Lake-front cottages and family vacation homes are not just a tangible asset to most Michigan residents  – they are as “Michigan” as Coney Island Hotdogs, Mackinac Island Fudge and Sanders Chocolates.  They are often bound with emotional issues that make succession planning difficult, as we consider how to “keep the cottage in the family” after the senior generation/owner passes.

Here are some dos and don’ts to help with your own cottage ownership succession planning, if you and/or your family own a cottage in Michigan.

Don’ts

  • Do NOT stick your head in the sand and wish or pretend that “they’ll figure it out” after you die. Even if “they” are all on the same page, numerous practical/financial problems can sabotage even the best intentions within a harmonious family, without advanced planning.
  • Do NOT just bequeath the cottage in your Will without meaningful discussions with the recipient(s) beforehand
  • Do NOT just leave the cottage to somebody without meaningful consideration of their ability to maintain it
  • Do NOT attempt to force ownership on unwilling participants as this will only breed fractious disputes down the road
  • Do NOT assume that simple joint/co-owners are somehow magically or legally required to get along or resolve things democratically.
  • Do NOT forget that a future co-owner’s legal problems (such as divorce or bankruptcy) can put the “family” cottage at risk.
  • Do NOT try to “DIY” or do it yourself when considering how to keep your cottage in the family.

Dos

  • DO consult with a lawyer and others who have been through the process and can point out hidden traps for the unwary
  • DO consider various forms of legal ownership that might minimize disputes that can arise among co-owners, such as limited liability companies, joint ownership/agreements and trusts.
  • DO learn about strategies to delay/avoid property tax “uncapping” for multiple generations, since property tax increases are probably the biggest impediment to multi-generational ownership of property in Michigan;
  • DO consider supplemental bequests in your Will/Trust to assist cottage recipient(s) with anticipated maintenance/carrying costs
  • DO encourage family meetings with the “next generation” of potential owners to verify those who are willing/able to assume ownership/management and to identify potential problem issues (like property use and expense contributions) that might be dealt with ahead of time
  • DO consider binding legal arrangements that will keep ownership within your family lines for multiple generations, subject to such variations as YOU specify.
  • DO consider ownership structures that shield the cottage from the claims of any future co-owner’s creditors.
  • DO consult with an attorney, accountant and/or financial planner experienced in multi-generational transfers of family cottages, to help lead you safely through the minefield of problems that you and your family will confront (sooner or later).