Marital Estate Division Offers Challenges and Opportunities For Advisors
The emotional aspects of a divorce often interfere with planning for the efficient distribution of the marital estate. The shock and ill feelings may create a barrier between spouses that prevents even discussing issues. Tax practitioners need to know how to explain to a divorcing client the tax realities, to avoid any post-divorce tax surprises. Mistakes in property division or fraud can produce consequences that the tax practitioner may be unable to reverse.
Separation Agreement and Divorce Decree
If the parties present their separation agreement to the court and the court issues a decree dissolving the marriage, the court may incorporate the agreement in the divorce decree, usually referred to as a merger. According to Section 306(d)(1) of the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act (UMDA), merger occurs when the decree sets forth the terms of the separation agreement and orders the parties to perform its terms as an enforceable contract with enforcement as a judgment. Section 306(e) of UMDA provides for enforcement as a judgment, as well as contract remedies, if the separation agreement is in the divorce decree. A court order that specifically modifies an original divorce or separation instrument relates to the ending of the marriage and thus is incident to the divorce (with tax implications described later), even if it is issued many years after the divorce.
Transfers During Marital Difficulties
A transfer of property by one spouse during a period of marital strife, whether or not divorce is imminent, might not be considered made unconditionally and is subject to additional scrutiny. All states give each spouse certain legal rights to share in the family’s assets if there is a divorce, but the scope of those rights varies significantly from state to state. In most states, the non-donor spouse may have set aside—as a fraudulent transfer—a gratuitous transfer of property made after the marriage has begun to deteriorate. Any unwritten custody arrangements where one spouse transfers property to a custodian for safekeeping with the understanding of a future repossession is highly suspect when the other spouse has no knowledge of the transfer.
Transfers of Property: Asset Dissipation
The judicial doctrine of fraud on marital rights or dissipation of marital assets is an attempt to balance the transferor’s right to freely transfer his or her own property against the need to protect the legal entitlement of the transferor’s spouse to property. In most states, the law invalidates lifetime transfers if they are made with intent to deprive the transferor’s spouse of marital property rights, or if the transfers are made under circumstances where it would be unfair to permit them to stand. To determine whether a spouse has attempted in a divorce situation to remove assets from the claims of the other spouse, courts look at all the relevant factors including:1. Other consideration is involved; 2. Size of the property transferred versus the transferring spouse’s total wealth; 3. Time elapsing between the transfer of property and the divorce; 4. Relations between the spouses at the time of transfer; 5. The source of the property transferred. 6. Whether the transfer is revocable or illusory (i.e., the transferring spouse retains rights in or powers over the transferred property).
It is usually important that any property transfers between the divorcing spouses occur under circumstances that do not produce taxable gain or gift tax liability. Since no estate tax marital deduction is allowed for transfers to a former spouse, the transferor also will not want the transfer to be includible in his or her taxable estate.
Under the general rule of Sec. 1041(a), a transfer of property to a former spouse incident to divorce will not cause the recognition of gain or loss. A transfer of property is incident to a divorce if the transfer occurs within one year after the date on which the marriage transfer ceases or is “related to the cessation of the marriage,” which requires that the transfer is pursuant to a divorce or separation instrument, and occurs not more than six years after the date on which the marriage ceases. A divorce or separation instrument includes a modification or an amendment to the decree or instrument (Temp. Regs. Sec. 1.1041-1T(b), Q&A-7).
A transfer of marital property rights under a property settlement agreement that was incorporated into a divorce decree is not subject to gift tax. In Harris, 340 U.S. 106 (1950), the Supreme Court held that in such a case, the transfer would be pursuant to a court decree, not a “promise or agreement” between the spouses as required under gift tax law. However, subsequent decisions have limited the application of this rule to transfers that occur after the entry of a divorce decree.
If a transfer is not made under a property settlement agreement incorporated into a divorce decree, it may still not be subject to gift tax under Sec. 2516. Sec. 2516 provides that transfers of property or interests in property in settlement of marital property rights are treated as made for full and adequate consideration if the transfers are made pursuant to a written agreement and the divorce occurs within a three-year period beginning one year before the spouses enter into the agreement. Note that under Sec. 2516, the property transfer does not have to occur during the three-year period; the transfer may be made any time later, as long as it is “pursuant” to an agreement entered into during the three-year period.
Example. On Jan. 19, 2006, Mr. and Ms. Smith signed a separation and property settlement agreement to address contractual issues arising from the cessation of their marriage. The Smiths divorced in 2007. As part of the agreement, Mr. Smith transferred certain property to Ms. Smith. The agreement also provided:
Each party accepts the provisions herein made for him or her in lieu of and in full and final settlement and satisfaction of any and all claims or rights that either party may now or hereafter have against the other party for support or maintenance or for the distribution of property. However, each party has relied upon the representations of the other party concerning a complete and full disclosure of all marital assets in accepting the property settlement, and it is understood and agreed that this provision shall not constitute a waiver of any marital interest either party may have in any property owned but not fully disclosed by the other party as to existence or fair market value at the time this agreement is executed. Moreover, the failure of either party to disclose property shall constitute a material breach of this agreement, which shall give rise to whatever remedies at law or in equity may be available to the other party.
At some time after the parties signed the agreement, Ms. Smith began asking Mr. Smith whether all assets had been disclosed. She also hired an attorney to pursue claims arising from nondisclosure of assets. In 2011, Mr. Smith realized that he had inadvertently failed to disclose to Ms. Smith stock options ($16 million fair market value) that a court would consider marital assets. According to the terms of the agreement, Ms. Smith had not waived her marital interest in the stock options. Pursuant to a settlement (or an amendment to the original agreement), Mr. Smith paid Ms. Smith $6 million in 2011 in settlement of the claim that she had made regarding her interest in this property.
In considering this issue, Mr. Smith expressed concern that the transfer to Ms. Smith would exhaust his unified transfer tax credit and create a taxable gift transfer. However, because Mr. Smith made the payment pursuant to a written agreement relative to their marital and property rights, and Mr. and Ms. Smith divorced within the three-year period beginning one year prior to the signing of the agreement, under Sec. 2516, Mr. Smith was not subject to gift tax on the transfer and did not have to use his unified transfer tax credit.
The blog post will continue in Part III.
by Ray A. Knight, CPA, J.D. and Lee G. Knight, Ph.D. (April 2013)
Edited and posted by Harold Goedde CPA, CMA, Ph.D. (taxation and accounting)
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