,” and also set out a series of exceptions to “transfers.”  Over the ensuing years, other exceptions (notably the Agriculture Exception) were added.  But also during this period, some disagreements arose over the meaning and intent of this legislation.  The was a particularly important issue for family cottages and recreational properties that were passed down from generation to generation.

In 2011, the Michigan Supreme Court interpreted one of these disagreements, in Klooster v. City of Charlevoix, holding among other things, that if at the time all owners at one generation died, but there was also a surviving joint tenant in the next generation (most commonly one or more children), that the survivorship conveyance of title by operation of law was not a “transfer” as the Legislature intended that term.  While I have never been persuaded by the Klooster analysis, who am I to rock the boat – particularly when the decision is basically favorable to the taxpayer?  See my blog, “Michigan Supreme Court Buys Us Another Generation on Real Property Taxes,” from March, 2011.  The Klooster case gave us some new, limited planning opportunities to preserve the “cap” on family transfer of property.  But it wasn’t enough.

It wasn’t enough

In December of 2012, Governor Snyder signed new Legislation aimed at this problem.  See, New Michigan Law Avoids “Uncapping” in Family Transfers.”  But as we will see, the aim was not as accurate as it might have been.  The new legislation (effective December 31, 2013, and on), provided that a direct transfer or conveyance of residential real property to a person related to the transferor “by blood or affinity to the first degree,” where the residential use continued, was not deemed a transfer for “uncapping” purposes.  This rather archaic definition seemed reasonably clear to those of us who took the basic Wills and Estates course in law school, but it left way to much uncertainty on the table.

It remained unclear whether these transfers among family members only applied to direct transfers (which would exclude transfers using Trusts, Wills, Estates and Limited Liability Companies).  If they did, it was – though a welcome forward step – still not enough.

It was still not enough

My own view was that given the history of interpretation of similar issues by local governments and by the Michigan Department of Treasury, combined with the near-bankrupt condition of our state government, they were going to take a very literal interpretation of the statutory language.  In Michigan State Tax Commission Bulletin number 23 dated December 16, 2013, my supposition was confirmed.  They would view this as only applying to direct transfers:  Due to the blood relationship clause, the Commission has defined the transferee and transferor as a ‘person.’  Therefore, this exception to uncapping does not apply to a trust, a limited liability company, or a distribution from probate.”  Transfers to and from estate planning devices like trusts would not come within the exception.  Nor would transfers from an estate, whether by Will or intestate succession.  Again, while there were some additional planning opportunities (the “Ladybird” Deed, for example would work), they were still too limited.  One of the benefits of estate planning – and particularly the trust as a planning tool – is the ability to maintain some management and control where the beneficiaries are either not sufficiently mature to manage, or where there are multiple beneficiaries.  The trust allows ownership and management of assets for the benefit of children, including family legacy real estate (like the family cottage).

Now there is good news

The title of the blog promised good news.  And there is.  On October 10, the Legislature passed still more legislation, clarifying the “uncapping” rules.  Effective December 31, the law now defines those family members within the no uncapping exception more specifically as transfers to “a mother, father, brother, sister, child, adopted child, or grandchild.  And even better, the new law now provides that transfers of property into and out of a trust, and via an estate, to these family members, are exempt, in addition to direct transfers.

We now can breathe easier as estate planners and clients, knowing that we can continue to plan for estates using tried and true techniques.  Like any new law, there will be a period study and analysis and inevitably, questions about clarity of certain provisions and interpretation.

All in all:  I think this is a great development.

Thanks to my Law Partner and fellow Estate Planner, Elian Fichtner for her research and help on this article and topic.  See more about both of us on our website link at the top of the Blog 


Should You have a “Ladybird” Deed?

Mar 9, 2014

Twenty-five years ago, I was covering for an astute, senior partner at my first law firm employment. I got a call from the title company questioning a deed he had drafted. His proposed form of conveyance purported to convey all but a "life estate," to her son, while retaining the right of the grantor to essentially change her mind and convey the property to someone else at any time during her lifetime. This seemed to go against everything I had learned in law school about vested life estates, fee interests, remainder interests and all sorts of "future" interests in real property. Knowing the drafter was an experienced real estate lawyer, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and did a little research.

Maybe; Maybe not

Michigan Land Title Standards (Std. 9.3), allows for precisely that type of conveyance. I have used it occasionally during my 30 year career, but up until recently, sparingly. While the deed has been around for many years in Michigan, it has only recently gained popular recognition, particularly as a Medicaid planning tool. However, it really is a more diverse and useful tool, and is becoming increasing popular with estate planners. So much so, that currently, one of several most often asked questions when clients call or come in for estate planning conferences is: "should I have one of those lady bird deeds?" My answer: "Maybe. Maybe not." J

The "ladybird" deed is not a one-size-fits-all" panacea for all of our real property estate planning challenges

The Estate Planning process often lends itself to automation, and generalities. In many cases this is unfortunate, as we really should be looking at each individual circumstance as unique and carefully tailoring our planning solutions to that unique situation. So while I am using "ladybird" deeds more often these days, it is actually making me think more carefully about this particular aspect of planning.

Urban legend is that the "ladybird" deed gained its name because Lyndon Johnson conveyed property to his wife using one. This writer finds it hard to believe that Lyndon was the first to use the technique. The technique involves a property concept known as a "power of appointment," and the concept was surely around before Lyndon was even a gleam in the elder Mr. Johnson's eye. But I am content to let legend be legend. One prominent Michigan Probate Judge has opined that it should really be more properly titled a "Deed subject to Life Estate," which is how it is characterized in the Title Standard. The "ladybird" deed is as close as we can get to a "beneficiary designation," on real property here (a number of states actually have statutorily recognized transfer on death deeds, but Michigan is not one of them). It can be used to effect a transfer-on-death conveyance of real property, either to other individuals, or to a trust. I can see some real utility there.

The Estate Planning process often lends itself to automation and generalities

But, whatever we ultimately call it, the "ladybird" deed is not a one-size-fits-all" panacea for all of our real property estate planning challenges. We still need to examine the goals of the client carefully. And not every consequence of the use of this deed is clear.

I recently wrote about the changes to Michigan's real property tax statute, regarding the "uncapping" of taxable value on the transfer of property. One of the advantages of the "ladybird" deed is that it is really not a transfer. The "transfer" occurs on the death of the grantor. And under the new law, a transfer of residential real property to a party related in the first degree, will not be "uncapped" as long as the transferee continues its residential use. But there are traps here, for the unwary. What if I want multiple children to benefit from the family cottage? Remember, the new law addresses a transfer to a person related in the first degree. It does not say to a trust, or other entity established by the transferor for the benefit of her children.  Indeed, the State Tax Commission has recently confirmed my suspicion that they view this exemption as not applicable to Trusts, LLC's, or to a distribution from Probate! (Bulletin 23, December 16, 2013).

Conveyance of property in Michigan requires that the parties file a "Property Transfer Affidavit" with the County Register of Deeds and the Tax Assessor when a "transfer" occurs. Is a "ladybird" deed a "transfer" requiring the filing of this form (L-4260)? Arguably not. But prudence suggests that filing—with an explanation—might be a good practice. More importantly, is there a Form L-4260 filing requirement upon the death of the grantor? I think there is room in the statutory language to conclude that the answer is yes. So, in our planning, we need to think about who will be responsible to ensure such a filing on a timely basis. Form L-4260 has a box to check for "transfer of that portion of a property subject to a life estate." But a conventional "life estate" is different in that both it, and the remainder interest are vested in their respective owners. There is in fact a transfer or conveyance of an interest in property. It is just an "exempt" transfer under the statute (until the Life Estate expires). Technically, there is not such a conveyance with the "ladybird" deed. Until there is judicial or administrative clarification, the proper approach to this will remain uncertain. My thinking is to be "redundant." Perhaps the best (albeit confusing and to me somewhat inconsistent) approach is to check both the "life estate" checkbox and the "other" checkbox, and insert language indicating that the deed was executed pursuant to Title Standard 9.3.

As use of the "ladybird" deed increases, there are bound to be questions by third parties about whether mortgage provisions (e.g., "due on sale clause") are triggered, as well as other restrictive deed items (P.A. 116 liens, conservation easements, etc.) will be affected. Use of this deed, like any other legal tool, requires thought about its application to the circumstances—both current and future. And the answer to the question is, as always: "Don't try this at home."


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