The SEC, “Spousal Equivalents” and the Family Office

The SEC now recognizes "spousal equivalents" defined as "cohabitants occupying a relationship generally equivalent to that of a spouse." Before wondering if the federal government is making big strides, keep in mind that this recognition is limited to the new Family Office Rule (.pdf).

Dodd-Frank created a new exemption for Family Offices. Previously they typically operated under the 15 clients rule that was repealed by Dodd-Frank or a private ruling from the SEC. Dodd-Frank left it up to the SEC to define a "family office."

Rule 202(a)(11)(G)-1 contains three general conditions to fitting into the Family Office Exemption. First, the family offices may only provide advice about securities to certain "family clients." Second, family clients must wholly own the family office and family members and/or family entities must control the family office. Third, a family office cannot hold itself out to the public as an investment adviser.

Th rule inevitably leads to a definition of "family." Too narrow and many family offices would be excluded. Too broad and every investor will find an ancestor from the Mayflower. The SEC decided on a 10 generation limit.

The rule treats lineal descendants and their spouses, spousal equivalents, stepchildren, adopted children, foster children and persons who were minors when another family member became their legal guardian as family members.

I think it was bold move of the SEC to include spousal equivalents. They brush aside the Defense of Marriage Act argument: Because the term "spouse" is not defined in the rule and a "spousal equivalent" is identified as a category of person, separate and distinct from a "spouse," that meets the definition of a "family member"....  DOMA provides that in "determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States...the word 'spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife." 1 U.S.C. 7.

The failure of a family office to be able to meet the conditions of the new rule will not preclude the office from providing services to family members. But, the family office will need to find another exemption, register under the Advisers Act or seek an exemptive order from the SEC.

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For additional commentary on developments in compliance and ethics, visit Compliance Building, a blog hosted by Doug Cornelius.

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