The Middle Class Needs to Start Thinking About Asset Protection

The U.S. economy is suffering. The war in Ukraine, the lingering pandemic, federal stimulus money, and low federal interest rates (until recently) have each taken their toll.

Now we’re experiencing the highest inflation rate since 1981, stock values are plummeting, and gas prices are hitting all-time highs of over $5 (some places are even adding an extra digit to pump meters in anticipation of $10 gas).

This is why it’s more important than ever for Americans to get a grip on their financial security.  For all we know, we could be on the brink of another recession.

One way to boost your financial security is to guard the wealth you already have -- aka asset protection.  Asset protection means protecting your property against lawsuits, bankruptcy, and creditor claims through legal means (not illegal means like concealment, contempt, fraudulent transfers, tax evasion, or bankruptcy fraud).

And since the poor have few assets and the wealthy are usually already familiar with asset protection, it is the middle class that most need to learn about asset protection strategies.

And the sooner you do, the better.  Once a claim or liability occurs, it’s typically too late to implement asset protection strategies.  Courts will view them as evasive, and you could get accused of engaging in “fraudulent transfers.”

So here are a few ways you can start protecting your assets today:

  1. Create an asset protection trust

Asset protection trusts (APTs) are trusts designed to shield your assets against creditors.  Basically, it’s giving ownership of your assets to a trustee and then designating yourself as the beneficiary.  There are two kinds of APTs: domestic APTs and foreign APTs (aka offshore trusts).

Domestic APTs are irrevocable (meaning you can’t modify them once they’ve been created) and are only allowed in 17 states, but they come with unique benefits like state income tax savings when situated in a no-income-tax state. 

Offshore APTs are simply APTs created abroad.  Popular sites for offshore trusts include the Cook Islands, Nevis, and the British Virgin Islands.  People use offshore APTs to make it harder for creditors to come after their assets and lower their tax liability -- hence the term “tax havens.”  But they are usually more expensive to set up.

  1. Leverage homestead laws

Many states have “homestead” exemptions that protect your primary residence and other personal property against creditors.  Homestead protections can be unlimited (like in Florida) or limited (like in Massachusetts, where you can get an exemption of up to $500,000).  Either way, homestead laws can be a great way to protect your primary residence from a forced sale.

  1. Jointly own property under tenants by entirety

Tenants by entirety (TBE) is a way for married couples to share ownership of a property.  The combined ownership protects you against claims or liens directed only at you and not your spouse.  The only way creditors can go after an asset held under TBE is to have a claim against both spouses.

  1. Establish a family limited partnership

A family limited partnership (FLP) is a way for family members to pool money together for a business venture.  You can be a general partner (meaning you are responsible for running the business) or a limited partner (you are only an investor).

What does this have to do with asset protection?  Well, whatever you invest in an FLP is protected from creditors under the Uniform Partnership Act (UPA).  So it’s another great way to safeguard your wealth.  Plus, you can gift FLP interests tax-free every year up to the annual gift tax exclusion ($16,000 in 2022).

  1. Use retirement accounts

Retirement accounts are a great way to grow your wealth and limit your liabilities.  Most are protected against bankruptcy for up to $1 million through U.S. federal bankruptcy laws and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). And employer-sponsored accounts like 401(k)s even have unlimited protection.  So max out your retirement account contributions if you can.

  1. Get insurance

Lastly, another way you can protect your assets is through various insurance policies.  You could invest in umbrella insurance to cover personal liabilities that go beyond regular homeowner, auto, and medical insurance.

Or, if you’re a physician, you could get malpractice insurance.  That way, unhappy patients can’t come after your assets.

And finally, you may want to invest in life insurance to replace your income if you die.  That way, your family will be able to keep paying the mortgage, auto loans, and other debts and not lose valuable assets.

Final thoughts

Those are just a few ways to protect your assets against creditors that might come in handy in a recession.

Some other ways to protect your assets include investing in income annuities, accounts-receivable financing (if you own a business), and asset transfers to family.

The point is you need to start thinking about asset protection strategies now before creditors start coming after your money.  If you wait too long, it might be too late.

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