SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakotans are scrambling to protect family farms, businesses and other assets as lawmakers in Washington struggle to strike a deal before the so-called "fiscal cliff" prompts a variety of tax hikes in the new year.
Lawyers and court workers said they've seen more business than usual in the past few weeks as residents worry that Congress and President Barack Obama will continue the stalemate that's thwarted efforts to avert mandatory spending cuts and tax increases on Jan. 1.
"It is absolutely crazy," Brad Grossenburg, a lawyer with the business-focused firm Woods, Fuller, Shultz & Smith, told the Argus Leader newspaper. "Year-ends are always busy when you're in my business. But this is extraordinarily busy, probably twice what we usually do. And it's all because of the uncertainty."
Nationwide, South Dakota is regarded as one of the best places to set up a trust, a legal entity that can help shelter land and other assets from tax liabilities.
Karl Thoennes, administrator for the 2nd Circuit Court in Sioux Falls, has reassigned staff to deal with a "dramatic increase" in trust filings in the past two weeks, the newspaper reported. Thoennes said there were recently 20 filings in one day.
"We're prepared if we get a rush to the courthouse," he said. "There are attorneys working on trusts that are going to be putting in some late nights."
Republican and Democratic negotiators in the Senate had hoped for a deal as early as Sunday on what threshold to set for increased tax rates, whether to keep current inheritance tax rates and exemptions and how to pay for jobless benefits and avoid cuts in Medicare payments to doctors.
An agreement would halt automatic across-the-board tax increases for virtually every American and perhaps temporarily put off some steep spending cuts in defense and domestic programs.
But The Associated Press reported Sunday that if a deal is reached, it likely would be on a smaller scale than the President and Congress had initially envisioned, leaving some deadlines in place that will likely lead to similar moments of brinkmanship, some in just a matter of weeks.
The uncertainty especially reverberates in South Dakota, which 2nd Circuit Court Judge William Srstka described as a "very big player in the trust world."
Many trusts drafted in South Dakota are created by out-of-staters. One reason for the popularity here: State law allows creators' names to be sealed, so the people behind the trusts and the details of the agreements aren't public.
"There are some really big names, too," Srstka said, who said he told 2nd Circuit lawyers he'd be around Monday for last-minute filings.
"I just let everybody know that rather than hunting around for a judge, I'll be available," he said.
Page 2 of 2 - John Childears is a president and broker with Agri Affiliates Inc., a Nebraska firm that appraises agricultural land in the Midwest. The firm has been doing double its typical workload in the past few weeks compared to other year-ends, he said.
Farmers are land-rich but cash-poor, he said. If the estate tax exclusion drops to $1 million, as some reports have suggested, many family farms would be imperiled by a hefty tax bill.
"There's no God-blessed way in God's world to pay that tax," he said.
But at least one state lawmaker was optimistic Friday that a deal can be made.
"I think in the end we will get a deal, but the question is the timing of that," U.S. Sen. John Thune told NBC's "Today" show.