A GUIDING HAND: McManus: Estate planning is increasingly complex
John McManus has spent more than 25 years as a guiding hand for high net worth families and individuals, but it was an experience with his own family that helped shape his career.
When his grandfather died in 1974, he left behind the legacy of a moving and shipping business he had built in New York City. His will had been prepared by “a lawyer who was incredibly smart, but not an expert in this area” — and the estate took 20 years to settle.
“I learned from that to say, ‘If I ever get involved in law, I would want to do things where I’m helping people avoid those crises, where the whole family devolves and disintegrates,’” McManus said. “And that, in effect, happened on my grandfather’s level.”
Today he serves as founding principal of McManus & Associates, a New Providence-based law firm specializing in trust and estate planning that serves some of the state’s wealthiest residents.
“We are an estate planning, asset protection and family office firm, where we give advice and consultation to affluent people on how to save on estate tax, on how to — in an organized way — orderly transfer their assets to the next generation and do that in an asset-protected way,” McManus said. “(We also) advise them on philanthropic issues and share with the various families what we’re learning from other families — what good ideas they’re putting together and try to make it a fluid distribution of information.”
NJBIZ spoke with McManus about trends in estate planning and how the wealthy manage and protect their assets.
NJBIZ: The estate tax is one of the hottest issues of the day right now, but you must live and breathe it every day. What should people know about the tax in New Jersey, relative to other states?
John McManus: The issue that happens for people is that they say, ‘If I am not so anchored to New Jersey because I’m spending time in London, I’m spending time in Jackson, Wyoming, I’m spending time in Southern California and I’m spending time in Palm Beach or in Miami, why would I want to choose as my jurisdiction a state that has the highest tax rate? So, we’ve been seeing that.
We haven’t seen people just mass migrate out of this area. (David) Tepper is a large pronouncement of that. Others are saying, ‘My business is here. Even though I’d like to call myself a Florida resident, I can’t avoid the very important contacts and the amount of time I need to be in New Jersey.’
So, it’s much more relevant when people get to the point when they’re either about to sell their business, so they’re moving it, or when they’re close to retiring and they don’t need to put as many hours in, in New Jersey.
NJBIZ: You’ve had your firm for 25 years and you’ve been doing this for even longer than that. What are some of the trends and changes in estate planning that you’ve been seeing?
JM: I would tell you the biggest trend is that in the past, if you had $600,001, you were paying federal estate tax, and that’s just not that long ago. Today, you can have a $5 million net worth and be exempt from federal estate tax, and if you’re not in the New York metropolitan area, you can be exempt from state estate tax as well. So, it leaves a significant portion of the population exempt from paying estate tax. That’s awesome news for that group. Some would argue it’s highly disproportionate and not fair. On the other hand, when we’re dealing with the IRS, if we have just wiped out a large block of people that they would otherwise be going after for estate tax issues, now that leaves a more concentrated sum.
So, we saw the smoke coming down the tracks and we knew this was coming, so we moved our practice to doing more complex stuff and to addressing people that had net worth in excess of the exemption amounts. And that has made all the difference in the world.
So when we could do great work avoiding the estate tax for the ($1 million) to $20 million clients, now we realize that our best work and our most sophisticated work is for the group beyond that.
NJBIZ: Can you give us some examples of how you’re advising clients in estate planning and protecting their wealth?
JM: The best thing that people need to understand and the best example I could give you is that (heading into 2011), we were all afraid that the amount of money that you could give away — or that if you passed away — anything over $1 million, was going to be subject to a (55 percent) tax. So when you add life insurance and when you add your IRA and you add your house, even mom and dad can eclipse all of that. So there was a huge rush to the door to get assets into trust. And we did scores and scores of them at that time. …
(So, in late 2010), President Obama negotiates with the Republicans a deal that clearly was not to his advantage, and the exemption, which was down to $1 million, settled back up at $5 million, and all of these people had put assets into trusts and they were at the golf clubs telling their spouses and telling their friends, ‘We wasted all of our effort doing that.’ And the other people who didn’t get to it were all laughing.
But 2012 was one of the better years in the market. So if you put $5 million into trust in 2011, that $5 million became $6 million by the end of 2012. So now you have $6 million off your balance sheet. The person that did nothing, that $5 million they had is now at $6 million, but they could still only give ($5 million) away. So they missed that delta, that extra million dollars, which was growing inside the trust. The result was that, that strategy alone saved that group of people $500,000 in estate tax.
So, the best part about estate planning is to give assets into trust and let them grow, because then all of the growth is what avoids estate tax.
NJBIZ: We know wealthy people often have international ties and overseas assets to consider. What about that piece of it?
JM: The most important trend — and this has been a trend for several years — right now is that the U.S. government is firing up age-old reporting requirements that they have largely left untouched. And that goes to when you have assets offshore, you have to not only report the income tax on it, you have to report the asset value. So, clients historically had just moved assets offshore to help pay for grandma and grandpa’s thatched roof or dirt floor in their old family place. Or people emigrated here and they want to send money to help. It’s been a basis of this wonderful country for the past 200 years — always sending money. But now we found people taking advantage of growing economies, whether it’s China or it’s India or it’s Brazil, where now it’s not just moving assets offshore to help family members — it’s moving assets offshore to invest in those economies. That’s No. 1.
No. 2 is that sometimes those assets are ill-gotten. They’re in cash businesses, which is not an unreasonable thing for first generations who don’t have significant education, they’re choosing the first way they can to make money and sometimes taxes aren’t always paid on (that cash). So what a neat opportunity to take those assets, load them up in a suitcase and bring them overseas. The U.S. government says, ‘Enough.’ And the U.S. government’s view on this is, ‘If you have assets offshore and you don’t tell us about it, and we find out about it, it’s no longer a civil issue where you’re going to pay penalties and interest — you’re going to go to jail.’ As my father-in-law likes to say — he’s a first-generation immigrant — we can’t catch many of you, but the ones we catch, we cut their head off, put it on a stake in the middle of the town square as a gentle reminder that this is what happens when we catch you.
So the sophisticated people right now are spending a lot of time making sure that, wherever they have assets outside the U.S. perimeter, they are focused on reporting requirements.
NJBIZ: What else is there to consider?
JM: Clients who are receiving assets from their noncitizen, nonresident foreign family members — in the past, if they passed away, they may have left the country home in France or in Asia to their child. The rule has always been the same, but today, if you inherit an asset overseas, no tax, as long as they are noncitizen nonresidents, but you must let the U.S. government know that you’ve received it. Why? Because if your parents have a million-dollar bank account in Lichtenstein, they lived there and they died, that account is now on your balance sheet and the U.S. government wants to know that you’re paying tax. So no tax on the way in on the gift, but once it’s inside your estate, you now have to pay the tax, and the only way they’re going to assure that you do that is you’ve got to report the receipt of that gift.
What we’re doing is helping clients create trusts, not that we can avoid tax, but we can avoid estate tax through having it in a multigenerational vehicle. Clients are also wealthy, first-generation immigrants who are involved in finance, or the children of that, often have roots overseas so they’re making gifts of charity back to the countries of their origin. So we’re helping them maybe set up a side-by-side fund here in the U.S., where if you make the gift to this fund, it’s a charitable donation because it’s a U.S.-based charity and then that charity sends the money overseas.
NJBIZ: Estate planning is complex enough by itself, but we take it that wealthy people have other things to worry about.
JM: If one would ask, ‘What are people concerned about when they’re on that level?’ I would say that they have their own stresses, and life is very, very complicated. There is no downtime for people of the highest level of wealth, because they’re concerned about their families, they’re concerned about taxes, they’re concerned about government intrusion, they’re concerned about kidnapping. They’re concerned about large lawsuits, they’re concerned about an evacuation of assets from their hedge funds. Today, hedge funds, even the most powerful ones, are seeing with these markets that are providing at the current amount lukewarm returns that, very sophisticated investors who are in hedge funds are grumbling. And we’re dealing with some of the smartest investors in the world who are managing these hedge fund interests, but the fear is what happens if partners start to demand their money?
So, it may not be the easiest to say, ‘I feel bad for these people,’ but there are real issues.
NJBIZ: What other types of issues?
JM: They’re concerned about cyberattacks, for example. … The typical wisdom right now is that we cannot stop cyberattacks, but what we must be able to do is two important things: As soon as the breach takes place, be able to rally quickly and get assets protected and freeze the attack. No. 2: We have to have a public statement that we can get out to our investors and to the world as to the breach and what we’ve done immediately to address this issue. So that’s a very important piece that I think customers are concerned about.
Another piece that people are concerned about is that wealthy people travel a lot. In the U.S., we don’t have a problem with kidnapping, but when you go to Brazil, there’s problems with kidnapping. When you go to certain places in Africa … there are real risks with kidnapping. So we have clients that are invoking international security groups that are with boots and checking those areas and making sure that, if we can’t necessarily stop the kidnapping, we can do a search for that area. When you and I travel, we may check with the Department of State and find out if a country is on a watch list. These guys are actually sending people to those communities and doing research within that area to find out what’s going on. And then they may have somebody on the perimeter. We have one of our clients right now that’s interviewing that group because he’s got family members that are going to be overseas. And for him, at that level of net worth, why wouldn’t you want to invest in something like that?
NJBIZ: Just to bring it full circle, at least estate planning is something that they can control. Is there anything else we should know about that process?
JM: I think the biggest thing that this group does and that we do the most is creating trusts that are designed to have an organized, disciplined path of wealth transfer through the generations. That’s No. 1. No. 2, it’s helping to avoid the estate tax and, No. 3 is setting a structure in place so that the generations beyond here do not just think they have been blessed with largess, because our clients don’t want their children to feel that they’re entitled, and by putting assets in trust, it says, more that you’re a steward of these assets and your job is to grow them and compound them for the generations beyond you than to just think that you can do nothing.
Warren Buffet said, ‘Enough that you feel that you can do everything, but not so much that you can do nothing.’ And it’s a great quote.