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Rhode Island Legal Blog

Monday, September 19, 2016

Preventing Will Contests

So, you have a will, but is it valid?  A will can be contested for a multitude of reasons after it is presented to a probate court.  It is in your best interest to have an attorney draft the will to prevent any ambiguity in the provisions of the document that others could dispute later. 

A will may be targeted on grounds of fraud, mental incapacity, validity, duress, or undue influence.  These objections can draw out the probate process and make it very time consuming and expensive.  More importantly, an attorney can help ensure that your property is put into the right hands, rather than distributed to unfamiliar people or organizations that you did not intend to provide for. 

At the time you executed the will, you must have been mentally competent, or of “sound mind.”  A court will inquire as to whether you had full awareness of what you were doing.   There will also be an inquiry into your understanding and knowledge of the assets in your name.  If, at the moment you executed the will, you were pressured or influenced by another individual to sign the document, it may be invalidated. 

If the document was signed under duress or undue influence, the provisions are likely to be against your intentions or requests.  Moreover, if you are trying to nullify a will on your own behalf, you are likely to need an attorney because it is very difficult and complicated to demonstrate the existence of duress, fraud, or undue influence.   If drafting a new will, counsel can ensure that your document abides by all of the validity requirements, so the will’s provisions can successfully carry out your intentions after your death.

For example, the will creator or “testator,” is usually required to sign the document before several witnesses who are over the age of eighteen, during a certain period of time.  A will or a certain bequest to a person could be deemed void if the beneficiary was also a witness.   In your state, you may be able to execute a “self-proving affidavit,” which may do away with some of the requirements in order to establish a valid will.  The testator should also designate a person to execute the document.  Consult your attorney to ensure that your will comports with your state’s particular laws and is sustainable against any future contests.  

 


Monday, September 5, 2016

The Federal Trade Commission Act and its Affect on Advertising

The law forbids businesses from including baseless statements or assertions in their advertisements.  According to the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTCA), a business must ensure that their representations are not misleading or unfair, and the entity must have data that supports all claims.  Evidence may, for example, be substantiated based by surveys, expert testimony, or scientific studies and tests. 

A “deceptive” advertisement, as described in the FTC's "Deception Policy Statement" is one that suggests or omits a critical fact in an attempt to mislead customers. Similarly, an “unfair” advertisement is categorized as one using a deceptive practice that may result, or has resulted in, significant customer harm. Typically, the harm caused could not be avoided by the customer, and minimal benefit is experienced by any of the clientele engaging in the same practice.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is charged with investigating national ads to determine whether they are fraudulent. Local advertising, on the other hand, is usually the domain of agencies of the county, state, or city, such as the Better Business Bureau (BBB). In both cases, certain criteria are used to evaluate the “words, phrases, and pictures” within the endorsement to identify potential deception. Deception is characterized as that which a “reasonable consumer” would falsely believe to be true.  All investigations are confidential until legal action is commenced or a claim is settled.   

There are several remedies available for deceptive claims, including the issuance of a cease and desist order.  Such an order prohibits a business from continuing to disseminate misleading or dishonest advertisements.  A cease and desist order is often combined with substantial fines or with a requirement that the offending company authenticate any and all future ads.  Other penalties may compel a business to notify its customers of the false ads, or to provide refunds for falsely advertised purchases.    

Unfair competition may also come into play in cases of deceptive advertising. Companies that feel they have been unfairly treated by competitors may have legal recourse. The National Advertising Division (NAD) is associated with the BBB, and an aggrieved party may file a cause of action against a competitor through NAD.  Depending on the specific circumstances, a business may have the legal authority to sue its rival for posting deceptive ads under the Lanham (Trademark) Act. Individuals who feel their businesses have been harmed by the false or deceptive advertising practices of a competitor may have remedies available to them. A reputable business attorney is in the best position to give advice about which course of action should be pursued.


Monday, August 22, 2016

What Employers Should Not Ask In An Interview

Most employers know that their workers are protected from discrimination while they are employed.  Surprisingly, some are unaware that prospective employees are protected throughout the application and hiring process as well.  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, as well as other Federal and state laws, are all applicable to prospective employees.  Therefore, employers must be extremely careful about the questions they ask individuals applying for a position.

Employers should shy away from asking any questions that might give a prospective employee reason to believe they were not selected for a position due to discrimination.  Employers should not inquire about an applicant’s race, unless it is for an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission purpose (which should be noted).  They should also not ask about an applicant’s citizenship status and instead should inquire as to whether the individual has authorization to work in the United States.

Employers should also be sensitive to discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation when conducting interviews.  They should not ask gender-related questions or anything regarding pregnancy or children.  It is also not a good idea to ask a prospective employee about marital status or religion.  An employer might be concerned that a prospective employee will miss work due to young children or religious holidays.  But, if they are concerned about an applicant’s attendance, they should only ask about attendance records at previous places of employment.  Now, many states have laws relating to discrimination based on sexual orientation and employers should be careful not to inquire about this detail as well.

Individuals with disabilities are protected under Federal and state law.   An employer should never ask about a disability.  All that matters is that the individual is able to perform job duties, so an employer should only inquire about functioning in that respect.  For example, if the applicant is interested in an inventory position that requires standing for the entire 8 hour shift and lifting heavy boxes, but the applicant suffers from a disability, the employer should only ask whether their disability prohibits them from performing these duties.  Many states now have or are in the process of passing laws that prohibit discrimination based on criminal convictions, so employers should be aware not to ask about an applicant’s criminal history unless they are sure it is allowed under their state’s law.  For the same reason, employers should not ask about credit history or personal finances unless these characteristics have a direct affect on the applicant’s ability to do their job. 

If you are a business owner, it is in your best interest to put together a list of interview questions for prospective employees and to review that list with an experienced attorney.  You should also be sure that all of the parties conducting interviews are aware of the rules relating to interview questions and abide by them.


Monday, August 15, 2016

Avoiding Common Mistakes in Estate Planning

Estate planning is designed to fulfill the wishes of a person after his or her death. Problems can easily arise, however, if the estate plan contains unanswered questions that can no longer be resolved after the person's demise. This can, and frequently does, lead to costly litigation counter-productive to the goals of the estate. It is important that will be written in language that is clear and that the document has been well proofread because something as simple as a misplaced comma can significantly alter its meaning.

Planning for every possible contingency is a significant part of estate planning. Tragic scenarios in which an estate planner’s loved ones predecease him or her, though uncomfortable, must be considered during the preparation of a will to avoid otherwise unforeseen conflicts. 

Even trained professionals can make significant mistakes if they are not well versed in estate planning. An attorney who practices general law, while perfectly capable of preparing simple wills, may not understand the intricacies of trusts and guardianships. A great many attorneys, not aware of the tax consequences of bequests involving IRAs, may leave heirs with unnecessary financial obligations. If an attorney is not knowledgeable enough to ask the proper questions, he or she will be unable to prepare an estate plan that functions efficiently and ensures the proper distribution of the estate's assets.

In spite of the wealth of an individual, the estate may be cash deficient if that wealth is tied up in assets at the time of the individual's death. Problems can also result if an estate planner has distributed assets into joint bank accounts or accounts with pay on death provisions. If the executor of the estate does not have access to funds to pay the estate's bills or taxes, the heirs of the estate may run into trouble.

Even if estate planning is handled well from a logistical point of view, lack of communication with loved ones can interfere with a will's desired execution. A tragedy that incapacitates the testator can occur suddenly, so it is imperative that a savvy estate planner confers with loved ones as soon as possible, making them aware of any future obligations, such as life insurance premiums that must be paid and informing them of the location of any probate documents and inventories of assets. Such conversations ensure that the individual's wishes will be carried out without complications or delay in the event of an unexpected incapacity.

In addition to communicating logistical information, it is also essential to schedule a personal conversation with loved ones that makes clear any sentimental bequests or large gifts that require explanation. This avoids the shock or discomfort that may arise after one's death during which a well-thought-out decision is questioned as impulsive or irrational. Such direct communication of one's plans avoids unnecessary envy, arguments or rivalry among family and friends.

Consulting with attorneys who specialize in estate planning is the cornerstone of creating a plan to ensure that one's desires are carried out and that all the bases are covered. Estate planning attorneys serve as invaluable repositories of all information necessary to strategizing a plan that not only meets one's personal needs and desires, but is legally binding.


Monday, August 8, 2016

When Must a Business Charge Sales Tax on Out-of-State Purchases?

A 1992 Supreme Court decision Quill Corp. v. North Dakota established the principle that an out-of-state retailer does not have to collect state sales tax if it does not have a physical location—a store, business office, or warehouse—in the state where the purchase originated.

Theoretically, the consumer placing the order in a state that has a sales tax could be responsible for paying the tax on an out-of-state order.  An out-of-state retailer can voluntarily collect sales tax and remit it to the state, but there is no legal obligation for it to do so.  Because requiring consumers to "self-report" on large numbers of small transactions is burdensome, states generally do not do it, except on very expensive out-of-state purchases.

 

Sales Taxes on Online Transactions 

The long-established principle that out-of-state stores with no in-state presence need not collect sales tax has been challenged in the Internet era.  Many brick-and-mortar businesses have complained that out-of-state online companies have an unfair advantage because they do not have to charge customers sales tax.  States have also lost billions in sales tax revenue to tax-free online orders. 

In 2008, New York enacted the so-called "Amazon Tax" forcing Amazon and similar e-tailers to collect sales tax.  New York got around the Quill requirement of a physical presence in the state because Amazon has countless affiliates and "associates" marketing products through it, and some of those are located in New York.  Other states have enacted similar laws.  Illinois, for example, passed the "Main Street Fairness Act" targeting online retailers with affiliates in Illinois.  Currently Amazon collects sales tax in 23 states.

Some online retailers, such as Overstock.com, have cancelled affiliate programs in states with an "Amazon Tax" to avoid having to collect state sales taxes.

 

Which States Have an "Amazon Tax"?

Currently 23 states have sales taxes on online retailers like Amazon:

Arizona

California

Connecticut

Florida

Georgia

Indiana

Kansas

Kentucky

Maryland

Massachusetts

Minnesota

Nevada

New Jersey

New York

North Carolina

North Dakota

Pennsylvania

Tennessee

Texas

Virginia

Washington

West Virginia

Wisconsin

South Carolina will start collecting tax in 2016.  Five states have no sales tax at all -- Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon.  Others have yet to target online businesses.

 

Summary

Businesses online or off that have no physical connection to a state, other than shipping products to it, are generally shielded from having to collect sales tax by Quill.  Businesses that have a physical presence in a state may have to collect sales tax if required by state law.  Those with no physical presence but with representatives, affiliates or associates in a state may be required to collect state sales tax by laws like the Amazon Tax.  An experienced business law attorney can assist you in determining whether you are obligated to collect sales taxes.


Monday, July 25, 2016

What are the powers and responsibilities of an executor?

An executor is responsible for the administration of an estate. The executor’s signature carries the same weight of the person whose estate is being administered. He or she must pay the deceased’s debts and then distribute the remaining assets of the estate. If any of the assets of the estate earn money, an executor must manage those assets responsibly. The process of doing so can be intimidating for an individual who has never done so before.

After a person passes away, the executor must locate the will and file it with the local probate office. Copies of the death certificate should be obtained and sent to banks, creditors, and relevant government agencies like social security. He or she should set up a new bank account in the name of the estate. All income received for the deceased, such as remaining paychecks, rents from investment properties, and the collection of outstanding loans receivable, should go into this separate bank account. Bills that need to be paid, like mortgage payments or tax bills, can be paid from this account. Assets should be maintained for the benefit of the estate’s heirs. An executor is under no obligation to contribute to an estate’s assets to pay the estate’s expenses.

An inventory of assets should be compiled and maintained by the executor at all times. An accounting of the estate’s assets, debts, income, and expenses should also be available upon request. If probate is not necessary to distribute the assets of an estate, the executor can elect not to enter probate. Assets may need to be sold in order to be distributed to the heirs. Only the executor can transfer title on behalf of an estate. If an estate becomes insolvent, the executor must declare bankruptcy on behalf of the estate. After debts are paid and assets are distributed, an executor must dispose of any property remaining. He or she may be required to hire an attorney and appear in court on behalf of the estate if the will is challenged. For all of this trouble, an executor is permitted to take a fee from the estate’s assets. However, because the executor of an estate is usually a close family member, it is not uncommon for the executor to waive this fee. If any of these responsibilities are overwhelming for an executor, he or she may elect not to accept the position, or, if he or she has already accepted, may resign at any time.


Monday, July 18, 2016

Pitfalls in Providing Employee References

Employees do not always depart on the best of terms. When that is the case, what are your obligations in terms of disclosure when a prospective employer contacts you to check for references? Keeping negative opinions to yourself might seem like a surefire way to stay out of court. A bad reference might lead an employee to file a lawsuit, but that does not mean he or she would be successful. Theories of liability include defamation, negligent misrepresentation and negligent referral.

Particularly risk-averse employers follow a policy of only confirming employment when someone calls for a reference. This approach does not necessarily insulate you from liability, however. In workplace violence situations, for example, you might find yourself in litigation for simply providing dates of employment for an individual when you were aware of his or her tendency toward or history of violence or other misconduct.

When providing a reference, share only factual information. Hunches, gut feelings and bad vibes are not good topics for discussion. For example, if you suspected a former employee was stealing from you, but you never had conclusive proof, it is probably advisable not to mention your suspicion. The best course of action is usually providing complete and accurate information to anyone checking a reference. Some states have passed laws providing varying degrees of immunity to employers who provide honest references about former employees.

When you are asked for a reference, you should keep track of:

  • which employees you were contacted about;
  • who contacted you;
  • the date of any conversations;
  • the method of communication (phone, email, in person); and
  • what you said, particularly if you provided anything more than confirmation of employment.

An experienced business law attorney can effectively advise you about providing employee references and other challenging issues you face in running your business.


Monday, July 11, 2016

Costs Associated with Dying Without a Will

When someone dies without a will, it is known as dying intestate.  In such cases, state law (of the state in which the person resides) governs how the person's estate is administered. In most states, the individual's assets are split -- with one third of the estate going to the spouse and all surviving children splitting the rest. For people who leave behind large estates, unless they have established trusts or other tax avoidance protections, there may be a tremendous tax liability, including both estate and inheritance tax.

For just about everyone, the cost of having a will prepared by a skilled and knowledgeable attorney is negligible when compared to the cost of dying intestate,  since there are a number of serious consequences involved in dying without a proper will in place.

Legal Consequences

The larger your estate, the more catastrophic the consequences of dying intestate will be. If you die without a will, the freedom to decide how your property will be divided will be taken from you and the state in which you reside will divide your assets.

Not only will you not be able to decide on the distribution of your property, but a stranger will be making personal, familial decisions. This may be divisive among your family members; instead of leaving your loved ones in peace, you may leave them engaged in bitter disputes over a family heirloom or even a simple memento. This can be especially true in situations where there are children from a previous marriage.

Tax Consequences

In addition to the legal and personal problems associated with dying intestate, the tax results can be severe as well. This is particularly true for clients who have not consulted with an estate planning attorney in order to protect themselves through tax avoidance methods. Both the state and federal governments can tax the transfer of property and an inheritance tax may be imposed on the property you have left to your heirs.

The most effective way to avoid all of these negative tax consequences is to create a will with a competent attorney. Your lawyer will help you to choose a proper executor (the person who will administer your estate, distribute your property and pay your debts), and will assist you in finding ways to limit your tax liability. There are several ways your attorney can help you to do this:

  • By gifting some of those you want to inherit before you die
  • By creating one or several trusts
  • By purchasing a life insurance policy
  • By buying investments in your loved one's name

These methods will ensure that your loved ones receive the assets you desire them to have, while simultaneously protecting them from possibly enormous tax burdens after you pass.

For those who have no family, dying without a will can be even more troublesome and costly, since their entire fortunes can be left to the state. If a genealogical search doesn't turn up any blood relatives, all of your assets will be claimed by the government. This means that any individual, group, organization or charity you wished to endow will receive nothing.

It is never easy to think of one's own mortality, but it is even more painful to contemplate leaving a messy, uncomfortable situation behind when you pass. By engaging the services of an excellent estate planning attorney, who will help you fashion a legally binding, precisely designed document,  you can make sure that your loved ones are well taken care of and that your final wishes are respected and implemented.


Monday, June 27, 2016

Commercial Lease Disputes

Sometimes a business grows more rapidly than expected and its leased space is no longer large enough. Other times a business finds itself losing money and unable to pay rent. In those instances, it is the commercial tenant that desires to break its lease. There are times, however, when a commercial landlord seeks to break a lease and even threatens eviction for reasons that may lack merit.

A commercial lease is basically a contract that establishes a relationship between the parties and outlines the respective rights and obligations of each. These documents can be confusing and complex. Resolving a commercial lease dispute often involves business, contract and real estate laws.

Unlike residential leases, where the law heavily favors tenants, in the commercial world, the law tends to be more even-handed. The terms of the lease (even if all you have is an oral agreement) are most often going to be what governs the outcome of the dispute. This reflects the view that both parties involved in commercial lease agreements are sophisticated business entities that can protect their interests.

Since the terms of the lease are most likely going to govern if you file a lawsuit and take your dispute to court, it is essential that anyone evaluating your case examines your lease in depth. Even if an out-of-court settlement is negotiated, familiarity with your particular lease agreement is crucial for anyone advising you. Many commercial leases contain a dispute resolution clause that might require mediation or arbitration. These options can often lead to a resolution in less time and with less expense than traditional litigation.

Assessing damages and amassing the means to prove those damages is another important component to handling a commercial lease dispute. Typically, monetary damages are sought. There might be a clause in the lease regarding attorneys' fees. Again, it is vital that a competent and informed review of your particular lease is made to properly guide your case.

Contact an experienced business law attorney today to discuss your commercial lease dispute and learn what legal options are available.

 


Monday, June 13, 2016

Should a Power of Attorney be a part of my Estate Plan?

A durable power of attorney is an important part of an estate plan. It provides that, in the event of disability or incapacitation, a preselected agent can be granted power over the affairs of the individual signing the document. This power can be limited to specific decisions, like the decision to continue life sustaining treatment, or it can be much broader in scope to allow the agent power over the individual’s financial dealings.

Estate planning is meant to prepare for contingencies beyond an individual’s control. A traumatic accident could leave an individual without the ability to manage his or her own financial affairs. Debilitating diseases, like Alzheimer’s, can affect a person’s ability to make sound decisions for him or herself. In these scenarios, someone must be appointed to do make decisions on behalf of the incapacitated individual. Preparing a durable power of attorney as a part of an estate plan accomplishes three things. First, it gives the power of appointment to the individual, instead of to a judge. Second, it avoids the need for a potentially expensive court proceeding necessary to make that appointment. Finally, a power of attorney may be used to respond to time sensitive issues without waiting for a court hearing to grant an agent the power to act.

A power of attorney provides much flexibility for the individual signing it. It can take effect only upon disability, or right away, regardless of disability. It can specify what funds may or may not be used for. If a person does not want to live in an assisted living facility, he or she can make sure that money from his or her own bank accounts is not used for those purposes. Different assets can be managed by different agents. The power of attorney can give an agent power to distribute assets as gifts on a specific schedule to collaborate with an existing estate plan. The level of detail and amount of instruction that is possible as a part of the document is unlimited. It will always be quicker and more economical than a guardianship or conservatorship proceeding, and it will always serve the disabled person’s interests better than the broad powers granted to an individual by a court.


Monday, June 6, 2016

Common Frivolous Suits Filed Against Small Businesses

Frivolous lawsuits are an all-too-common problem for small businesses. This is because, under current laws, there is almost no risk to trial attorneys or their clients for bringing even absurd cases to court. While large companies routinely retain attorneys and have the financial means to protect themselves from frivolous lawsuits, small businesses may be left out in the cold if served with an unwarranted lawsuit. Regardless of whether there is any validity to the plaintiff's claim, the small business owners will have to hire attorneys and will typically incur legal fees even if they win the case.

 

Disturbing Statistics about Frivolous Lawsuits against Small Businesses

There are two common types of frivolous lawsuits small business owners have to deal with: product or professional liability and personal injury. According to a recent survey, such unnecessary lawsuits cause financial, not to mention emotional, damage throughout the country. Some of the alarming statistics concerning small business owners in the U.S. are:

  • Over 50 percent of all civil lawsuits target small businesses annually
  • 75 percent fear being targeted by a frivolous lawsuit
  • 90 percent settle frivolous lawsuits simply to avoid higher court costs
  • Owners pay $20 million out of their own pockets to pay tort liability costs
  • U.S. tort costs have increased more than the gross domestic product since 1950
  • On average, those earning $1 million per year spend $20,000 of it on such lawsuits

How Can Small Business Owners Protect Themselves from Frivolous Lawsuits?

The best way for small business owners to protect themselves from frivolous lawsuits is to consult with an experienced, reputable business attorney to help them evaluate possible areas of vulnerability in their company. The attorney should assess their potential exposure in terms of:

  • Employment law, including harassment, discrimination and wrongful termination
  • Intellectual property (IP), protecting them from unintentional theft of IP
  • Contracts management
  • Electronically stored information (ESI)
  • Fraud, establishing internal controls to prevent employee fraud

 

Beyond retaining helpful legal counsel to protect their businesses, small owners must, of course, ensure that they are taking proper precautions in terms of quality control of their own products, services, plant maintenance and staff behavior.

Insurance against Frivolous Lawsuits

If small business owners want optimal protection against frivolous lawsuits, they should look into the possibility of purchasing property or liability insurance for their company. After having an attorney examine their business practices to ensure that they are taking all possible precautions against being sued, they may want to consider buying an insurance policy their lawyer deems appropriate.


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