Winning the tax game for a family business

Recently, I read an article titled, “What Makes For Success?” by Kemmons Wilson, the founder of Holiday Inn. He said, “It is great to attain wealth, but money is really just one way – and hardly the best way – to keep score.”

Interesting quote, huh? Most readers of this column call me with tax problems because they have attained wealth (no doubt they have and do keep score in money), and they don’t want to share that wealth with the IRS – perfectly normal. Yet, it’s amazing. Once the reader realizes that we really do know how to pass their wealth – all of it and intact – to their family, the conversation turns to other ways that they might keep score. Sure, they are delighted to find there are legal ways to totally win the estate tax game. But they readily admit that they don’t know how to deal with the other problems (other ways to keep score).

The other problems fall into the category of little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems. Stuff like, “Which of my kids should run the business?” “How do I treat the kids fairly?” “What about the non-business kids?” “What happens if one (or more) of my kids gets divorced?” “How do I take care of my wife (the second one, who is 15 years or more younger than the caller)?’

The callers tell me about family problems, business problems and/or assorted personal problems. To me, every word is important, even though I’ve listened to so many tales of woe before (although similar, each problem has its own peculiar twists and turns).

Let’s face it. Stuff happens. After years of solving wealth transfer, business succession (usually the business is at center stage) and estate planning problems, experience has taught me that solving only the money problems can never yield a perfect plan.

The human stuff – your spouse and kids support your plan – must be solved too. What about your son-in-law or daughter-in-law; a hate or love relationship? I know it sounds cornball, but if you really want to win the game of life after you have won the money game (really, the easy part), you must attempt to solve the human part – the emotional stuff.

Here’s my suggestion to start the process. Make two lists: the money-problem list and the human-problem list. Solve the money-problem list first. Usually, you are home free if you solve these three money problems: (1) maintain your lifestyle – and your spouse’s – for as long as you live; (2) transfer your business to the kids, tax-free; and (3) kill the estate tax.

Then, it’s easier to tackle the human-problem list. Interestingly, many times solving the money problems solves some or all of the human problems. Finally, you must work with experienced professionals who know how to solve both problems: the money problems and the emotional human stuff that comes with accumulating wealth and trying to pass it on.

One more thing: each piece of your plan must be part of a single comprehensive and integrated plan, all implemented at the same time. Piecemeal planning, based on my 50-plus years of experience, is a disaster that not only enriches the IRS, but fails to satisfy the normal human desires of a typical family.

Call me at 847-674-5295 if you want to talk about your stuff: the money problems, the human problems, or both.

Irv Blackman is a certified public accountant who lives part-time on Marco Island and specializes in estate planning, business succession and asset protection. E-mail him at wealthy@blackmankallick.com. His Web site is taxsecretsofthewealthy.com.

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