Asset Protection for Doctors and Other Healthcare Providers: What Do You Need to Know?
As a doctor or other healthcare professional, you spend your career helping other people and earning an income upon which you rely on a daily basis—and upon which you hope to be able to rely in your retirement. However, working in healthcare is inherently risky, and a study published by Johns Hopkins Medicine which concluded that medical malpractice is the third-leading cause of death in the United States has led to a flood of lawsuits in recent years. As a result, taking appropriate measures to protect your assets is more important now than ever, and physicians and other providers at all stages of their careers would be well-advised to put an asset protection strategy in place.
What is an asset protection strategy? Simply put, it is a means of making sure that you do not lose what you have earned. Medical malpractice lawsuits, federal healthcare fraud investigations, disputes with practice co-owners, and liability risks in your personal life can all put your assets in jeopardy. While insurance provides a measure of protection – and is something that no practicing healthcare professional should go without – it is not sufficient on its own. Doctors and other healthcare providers need to take additional steps to protect their wealth, as their insurance coverage will either be inadequate or inapplicable in many scenarios.
“In today’s world, physicians and other healthcare providers face liability risks on a daily basis. In order to protect their assets, providers must implement risk-mitigation strategies in their medical practices, and they must also take measures to shield their wealth in the event that they get sued.”
What Types of Events Can Put Healthcare Providers’ Assets at Risk?
Why do doctors and other healthcare providers need to be concerned about asset protection? As referenced above, medical professionals face numerous risks in their personal and professional lives. While some of these risks apply to everyone, it is doctors’ and other medical professionals’ additional practice-related risks – and personal wealth – that makes implementing an asset protection strategy particularly important. Some examples of the risks that can be mitigated with an effective asset protection strategy include:
Medical Malpractice Lawsuits – All types of practitioners and healthcare facilities face the risk of being targeted in medical malpractice litigation. From allegations of diagnostic errors to allegations of inadequate staffing, plaintiffs’ attorneys pursue a multitude of types of claims against healthcare providers, and they often seek damages well in excess of providers’ malpractice insurance policy limits.
Contract Disputes and Commercial Lawsuits – In addition to patient-related litigation, medical practices and healthcare facilities can face liability in other types of civil lawsuits as well. By extension, their owners’ assets can also be at risk, as there are laws that allow litigants to “pierce the corporate veil” and pursue personal liability in various circumstances.
Federal Healthcare Fraud Investigations – Multiple federal agencies target healthcare providers in fraud-related investigations. From improperly billing Medicare or Medicaid to accepting illegal “kickbacks” from suppliers, there are numerous forms of healthcare fraud under federal law. Healthcare fraud investigations can either be civil or criminal in nature, and they can lead to enormous fines, recoupments, treble damages, and other penalties.
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Audits and Inspections – In addition to healthcare fraud investigations, DEA audits and inspections present risks for healthcare providers as well. If your pharmacy or medical practice is registered with the DEA, any allegations of mishandling, diverting, or otherwise unlawfully distributing controlled substances can lead to substantial liability.
Liability for Personal Injury and Wrongful Death in Auto and Premises-Related Accidents – In addition to liability risks related to medical practice, doctors, other practitioners, and healthcare business owners can face liability risks in their personal lives as well. If you are involved in a serious auto accident, for example, you could be at risk for liability above and beyond your auto insurance coverage. Likewise, if someone is seriously injured in a fall or other accident while visiting your home (or office), you could be at risk for liability in a personal injury lawsuit in this scenario as well.
To be clear, an asset protection strategy mitigates the risk of losing your wealth as a result of these types of concerns—it does not mitigate these concerns themselves. The means for addressing medical practice-related concerns is through the adoption and implementation of an effective healthcare compliance program.
Are Asset Protection Strategies Legal?
One of the most-common misconceptions about asset protection is that it is somehow illegal. However, there are various laws and legal structures that are designed specifically to provide ways for individuals and businesses to protect their assets, and it is absolutely legal to use these to your full advantage. Just as you would not expect your patients to ignore treatment options that are available to them, you are not expected to ignore legal tools and strategies that are available to you.
What are Some Examples of Effective Asset Protection Tools for Doctors and Other Healthcare Providers?
Given the very real liability risks that doctors and other healthcare providers face, for those who do not currently have an asset protection strategy in place, implementing a strategy needs to be a priority. With regard to certain issues, asset protection measures need to be in place before a liability-triggering event occurs. Some examples of the types of tools that physicians, healthcare business owners, and other individuals can use to protect their assets include:
1. Maximizing Use of Qualified Retirement Plans
Qualified retirement plans that are subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) can offer significant protection. Of course, obvious the limitation here is that these assets placed in a qualified plan will only be available to you in retirement. However, by maximizing your use of a qualified retirement plan to the extent that you are preserving your assets for the future, you can secure protection for plan assets against many types of judgments and other creditor claims.
2. Utilizing Nonqualified Retirement Plans as Necessary
If you operate your medical practice as a sole proprietor, then you are not eligible to establish a qualified retirement plan under ERISA. However, placing assets into a nonqualified retirement plan can also provide these assets with an important layer of protection. This protection exists under state law, so you will need to work with your asset protection attorney to determine whether and to what extent this is a desirable option.
3. Forming a Trust
Trusts are the centerpieces of many high-net-worth individuals’ asset protection strategies. There are many types of irrevocable trusts that can be used to shield assets from judgment and debt creditors. When you place assets into an irrevocable trust, they are no longer “yours.” Instead they become assets of the trust. However, you will still retain control over the trust in accordance with the terms of the trust’s governing documents. Some examples of trusts that are commonly used for asset protection purposes include:
Domestic asset protection trusts (DAPT)
Foreign asset protection trusts (FAPT)
Personal residents trusts
Irrevocable spendthrift trusts
4. Offshore Investing
Investing assets offshore can offer several layers of asset protection. Not only do many countries have laws that are particularly favorable for keeping assets safe from domestic liabilities in the United States; but, in many cases, civil plaintiffs will be deterred from pursuing lawsuits once they learn that any attempts to collect would need to be undertaken overseas. Combined with other asset protection strategies (such as the formation of a trust or limited liability company (LLC)), transferring assets to a safe haven offshore can will provide the most-desirable combination of protection and flexibility.
5. Forming a Limited Liability Company (LLC) or Other Entity
If you are operating your medical practice as a sole proprietor, it will almost certainly make sense to form an LLC or another business entity to provide a layer of protection between you and any claims or allegations that may arise. However, even if you have a business entity in place already—and even if you are an employee of a hospital or other large facility—forming an LLC or other entity can still be a highly-effective asset protection strategy.
6. Utilizing Prenuptial Agreements, Postnuptial Agreements, and Other Tools
Depending on your marital or relationship status, using a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement to designate assets as “marital” or “community” property can help protect these assets from your personal creditors (although debts and judgments incurred against you and your spouse jointly could still be enforced against these assets). Additionally, there are various other asset protection tools that will be available based on specific personal, family, and business circumstances.
7. Gifting or Transferring Assets
If you have assets that you plan to give to your spouse, children, or other loved ones in the future, making a gift now can protect these assets from any claims against you. Likewise, in some cases it may make sense to sell, transfer, or mortgage assets in order to open up additional opportunities for protection.
Ultimately, the tools you use to protect your assets will need to reflect your unique situation, and an attorney who is familiar with your personal and professional circumstances can help you develop a strategy that achieves the maximum protection available.