Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Keeping Family Vacation Homes in the Family

A warm day like yesterday often triggers thoughts of summer and good times at the family cottage. With these thoughts in mind, clients often wonder how to structure the transfer of ownership of a family vacation home to their children and grandchildren either during lifetime or at death.

     Gifting or bequeathing a family vacation home is not an easy matter and requires significant planning in order to treat all family members fairly. Clients need to balance their desire to make a well-intentioned gift with the possible unintended burden on beneficiaries, which may cause strife among loved ones. Additionally, the transfer of such high-value assets brings with it potential estate and gift tax implications. While a client certainly must consider tax issues and the possibility of an increase in property taxes because of the transfer, we will leave these for another time and focus primarily on the family issues. 
     While a parent may hope that common ownership of a vacation home will keep their family together, it is entirely possible that not all of their children have the same warm memories of summers at the lake. In addition, those children’s spouses and children may have different ideas on how to spend family vacations. Add to all of this the fact that many adult children have moved away to pursue their careers (or avoid sometimes harsh Michigan winters) and may not be able to enjoy the use of a vacation home. It is important to discuss these issues with all of the family members to determine which children are interested in owning a part of the "family cottage".
     While there is not enough time to discuss all of the issues, important points to consider when transferring the vacation home include:
  • What will the ownership structure be? This could include ownership jointly, as tenants-in-common, by a trust, or by an LLC?
  • Who will manage the property? Family dynamics are important - not all of the family members may want to get involved in the day-to-day decisions.
  • How will use of the vacation home be determined?  A plan should be in place for fairly selecting weeks of use for each of the family members.
  • How are repairs and improvements, including cost, dealt with? Some family members may always be looking to upgrade the facilities while others may be happy to keep things simple and inexpensive.
  • Should there be rules about allowing guests to use the cottage, especially without a family member present?  Allowing many non-family guests to use the cottage can cause considerable wear and tear on it and create friction among family members.
  • Is there a procedure for allowing a family member to sell or gift the ownership interest?  Either during lifetime or at death, family members often desire to transfer their interest to a spouse, or children. If not planned for, this can result in a significant fractionating of a family member's interest and increasing the total number of "owners" for purposes of use and expenses. It might also result in pieces of the vacation home being owned outside the intended family.
     While continuing family ownership of vacation property is a laudable goal, much thought should be put into the process to make sure that the intended result of family harmony does not actually result in disharmony. As with any other tax or gift planning strategy is important to understand each client individual circumstances and consult with their professionals to ensure that the planning will not have unforeseen consequences.

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