Asset Protection and Family Legal Structures

Our youngest. My kids did their first bouldering competitions this past year.
Climbing is a fun way to build upper body strength and gain confidence.

Twelve years ago, I found myself in an uncomfortable position. I had unlimited liability related to a nine-figure (USD) corporate insolvency.

It was a reminder => assets are best protected before they need protection.

After the dust settled, I went to work, adjusting the legal structure of my life.

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Below are ideas for you to discuss with tax and legal experts in your local jurisdiction. Always keep in mind that you are not trying to avoid tax, you are seeking to avoid ruin.

Once you’ve spoken with the trust & tax advisors, invert the situation and spend time with an expert litigation attorney. Find out what they are looking for when they decide to go after someone’s balance sheet and future earnings.


Financially, there are two things I want to deliver to my kids:

  • Debt free education to the best of their ability (5-20 years time horizon); and
  • US$ 250,000 (15-25 years time horizon, 2022 purchasing power) per kid

The debt-free education is what I really care about. Get that done, and model wise choices, they won’t need any financial support from my generation.

Aiming for a capital bequest forces me to be conservative with my own choices, greatly reducing the likelihood my generation becomes a financial burden on the one that follows me.

The financial deliverables, to the kids, are done within my life expectancy.

My true legacy will be non-financial in nature.


529 Education Accounts – Our contributions had the benefit of a state tax deduction, which mitigated the increase in expense ratio. Gains and income roll up tax free. The assets can be swapped widely within families, and descendants. Assets sit outside the contributor’s balance sheet, and are treated as a completed gift. This can be an effective way to build assets for kids, grandkids and between extended family members.

=> This provides comfort, today. Having that much capital tied up in a non-discretionary account constrains my action. I ignore these dollars when I plan for the future BUT I can also ignore the contingent liability of wanting to help my kids get educated.

=> I also give them a big financial incentive for figuring out how to educate themselves, for less. In my mind, that money is already “theirs.”


Other tools:

Irrevocable Trust – if you are in a line of work that could result in litigation, or simply don’t want to give a financial incentive to anyone to sue (or divorce) a member of your family, then this can be an appropriate vehicle to establish. Assets within the trust sit outside your balance sheet.

Intentionally Defective Grantor Trust – an irrevocable trust where the tax liability stays with the grantor for their lifetime. A benefit of this trust is the income, and gains, associated with the assets are rolling up outside the grantor’s balance sheet, gross of tax.

=> example here might be a high-earning professional, in a field prone to litigation, setting up a trust to benefit their spouse/kids.

=> another example: I stick an investment property in a Grantor Trust and it rolls up to benefit my kids. That’s the capital bequest I want to deliver. Worried about possibly needing the money? Then one could add their spouse to the beneficiary class as a hedge against future circumstances.

There are other asset settlements, and other trust structures, that can be effective for families. Experts can tell you more.


Contingent Beneficiaries – Talk to an estate attorney about using a trust as a contingent beneficiary of any inheritance you might receive. Wills can be drafted offering you the ability to disclaim assets in favor of a trust. Separate from asset protection benefits, this could be a useful feature if the taxation rules around estate taxation change.

=> example: in 2021, the estate tax threshold is US$11.7 million (double for married couples). Current law has the threshold dropping to $6.2 million in 2025. Go further… what might happen to your potential estate tax liability if that threshold went to zero? Ask your local expert to explain how you can use part of your $11.7 million exemption, today.


Private Trust Company – how does one “run” the entire structure without ownership? Establish a private trust company and have someone reliable act for the corporation, this individual could be a family member, or not. Be very careful with decisions/officers concerning: investment strategy, trust agreement amendment capacity, beneficiary classes and distribution policy.

Move slowly, with intention.

Done well, these structures do not cost much (to establish, and to run) relative to the benefits they offer.


Thinking Ahead – with all this stuff, it’s not about where your family is “today.” Think about where you might be 5, 10, 15, 25 and 40 years from today.

  • Our 529 Accounts are an example. We set them up when the kids were born, contributed heavily in our high-tax years and did “nothing but watch.” They’re super flexible and my kids could elect to roll them forward.
  • The Grantor Trust => set up many years ago, it didn’t seem like it received a lot of assets. However, those assets have been compounding for a long time (gross of taxes). Change the tax law, and extend my lifespan, a trust could save real money for my family.
  • Try to cast your mind back, say, to 2009. Asset values had been hammered. Roll forward to 2021, many assets classes are up by a factor of 3-5x and salaries in your field are likely up 2-5x. If inflation cranks up for a few years then the thresholds will seem even closer.

All Family Is Optional – We’ve built everything with the ability to be collapsed, split and changed… changes will happen after my death (certainly) and late in my life (with my consent). Siblings, blended families, step-parents… anticipating a split into separate vehicles should be the default position.

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Things I learned from the process:

  • Our structure paid for itself in reduced insurance premiums.
  • Despite in-family expertise and external professional advice, “getting it right” took years and a few iterations.
  • Move assets slowly and watch what happens. My kids’ financial education started in kindergarten. Next big step will be discussing allocation of 529 accounts – use, roll forward or trade? When appropriate, discussions about intergenerational capital allocation.
  • Take advice from an expert in establishing these structures then… take advice from an expert at attacking your proposed structure. Know what can go wrong before you make irrevocable changes to your family’s balance sheet.
  • Give each generation, and each individual, the flexibility to live their life as they see fit.

Remember, seek local advice. This post is meant to get you thinking, not offer professional advice.

Quick Hits

I’m working on a post about Anxiety but it feels a bit preachy.

While it marinates in my sub-conscious, I’m going to blow out my notes folder.


I get my second vaccine shot tomorrow. The first had a very positive impact on my vibe.

J&J’s in the news for a 1-in-a-million risk of severe blood clotting. No doubt, we will get saturation coverage for the next couple days.

I’ll let the experts comment on the data. I want to share how I deal with risk.


The last two columns

  • Who should take a one-in-a-million risk?
  • What are my alternatives to what scares me?
  • What is the risk of a bad outcome from not taking this risk – ie what’s the risk from not choosing?
  • What are the real risks in my life that I’m taking, unawares?

The final point is a big one for me. It feels like I am reading about a male, aged 16-25, dying every week in Boulder County (pop. 326,000). Lots of car accidents.

Humans take a lot of risky shots, and avoid many sensible risks.

How am I fooling myself?

Most everything I pay attention to is a distraction from my main task of teaching my kids.


My daughter had a fabulous swim meet this past weekend. She then got home and proceeded to diva-it-up with regard to housework and making her lunch.

I get it, she was tired from racing like a maniac.

However, when she started to push back on anything other than lying down and staring at a screen… I was triggerrrrrrrrred!

Hey! You can be coming home from Olympic Trials. I don’t care. You’re still doing the vacuuming.

Here’s my philosophy… Training, and racing, are a treat. You need to earn the right for both. You earn the right by meeting your obligations to your family and your future self.

Collectively, this is a major failure with how we treat the beautiful, rich and speedy => not going to happen with my minor children, at least in my house.


Have you every caught yourself saying…

I don’t want to be that way.

I do, a lot. It was the source of the $100 challenge I gave my kids if they catch me yelling.

Well, underlying that thought is a habit of giving control to people and events outside of myself.

Of saying internally… “you’re making me be this way”

Of ignoring the true source of the way I am.

My choices, my habits and the incentives I give myself.


We’re moving off the State’s COVID dial this week. We don’t have a clear explanation of how we will move towards normal.

Here’s the chart I follow locally (risk)…


Via Boulder County COVID data – hospitalizations

And Nationally (ruin)…


Via washingtonpost.com

Our state budget is in great shape. I expected the opposite.

It is a tough time to be fiscally conservative.

Government is setting a lot of preferences in my city, state and country. I don’t mind, per se. I’m no better than government with regard to the future and I’m insulated from the impact of the downside.

I’m not writing about COVID restrictions – we’ve done a good job compared to the rest of the world => based on… what we knew at the time, and the constraints of how we set up our society.

What catches my eye is the massive amount of capital being allocated by all levels of government.

Always well-intentioned, often inefficient and an incentive for re-election, rather than long-term value.

The consequence of easy money is wasted funds and lower initiative.


I read an excellent book on Colorado Snow. It’s called Hunting Powder. Fun to read.

The author writes about being involved in close calls, body recoveries and making conservative choices in avalanche terrain.

This gives me an opening to remind you… when your downside is death, especially when you have kids, the conservative choice is to not take the risk.

Even if you don’t have kids… Gary, Henry, Andy and all the others we’ve lost to accidental death.

Every death resonates far beyond its immediate circle.

I feel the death of remote folks, every single day.

Stay.

It’s good for the collective and your future self will thank you.

Family Financial Review: Risk, Worry, Ruin


I ended Wednesday by asking, Am I worried about the right things?

It’s easy to get distracted by the noise surrounding our lives.

Do you know your key risks?

It varies between people and over time => focus on habits that might lead to ruin (leverage, lack of impulse control, smoking, substance abuse…).

See also my review from 2019.

Set your financial life up so it runs on autopilot.

Did you read the PDF from yesterday? Good reminders at any age, as well as an embedded reading list.

Things I focus on more than my portfolio…

  • Near-term: keeping up with my teenagers – what is it going to take to share the outdoors with my family when I’m 60?
  • Medium-term: personal engagement when my kids are gone – what will I do with more time, and less energy?
  • Health: poor choices increasing my risk for cancer and other health issues
  • End of Life: my body outlives my brain

My actions today reflect awareness of the real risks in my life.

My portfolio? Good enough is good enough. Avoid unforced errors and keep on keeping on.

Don’t assume these answers.

Do the calculations from Wednesday, reflect on your life, write it down, review annually…

Then get out there and enjoy 2021.