Physician Asset Protection Failures in the News

January 23, 2018

Recent news headlines have featured catastrophic asset protection planning failures by doctors and their legal counsel.

Recent news headlines have featured catastrophic asset protection planning failures by doctors and their legal counsel. We examine what one doctor did wrong, and how to avoid the same fate.

"I Don't Own Anything, My Spouse Owns It All"

We have previously detailed the failures of amateur asset protection planning by both doctors themselves and unskilled lawyers and non-lawyer "promoters". One of the fatal flaws of asset protection  we have covered in detail is a favorite strategy of DIY doctors that consists of a high liability professional like a physician giving assets to a presumably lower liability spouse or child. I was recently provided yet another case study on this by Soley V. Soley, let's take a look.

In the best cases this is done formally and may include a post-nuptial agreement or other legal documents that specify ownership and/or a formal transfer of legal title to one spouse as their "separate property" as defined by law. More commonly however, it simply involves one spouse acquiring or holding assets in their own name and wrongly imagining that this creates some kind of magic barrier that is not reachable or discoverable by the other spouse's creditors and professional liability. 

In the very worst cases, assets are acquired and titled by an even more remote relative, like a brother or parent, and held in a "constructive trust", usually explained by a client as, "My sister owns the LLC we used to buy that building, but we have an understanding that it's really mine".  I have warned people against this poor planning for 15 years, but most don't really understand without some specific examples, a few of which are provided below.

Divorce

A legal transfer of assets to a third party means that property is legally theirs and theirs alone. This means that in a divorce the asset-holding spouse could take all that property in addition to a significant portion of the joint marital estate or half the community property, depending on what state they live in.

Example: Dr. Judy gives husband Bob $1 million in separate property and leaves $1 million in the marital estate. They get divorced and Bob gets half the martial property, $500K, plus the $1 million she transferred to him in the past, leaving her with the short end of a 25/75 percent split.

Their Own Liability

A transfer of assets to a spouse still leaves the assets subject to that spouse's personal and professional liability including lawsuits, accidents, bankruptcy, etc.  So, if Bob gets in a car accident and owns a significant portion of the assets, those assets are exposed to his liability. He may not have had Dr. Judy's high level of professional liability as a doctor, but he still had his own unique liability. Similarly, if you transfer to your adult child or another relative, the assets may also be at risk to their potential future divorce, child support obligations, bankruptcy, lawsuits, etc.

Death

If the person to whom you transfer the assets dies, your assets are part of their estate. While they can direct that those assets come back to you in their estate plan, they usually retain the discretion to amend their estate plan otherwise during their life without your knowledge or consent. This includes your spouse, who has a legal right to dispose of their separate property any way they wish.

In some cases the straw man holding the assets for a friend or relative never updates their own estate plan to allow for this transfer back, or they have no estate plan at all and the state decides who gets the assets. Their spouse and children will almost always have priority over you.

Theft and Conversion

If they hold title they can dispose of, sell, encumber, and waste assets any way they see fit. I have seen liquid assets depleted through personal spending, lost to poor investments, and stolen by the person holding them. No harm, no foul however, because you made them the legal "owner" you gave them every right to do so.