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Friday, April 30, 2010

Protecting Your Assets from Lawsuit - Part 1 - Stewart Welch III

There is a litigation crisis in America where the mantra is, “Sue everybody and we’ll sort it out later’. It is estimated that there are over 1 million lawyers in America…one for every 300 citizens. So what are the chances of you getting sued sometime during your lifetime? Turns out they’re pretty good. In fact, some research suggests that you’ll be involved in an average of five lawsuits during your lifetime. So if we can agree that there is at least a risk of you getting sued, wouldn’t it make sense to develop an asset protection strategy?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll cover a wide range of strategies that discusses lifestyle; insurance; titling of property; trusts; and estate documents.

Monitor your lifestyle. At the most basic level, your lifestyle can either minimize or elevate your risks of a lawsuit. Some of the obvious things would include not drinking and driving; observing the speed limits; securing a fence around your pool; etc. For example, research proves that talking on the phone while driving is the equivalent of driving while slightly intoxicated. Driving while texting on your phone is the equivalent of driving while drunk. I was recently sitting at a red light when a young lady whose attention was momentarily diverted scraped my bumper. No one was hurt but the damage to my scraped bumper was still $1200 and the costs of repairing her car, I suspect, was much more.
To Do: Take a moment to think about how you could reduce lawsuit risks related to your lifestyle.

Insurance as your first line of defense. A number of years ago, a client and his family were driving to the airport in Denver, Colorado after a week of snow skiing. It was a beautiful sunny day with clear roads. Suddenly, he hit a patch of ice and his car slid into the oncoming lane. Fortunately, he and his family had buckled up and were not injured. Unfortunately, the two young ladies in the other car had not buckled up and both came through the windshield causing severe facial lacerations. They sued and won a judgment in excess of $700,000. If my client’s auto liability coverage had been, say $50,000, where would the young ladies’ attorney gone to satisfy the balance of the judgment? Answer: His personal assets. Fortunately, we had wrapped his auto and homeowners insurance with a $1 million Umbrella Liability policy.

In my experience, most people do not carry umbrella liability coverage, yet it’s perhaps the least expensive and most effective way to shield your assets from lawsuit. An umbrella liability policy typically has a very large deductible, say $300,000 or $500,000, but then covers any liability that arises from an auto or homeowners claim up to $1 million above your deductible. In order to avoid having a ‘gap’ in coverage, you’ll need to make certain that your auto and homeowner’s coverage limits are equal to your umbrella deductible.
To Do: Meet with your property and casualty agent and have him or her add an umbrella liability policy for a minimum of $1 million. This policy often costs less than $300 per year but you may have to increase coverage for your auto and homeowners insurance.

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