Owning investment properties can produce big rewards, but also big problems. This is why it is important to hold title to your property in the most beneficial way. A smart investor should consider using both a LLC and a trust to adequately protect himself and his property.
Countless individuals invest in real estate every day. Some dream of becoming the next real estate mogul, while others simply wish to supplement their salary with additional income. Whatever your motivations, owning investment properties can produce big rewards, but also big problems. This is why it is important to hold title to your property in the most beneficial way. The internet is saturated with various posts and articles touting the most effective techniques to manage your property. It can often be a daunting task weeding through the mass of information in an attempt to discern what advice is reliable and what advice can get you into trouble. Our goal here is to provide a succinct and clear summary of the safest and most important strategies for holding investment property in California. We hope the result will be a valuable starting point in considering the best ways to both protect you as the owner/landlord from liability and also guarantee the best treatment of your assets.
As stated above, while property can be a valuable investment, there are also significant risks. One of the biggest risks is lawsuits. From common slip and falls, to environmental contamination, landlords and owners are easily exposed to legal judgments. Landlords have also been successfully sued by victims of crimes — such as robberies, rape, and even murder — that occur on their property on the theory that the landlord provided inadequate security.
Faced with the risk of lawsuits, it is crucial that you do not own investment real property in your own name. (The only real property you should hold in your own name is your primary residence.) Thankfully, there are several ways in which an individual can hold property other than in his/her own name. These include as a corporation, limited partnership, limited liability company (“LLC”), trust, and many others.
While there are many options, when it comes to real estate investment, LLCs are the preferred entity by most investors, attorneys and accountants.
For many reasons, few investors hold investment real estate in C corporations. A corporation protects the shareholders from personal liability, but the double taxation of dividends and the inability to have “paper losses” from depreciation flow through to owners make a C corporation inappropriate for real estate investments.
In the past, partnerships and limited partnerships were the entities of choice for real estate investors. Limited partners were protected from personal liability while also being able to take passed through tax losses (subject to IRS rules–you’ll need an accountant or attorney to sort out the issues of at-risk limitations and so on) from the property. However, the biggest downfall with limited partnerships was that someone had to be the general partner and expose himself to unlimited personal liability.
Many small real estate investors also hold property in a trust. While a living trust is important for protecting the owner’s privacy and provides valuable estate planning treatment, the trust provides nothing in the area of protection from liability. However, although a trust provides no liability protection, it should not be overlooked, as it can easily be paired with an LLC.
LLCs appear to be the best of all worlds for holding investment real estate. Unlike limited partnerships, LLCs do not require a general partner who is exposed to liability. Instead, all LLC owners — called members — have complete limited liability protection. LLCs are also superior to C corporations because LLCs avoid the double taxation of corporations, yet retain complete limited liability for all members. Furthermore, LLC’s are rather cheap and easy to form.
For owners of multiple properties, the question arises whether to hold all properties under one LLC, or to create a new LLC for each additional property. For several reasons, it is generally advisable to have one LLC for each property.
First, having a separate LLC own each separate property prevents “spillover” liability from one property to another. Suppose you have two properties worth $500,000 and they’re held in the same LLC. If a tenant is injured at property 1, and wins a $750,000 judgment, he will be able to put a lien on both properties for the entire $750,000 even though property 2 had nothing to do with the plaintiff’s injury.
On the other hand, if each property had its own LLC, then the creditor could only put a lien on the property where the plaintiff was injured (assuming that they cannot pierce the corporate veil).
Additionally, many banks and lenders require separate LLCs for each property. They want the property they’re lending against to be “bankruptcy remote”. This means that the lender doesn’t want a problem at a separate property to jeopardize their security interest in the property that they’re lending on.
As stated above, an LLC may be used concurrently with a trust to provide the best protection and estate treatment for your property. There are many types of trusts, but the revocable living trust is probably the most common and useful for holding title to real estate. The major benefit from holding property in a trust is that the property avoids probate after your death. As many are aware, probate is a court-supervised process for transferring assets to the beneficiaries listed in one’s will. The advantages of avoiding probate are numerous. Distribution of property held in a living trust can be much faster than probate, assets in a living trust can be more easily accessible to the beneficiaries of the trust, and the cost of distributing assets held in a living trust is often less than going through probate. [Note: One should also be aware of other ways to avoid probate. For instance, property held in joint tenancy w/ a right of survivorship automatically avoids probate whether or not the property is in the living trust. Consult an estate planning attorney for more advice regarding probate matters.]
Because an LLC and a trust both provide significant benefits to the owner of real property, a smart investor should consider using both a LLC and a trust to adequately protect himself and his property. Utilizing both a trust and a LLC creates the best combination of liability protection and favorable estate planning. To accomplish this, the owner should hold the investment property in a single member LLC, with the living trust as the sole member of the LLC. Here, the trust is the owner of the company and holds all of the interests of the LLC. This form of ownership gives you an added layer of protection from the LLC as well as the additional estate planning benefits of a trust.
For the most part, the costs of forming and maintaining an LLC and trust are rather minimal. For an average LLC, the costs are simply nominal filing fees and an $800 per/yr fee to the state of CA. While simple incorporations may be done on your own, it is strongly advised that you seek the advice of a knowledgeable attorney so that no mistakes are made. The same may be said for forming a trust. A little money now is worth the price of avoiding big problems in the future.