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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