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Patricia Annino
Patricia Annino
Gifting Ownership of a Vacation House: A Gift or a Curse?
Gifting vacation property this year, while the federal exemption is high, may be a wise move. Homeowners considering a gift need to weigh the options and the potential repercussions.

March 15, 2012
by Patricia Annino, J.D.

Ben Franklin once said that fish and visitors smell after three days. But what if the houseguest co-owns the house? The perils of the vacation home, what to do with it, who should own it and what the rules are can be a source of both family satisfaction and family conflict.

Under current law, the 2012 federal gift exemption is $5.12 million. Since many parents and grandparents are uncertain of their economic future, they may not want to gift assets that still earn income. Nor do they want to give away assets that have a low income tax basis that may be sold in the future. For these families, the vacation home is an attractive asset to consider gifting.

Gifting the vacation house to the next generation, or to a dynasty trust for the benefit of subsequent descendants, can remove that home (and any appreciation in its value) from the taxable estate. But before heading down that path, homeowners must carefully consider how that home will be owned post transfer. We will explore three options: outright ownership, an irrevocable trust (which could be a dynasty trust), and a family limited partnership or a limited liability company.

Outright Ownership
Often, the choice of making an outright gift of the vacation home is unappealing, whether the next generation owns the property as tenants in common, or as joint tenants with a right of survivorship. Many states have the right to compel a sale of that asset through a court proceeding, so the ownership of the home may be divisible in a divorce and subject to that family member’s creditors.

Also, family issues and resentments may develop with co-ownership. The child who lives out of state and never uses the home may resent sharing the expenses. Plus, with each generational transfer, the ownership becomes more fractionalized and the ownership of the asset is included in the taxable estate of each subsequent generation. There could also be conflict, such as who uses it the week of July 4th? Who pays for maintenance? Should rent be charged to cover expenses?

Irrevocable Trust
A more appealing option for many families is transferring ownership of the home to an irrevocable trust. To complete the gift, the trust must be irrevocable, meaning that the donor cannot retain the ability to change, amend, or revoke its terms. The art of drafting an irrevocable trust is to remember that life is a movie, not a snapshot, and that the document, while irrevocable, must also be flexible enough to contemplate the future.

The trust should address what happens to the child’s share at his or her death, whether the child’s spouse or stepchildren can continue to use the property in a divorce, or if the child predeceases his or her spouse. It should also address who is responsible for paying expenses, the line of succession of trustees, how the home should be furnished or updated, whether nonpaying guests may use the property, and who sets the rules for using the property.

Reasonable rules include who can use the property and when, the process for how that is determined, whether use can be exclusive or must be open to all families all the time, payment of operating expenses, noise, cleanliness, pets, number of people, who pays for landscaping, parking, whether the property can be rented to nonfamily members, and other issues affecting the use and enjoyment of the property. The trust document can also address who has the right to determine the operating reserve and when income and/or principal may be distributed to the beneficiaries.

It may be also helpful for the donor to state intent — perhaps the use of the property is not intended to be equal, but based on relative degrees of interest in and ability to enjoy the property, and to take into account relative contributions (financial or otherwise) to its maintenance and improvement.

The document may also include a buyout provision by which one beneficiary (or beneficiary’s family) can sell his or her interest to other family members. Many families do not allow family members to cash out of their share in the home. An advantage to restricting what a family member can do to convert his or her share to liquid funds provides additional creditor protection and also helps keep that interest out of the taxable estate of subsequent descendants.

The trust should also address the mechanism by which a decision can be made to sell the home — should a decision that important be left only in the hands of the trustee? Should it include the trustees and all adults in the next generation? Should the vote be by majority or unanimous? The tension in that choice is that one family member who wants to use it more than others may block the sale for personal gain.

It is important to fund the trust with enough liquid assets to cover ongoing expenses and trustees. Future family discord might be avoided if family members who do not use the property are not expected to help cover its expenses. The funding can occur during the donor’s lifetime or at his or her death, through the donor’s estate plan. Once the property is transferred to the trust, the trustees should ensure there is sufficient property and casualty insurance coverage.

The trust document should also address the duration of the trust. It could end at a certain date, when the underlying asset is sold, when the trustees decide to end it, when the trustees and all adult beneficiaries agree to end it, when the Rule Against Perpetuities Period ends it, or if it is governed by a state that does not have any Rule Against Perpetuities, then it may never end.

Family Limited Partnership or Limited Liability Company
A third choice is transferring the home to a family limited partnership or limited liability company, where the terms of the operating agreement control how the property is used. These entities are more businesslike than a trust, as they are members or partners. They offer the same benefits of the irrevocable trust, but may be more flexible. The operating agreement can provide a mechanism that allows it to be amended. If the entity is underfunded, the manager or general partner can make a capital call on the owners to contribute additional funds to the entity. As with the trust, the agreement will appoint a manager or management committee. The ownership structure can have two classes — voting and nonvoting. The transfer of ownership through sale or gift can be restricted.

Another benefit to gifting in this manner is that the valuation of the gift may have additional leverage and qualify for minority discounts or lack of marketability discounts. If the gift is not made all at once — but rather over several years — then all gifts are made off the record of the respective Registries of Deeds. In other words, the transfer to the entity is recorded initially, but ensuing gifts are transfers of the units or shares in the entity and are done within the entity itself, not in the Registry. This can save annual recording fees. Additional benefits include income tax consequences in that each owner may have the benefit of the income and deductions flow through to his or her individual income tax returns.

An Irrevocable Decision
Gifting the vacation house this year while the federal exemption is so high may be a wise move. It is important for clients to think through their choice of entity and the considerations mentioned above before making this irrevocable decision.

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Patricia M. Annino, J.D., chairs the Estate Planning Practice Group at Prince Lobel Tye LLP.

* The AICPA’s PFP Section provides information, tools, advocacy and guidance to CPAs who specialize in providing tax, retirement, estate, risk management and investment advice to individuals and their closely held entities. PFP Section members, including PFS credential holders will benefit from additional resources on this topic in Forefield Advisor on the AICPA’s PFP website at aicpa.org/pfp. All members of the AICPA are eligible to join the PFP section. For CPAs who want to demonstrate their expertise in this subject matter, apply to become a PFS Credential holder.