Several Different Legal Theories May Allow Creditors To Reach a Debtor’s Assets Held in Trust
United States v. Evseroff, 00-CV-06029 KAM, 2012 WL 1514860 (E.D.N.Y. Apr. 30, 2012)
In a recent case before the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, the United States government sought to collect delinquent taxes by accessing assets held in a trust established for the benefit of the taxpayer’s children. The current case was remanded to the District Court by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit after the Second Circuit reversed an earlier District Court ruling on the same matter. On remand, the District Court ruled that the government may collect against all assets held by the trust.
Between 1978 and 1982, the taxpayer invested in a series of tax shelters that generated deductions that were later disallowed by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In December 1990, after being audited, the taxpayer received notification that he owed over $227,000 in taxes and penalties. This amount was later corrected. In January 1992, the taxpayer received a notice of deficiency indicating that he had accrued more than $700,000 in tax liability. The taxpayer challenged the IRS calculation of his tax liability in a petition to the United States Tax Court. In November 1992, the Tax Court entered judgment against the taxpayer in the amount of $209,113 in taxes and penalties, and $560,000 in interest.
In June 1992, the taxpayer established a trust, naming a series of family friend and business associates as the trustees and naming his two sons as the beneficiaries. In the same month, he transferred approximately $220,000 to the trust and in October 1992 he transferred his primary residence, valued at $515,000, to the trust. The taxpayer received no consideration and there was no evidence the trust assumed the individual taxpayer’s mortgage obligations. Pursuant to the transfer agreement, the taxpayer was allowed to live in the residence and was responsible for the expenses of the residence, including the mortgage and property taxes. At the time of the transfer, the mortgage was scheduled to be paid off in five years; however, the transfer agreement did not specify an end date for the taxpayer’s occupancy.
At the bench trial held in 2005, the government advanced several theories for recovering assets from the trust, all of which were rejected by the District Court. The government appealed. In 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the judgment and remanded the case. In its remand order, the Second Circuit directed the District Court to reconsider its findings with respect to whether the conveyances by the taxpayer to the trust were actually fraudulent, whether the trust held property as the taxpayer’s nominee and whether the trust was the taxpayer’s alter ego.
According to New York law, every conveyance made with “actual intent, as distinguished from intent presumed in law, to hinder, delay or defraud” one’s creditors is fraudulent as to both present and future creditors. N.Y. Debtor and Creditor Law § 276. The primary issue is the intent of the debtor in making the conveyance, not the actual financial status of the debtor at the time of the conveyance. The requisite intent required by this section does not need to be proven by direct evidence; it may be inferred from circumstances surrounding the allegedly fraudulent transfer. Factors, known as “badges of fraud,” that a court may consider in determining fraudulent intent include: lack or inadequacy of consideration; close relationship between the transferor and the transferee; debtor’s retaining possession, benefit or use of the property; series of transactions after incurring the debt; the transferor’s knowledge of the creditor’s claim and the inability to pay it; the financial condition of the debtor before and after the transfer; and the shifting of assets to a corporation wholly owned by the debtor. See Steinberg v. Levine, 6 A.D.3d 620 (N.Y. 2004); In re Kaiser, 722 F.2d 1574, 1582–83 (2d Cir.1983) (citations omitted). To support a fraudulent conveyance finding, the creditor must have suffered some actual harm; however, actual harm may be found if the debtor depletes or diminishes the value of the assets of the debtor’s estate available to the creditors. Lippe v. Bairnco Corp., 249 F.Supp.2d 357, 375 (S.D.N.Y. 2003)
The District Court found that the taxpayer was well aware of his tax liabilities and other potential demands on his assets when he transferred his residence and $220,000 to the trust in 1992. Evidence of the taxpayer’s conduct at the time of the transfers supported the court’s finding that the taxpayer acted with the intention to hinder or delay collection of his assets. The taxpayer retained the benefits of ownership of the residence after it was transferred to the trust for no consideration. His payments of mortgage and other property-related expenses, in lieu of rent, were the type of payments that would be made by a property owner, not a renter. Much of the taxpayer’s net worth consisted of cash, which he was continually transferring among bank accounts held by family and close associates, as well as withdrawing to hold in an office safe. These transfers and withdrawals made it difficult for the IRS to locate and value the taxpayer’s assets. The District Court also found that the transfers of cash and real estate to the trust unambiguously caused the requisite actual harm to his creditors by reducing the assets that the taxpayer had available to satisfy his tax debt and reducing the value of his readily accessible assets well below the amount of his tax debt. After the transfers, the IRS would have had to collect between fifty and ninety percent of his remaining assets to satisfy his tax debt. As a result of this analysis, the District Court found that the taxpayer’s intent to evade the IRS collection efforts was substantial and sufficient on its own; therefore, the court concluded that the taxpayer’s transfer of the residence and $220,000 to the trusts was actually fraudulent within the definition of New York law. The remedy for fraudulent conveyance is that the creditor may collect upon the fraudulently conveyed property. Therefore, the District Court held that the government may collect against the assets in the trust on this basis.
The nominee theory focuses on the relationship between the taxpayer and the property to determine whether a taxpayer has engaged in a legal fiction, for federal tax purposes, by placing legal title to property in the hands of another while, in actuality, retaining all or some of the benefits of being the property’s true owner. Richards v. United States, 231 B.R. 571, 578 (E.D.Pa.1999). The overall objective of the nominee analysis is to determine whether the debor retained the practical benefits of ownership while transferring legal title. Id. The critical consideration is whether the taxpayer exercised active or substantial control over the property. Factors examined by the court include: (1) whether inadequate or no consideration was paid by the nominee; (2) whether the property was placed in the nominee’s name in anticipation of a liability while the transferor remains in control of the property; (3) where there is a close relationship between the nominee and the transferor; (4) whether they failed to record the conveyance; (5) whether the transferor retains possession; and (6) whether the transferor continues to enjoy the benefits of the transferred property. Giardino v. United States, No. 96–CV–6348T, 1997 WL 1038197, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. Oct.29, 1997). A nominee finding can be made even where there is no intent to defraud creditors or hinder collection efforts. Where a nominee relationship is found, the government may access only the property held on the taxpayer’s behalf by the nominee and not all the property of the nominee.
The District Court found that the trust was the taxpayer’s nominee with respect to the residence only, and not with respect to the $220,000. The taxpayer had a close relationship with the trustees and the trust paid no consideration for the transfer of the residence. There was no evidence in the transfer agreement that the trust prevented the taxpayer from benefitting from the use and occupancy of the residence as much as when he held legal title to it. The District Court found the evidence that the taxpayer made some payments relating to the property to be insufficient evidence to rebut the inference that he was the de facto owner of the property. The payments that the taxpayer made in exchange for his occupancy were precisely those that an owner would make. Once the mortgage was paid off, the taxpayer was only responsible for upkeep and expenses for the property; therefore, the trust received no net return from this asset. The District Court considered that, were the trust acting as the owner of the property, it would have sought market rental rates that would have exceeded the taxpayer’s payments. Therefore, the District Court found that the trust held the residence as the taxpayer’s nominee and that the government could recover the taxpayer’s debts against the residence under a nominee theory.
The alter ego theory differs from the nominee theory because the nominee theory focuses on the taxpayer’s control over and benefit from the actual property, while the alter ego theory emphasizes the taxpayer’s control over the entity that holds the property. The alter ego doctrine arose from the law of corporations and allows the creditor to disregard the corporate form (also known as “piercing the corporate veil”) by either using an individual owner’s assets to satisfy a corporation’s debts or using the corporation’s assets to satisfy the individual owner’s debts. Although the New York Court of Appeals has never held that the alter ego theory may be applied to reach assets held in trust, the District Court found no policy reason not to extend the application of veil piercing to trusts. The policy behind piercing the corporate veil is to prevent a debtor from using the corporate form to unjustly avoid liability, which applies equally to trusts. Therefore, the District Court held that the alter ego theory could be applied to the trust in the instant case.
To pierce the corporate veil in New York, a plaintiff must show that “(1) the owner exercised such control that the corporation has become a mere instrumentality of the owner, who is the real actor; (2) the owner used this control to commit a fraud or ‘other wrong’; and (3) the fraud or wrong results in an unjust loss or injury to the plaintiff.” Babitt v. Vebeliunas,332 F.3d 85, 91–92 (2d Cir.2003) (citations omitted); see also Wm. Passalacqua Builders, Inc. v. Resnick Developers S. Inc., 933 F.2d 131, 138 (2d Cir.1991). With respect to analyzing the taxpayer’s control over the trust, the relevant factors can be drawn by analogy from the corporate context. In analyzing the alter ego question as it relates to a corporation, courts consider factors such as the absence of formalities, the amount of business discretion displayed by the allegedly dominated corporation, whether the related corporations deal with the dominated corporation at arm’s length and whether the corporation in question had property that was used by other of the corporations as if it were its own. Vebeliunas,332 F.3d at 91 n.3 (citation omitted).
The District Court that the trust was an alter ego of the taxpayer. The trust formalities were so poorly observed as to give rise to the inference that the trust was not a bona fide independent entity. Between 1992 and 1998, the trust did not record the taxpayer’s payment of expenses for the residence as income and, during this period, the trust did not claim the mortgage interest deduction for the residence. The individual taxpayer remained as the named beneficiary of the flood and fire insurance policies of the residence. The accounting work for the trust was performed by a business associate of the taxpayer as a professional courtesy. The trust tax statements were sent directly to the taxpayer instead of to the trustees. The District Court also found that the manner in which the trust was managed also demonstrate that it was an extension of the taxpayer because there was little evidence that the trustees were actively involved in managing the trust or its assets. Having trustees play an active role in managing the trust is an important factor in deciding whether to respect the form of a trust because active involvement of trustees would support the separate existence of a trust. Dean v. United States, 987 F.Supp. 1160, 1165 (W.D.Mo.1997). Finally, the taxpayer demonstrated his domination of the trust by controlling its property to a high degree.
Once the District Court found that the taxpayer controlled the trust, the next steps were to determine whether he used that control to commit a fraud or a wrong against the government, in its capacity as a creditor, and whether that wrong resulted in an unjust loss. The court found these elements to be plainly satisfied by the facts and its previous findings with respect to actual fraudulent conveyance and the nominee doctrine. Therefore, the District Court concluded that the existence of the trust as a separate entity was a legal fiction. Under the alter ego theory, the government may collect against all assets held by the trust as if they were held by the taxpayer himself.
Therefore, the District Court held that the government may proceed to collect against all the assets held by the trust that the taxpayer established for benefit of his sons in order to satisfy his delinquent tax liabilities.
Should you have any questions relating to trusts and other personal asset protection issues, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Susan Maya, at SMaya@Mayalaw.com or 203-221-3100, and Attorney Russell Sweeting, at RSweeting@Mayalaw.com or 203-221-3100, in the Maya Murphy office in Westport, Fairfield County, Connecticut.