In a recent tax court case, Estate of Bolles v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2020-71, 119 T.C.M. (CCH) 1502 (June 1, 2020), the court recognized that where a family loan is involved, an actual expectation of repayment and an intent to enforce the debt are crucial for a transaction to be considered a loan. Many people use trusts and gifts as estate planning tools. Be aware of the requirements of “loans” v. “gifts” when using lending as an estate planning tool.
Mary Bolles made numerous transfers of money to each of her children from the Bolles Trust, keeping a personal record of her advances and repayments from each child, treating the advances as loans, but forgiving up to the annual gift tax exclusion each year. Mary made numerous advances amounting to $1.06 million to her son Peter, an architect, between 1985 and 2007. Peter’s architecture career initially seemed promising, and during his early career, it seemed that Peter would be able to repay the amounts advanced to him by Mary. However, his architecture firm, which had begun to have financial difficulties by the early 1980s, eventually closed. Although Peter continued to be gainfully employed, he did not repay Mary after 1988. By 1989, it was clear that Peter would not be able to repay the advancements.
Although Mary was aware of Peter’s financial troubles, she continued to advance him money, recording the sums as loans and keeping track of the interest. However, she did not require Peter to repay the money and continued to provide financial help to him despite her awareness of his difficulties. Although Mary created a revocable trust in 1989 excluding Peter from any distribution of her estate upon her death, she later amended the trust, including a formula to account for the loans made to him rather than excluding him. Peter signed an acknowledgment in 1995 that he was unable to repay any of the amounts Mary had previously loaned to him. He further agreed that the loans and the interest thereon would be taken into account when distributions were made from the trust.
Upon Mary’s death in 2010, the IRS assessed the estate with a deficiency of $1.15 million on the basis that Mary’s advances to Peter were gifts. Mary’s estate asserted that the advances were loans. Both parties relied upon Miller v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 1996-3, aff’d, 113 F.3d 1241 (9th Cir. 1997).
Requirement for Advances to be Considered a Loan
The case of Miller v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 1996-3, aff’d, 113 F.3d 1241 (9th Cir. 1997) spells out the traditional factors that should be considered in determining whether an advance of money is a loan or gift. To establish that an advance is a loan, the court should consider whether:
(1) there was a promissory note or other evidence of indebtedness,
(2) interest was charged,
(3) there was security or collateral,
(4) there was a fixed maturity date,
(5) a demand for repayment was made,
(6) actual repayment was made,
(7) the transferee had the ability to repay,
(8) records maintained by the transferor and/or the transferee reflect the transaction as a loan, and
(9) the manner in which the transaction was reported for Federal tax purposes is consistent with a loan.
In the Estate of Bolles case, the tax court recognized that where a family loan is involved, an actual expectation of repayment and an intent to enforce the debt are crucial for a transaction to be considered a loan.
The court found that the evidence showed that although Mary recorded the advances to Peter as loans and kept records of the interest, there were no loan agreements, no attempts to force repayment, and no security. Because it was clear that Mary realized by 1989 that Peter would not be able to repay the advances, the court held that although the advances to Peter could be characterized as loans through 1989, beginning in 1990, the advances must be considered gifts. In addition, the court found that Mary did not forgive any of the loans in 1989, but merely accepted that they could not be repaid. Thus, whether an advance is a loan or a gift depends not only upon the documentation maintained by the parties, but also upon their intent or expectations.
Lending as an Estate Planning Tool
As the Estate of Bolles case demonstrates, intra-family loans can be a smart estate planning tool for many families IF properly structured and well-documented. Lenders (usually grandparents or parents) can essentially give access to an inheritance without any immediate gift or estate tax problems, generate a better return on their cash than they could with bank deposits, and borrowers (usually children or grandchildren) can take out loans at interest rates lower than commercial rates and with better terms. In fact, the Internal Revenue Service allows borrowers who are related to one another to pay very low rates on intra-family loans. Furthermore, the total interest paid on these types of transactions over the life of the loan stays within the family. These loans may effectively transfer money within the family, for the purchase of a home, the financing of a business, or any other purpose.
There are several points to keep in mind regarding these types of loans: the loan must be well-documented, lenders should usually ask for collateral, the lender should make sure the borrower can repay the loan, and the income and estate tax implications should be examined thoroughly.
Express Intent in Estate Documents
While you were kind enough to help a member of your family by lending him or her money, do not let this become a legal dilemma in the event of your incapacity or after your death. Instead, use your estate plan to specifically express what you want to have happen regarding these assets. Before lending money, it is important to carefully consider how the loan should be structured, documented, and repaid.
David Lucas is an attorney in the Estates & Trusts and Business & Tax practice groups at Miller, Miller & Canby. He focuses his practice in Estate Planning and Trust and Estate Administration. He provides extensive estate and legacy planning, asset protection planning, and retirement planning.