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Rhode Island Legal Blog

Monday, May 9, 2016

How does life insurance fit into my estate plan?

Life insurance can be an integral part of an estate plan. Policies can be set up to be paid directly to the beneficiary, without the need to pass through the estate, and without the need for any taxes to be paid. Having a life insurance policy ensures that some assets will be liquid, so that debts and expenses can be paid quickly and easily without the need to dispose of assets. Beneficiaries can be changed at any time as can the benefit amount. The policy can be used to accumulate savings if the plan is surrendered before death. Life insurance policies, especially those purchased later in life, can pay out significantly more than what was invested into them. There are many benefits to purchasing a life insurance policy as part of an estate plan.

An attorney can set up a life insurance trust to help avoid estate taxes. A life insurance trust must be irrevocable, cannot be managed by the policy holder, and must be in place at least three years before the death of the policy holder. Any money received from the life insurance trust is not a part of the taxable estate. The need for this is rare as the exemption for estate taxes is currently almost five and a half million dollars, but it is a useful tool for some nonetheless.

There is a limit to how much life insurance an individual is permitted to purchase. A person may carry a multiple of his or her gross income which reduces with age. A twenty five year old can buy a policy worth thirty times his or her annual income. A sixty five year old may only purchase ten times his or her annual income worth of life insurance. This is an important factor to consider when deciding whether life insurance should be a part of your estate plan.

Life insurance as a part of estate planning is a complicated issue. It makes sense to consult with an estate attorney and a tax professional before meeting with an insurance broker. Both can help an individual understand the benefits of insurance over other means of transferring assets.


Monday, April 25, 2016

Why shouldn't I use a form from the internet for my will?

In this computer age, when so many tasks are accomplished via the internet -- including banking, shopping, and important business communications -- it may seem logical to turn to the internet when creating a legal document such as a will . Certainly, there are several websites advertising how easy and inexpensive it is to do this. Nonetheless, most of us know that, while the internet can be a wonderful tool, it also contains a tremendous amount of erroneous, misleading, and even dangerous information.

In most cases, as with so many do-it-yourself projects, creating a will most often ends up being a more efficient, less expensive process if you engage the services of a qualified attorney.  Just as most of us are not equipped to do our own plumbing repairs or automotive repairs, most of us do not have the background or experience to create our own legal documents, even with the help of written directions.

Situations that Require an Attorney for Will Creation

 In certain cases, the need for an estate planning attorney is inarguable. These include situations in which:

  • Your estate is large enough to make estate planning guidance necessary
  • You want to disinherit your legal spouse
  • You have concerns that someone may contest your will
  • You worry that someone will claim your mind wasn't sound at the signing

Mistakes and Omissions 

It has always been possible to write a will all by yourself, even before the advent of the typewriter, let alone the computer.  Such a document, however, is unlikely to deal with the complexities of modern life.  Many estate planning attorneys have seen, and often been asked to repair, wills that have mistakes or significant omissions. These experts have also become aware of situations in which the survivors of the deceased wind up in court, spending thousands of dollars to contest ambiguously worded or incomplete wills. Without legal guidance from a competent estate planning attorney, creating a "boxtop" will can result in tremendous financial and emotional risk.

Evidence that Online Wills Are Not Foolproof

Evidence that many other complications can arise when an individual creates a will using generalized online directions can be found in the following facts: 

  • Each state has its own rules (e.g. requiring differing numbers of disinterested party signatures)
  • Even uncontested wills can remain in probate if not executed in an exacting fashion
  • Estate planning attorneys find legal software programs inadequate
  • Even legal websites themselves recommend bringing in an attorney in all but the very simplest cases
  • Some legal websites provide inexpensive monthly legal consultations with attorneys to protect their client and themselves

Areas that Frequently Cause Problems 

Self-constructed wills often become problematic when the testator:

  • Names an executor who has no financial or legal knowledge
  • Leaves a bequest to a pet  (legally, you must leave the bequest to an appointed caretaker)
  • Puts conditions on payouts to an that are difficult, or impossible, to enforce
  • Makes unusual end-of-life decisions or puts living will information into the will
  • Designates guardians for children, but neglects to name successor guardians
  • Neglects to coordinate beneficiary designations where, for example, the will and  insurance policy designations contradict one another
  • Leaves funeral instructions into the will since the document will most likely not be read until after the funeral has taken place
  • Leaves inexact or ambiguous instructions dealing with blended families
  • Neglects to mention small items in the will which, though of small financial value, are meaningful to loved ones and may cause contention

In order to ensure that you leave your assets in the hands of those you wish, and to avoid leaving your loved ones with bitter disputes and expensive probate costs, it  is always wise to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney when making a will.  In this area, as in so many others, it is best, and safest, to make use of those with expertise in the field.


Monday, April 18, 2016

What is a 501(c)(3)?

A 501(c)(3) nonprofit is one of a class of 29 different types of tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations under section 501(c) of the tax code. Most charitable organizations that receive donations from individuals in the United States are organized as 501(c)(3) nonprofits. The 501(c)(3) status is the most coveted type of nonprofit status because donations to these organizations can be deducted from income for tax purposes by the donors. This makes fundraising significantly easier.

501(c)(3) tax exemptions are reserved for businesses that operate for religious, scientific, literary, charitable, or educational purposes. They are also permitted when the organization provides services to test products for public safety, aims to prevent cruelty against children and animals, or fosters national or international amateur sporting competitions. A group trying to convince an American city to host the Olympics can be a 501(c)(3) even if it is not a charity in the traditional sense. In order to qualify as a religious organization, a church must comply with the rules outlined in IRS publication 1828 or risk losing its tax exempt status. All 501(c)(3) organizations are prohibited from engaging in supporting political candidates, and there are hard limits to the amount of lobbying a charitable organization may make to influence legislation.

To qualify as a 501c)(3), an organization must include in its articles of incorporation or bylaws restrictions on its power to operate for profit. Without this restriction, the organization’s tax exempt status will be denied, both by the Internal Revenue Service and by the state government. A 501(c)(3) company must receive a substantial portion of its funding by soliciting donations from the general public or government grants. If the organization raises most of its money by selling products or providing services, it cannot operate as a 501(c)(3), even if all the money raised is used for charitable purposes, though for small fundraisers, like carwashes or bake sales, exceptions may be permitted. An organization that receives significant income from private donations and government grants is called a public charity. Another type of 501(c)(3) is a private foundation, which is also tax exempt, and which may also receive tax-deductible donations. Private foundations, however, earn the bulk of their money through investments and endowments. This money is then donated to other charitable organizations.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Your Wishes in Your Words

During the estate planning process, your attorney will draft a number of legal documents such as a will, trust and power of attorney which will help you accomplish your goals. While these legal documents are required for effective planning, they may not sufficiently convey your thoughts and wishes to your loved ones in your own words. A letter of instruction is a great compliment to your “formal” estate plan, allowing you to outline your wishes with your own voice.

 

This letter of instruction is typically written by you, not your attorney. Some attorneys may, however, provide you with forms or other documents that can be helpful in composing your letter of instruction. Whether your call this a "letter of instruction" or something else, such a document is a non-binding document that will be helpful to your family or other loved ones.

There is no set format as to what to include in this document, though there are a number of common themes.

First, you may wish to explain, in your own words, the reasoning for your personal preferences for medical care especially near the end of life. For example, you might explain why you prefer to pass on at home, if that is possible. Although this could be included in a medical power of attorney, learning about these wishes in a personalized letter as opposed to a sterile legal document may give your loved ones greater peace of mind that they are doing the right thing when they are charged with making decisions on your behalf. You might also detail your preferences regarding a funeral, burial or cremation. These letters often include a list of friends to contact upon your death and may even have an outline of your own obituary.

You may also want to make note of the following in your letter to your loved ones:

  • an updated list of your financial accounts with account numbers;
  • a list of online accounts with passwords;
  • a list of important legal documents and where to find them;
  • a list of your life insurance and where the actual policies are located;
  • where you have any safe deposit boxes and the location of any keys;
  • where all car titles are located; the
  • names of your CPA, attorney, banker, insurance advisor and financial advisor;
  • your birth certificate, marriage license and military discharge papers;
  • your social security number and card;
  • any divorce papers; copies of real estate deeds and mortgages;
  • names, addresses, and phone numbers of all children, grandchildren, or other named beneficiaries.

In drafting your letter, you simply need to think about what information might be important to those that would be in charge of your affairs upon your death. This document should be consistent with your legal documents and updated from time to time.


Monday, March 28, 2016

When Is It OK to Fire an At-Will Employee?

The overwhelming majority of employees are considered to be at-will employees. If an employee works without a contract stating otherwise, that person’s employment is considered at- will for its duration. This means that the person serves at-will and either party may terminate the employment at any time. Even though an explanation is not always given as to why an employee is being fired, there are still some reasons for termination that are unacceptable in the eyes of the law. It is important to be aware of these instances to avoid the appearance of improper behavior and the potential for economic repercussions  as a result.

Termination is not the only action that may be actionable. Under specific circumstances, an employee is permitted to file a claim against an employer for any negative employment actions, including cutting back available hours, pay reductions, or demotions in title. Any negative employment action may give rise to a lawsuit if the employee can prove that the basis of the negative employment action is improper or discriminatory.

Federal law prohibits discrimination against employees on the basis of race, gender, national origin, disability, religion, genetic information, or age, if the employee is over the age of 40. Many states add additional protections including protection from discrimination against employees due to sexual orientation or gender identity.

Other restrictions against firing or other actions that negatively affect job status also exist. It is illegal to fire someone one, or otherwise negatively affect their employment, in retaliation for their filing of a legal claim, whether for discrimination, sexual harassment, or workers compensation. An employer also may not use a person’s ability to work as an incentive to force him or her to take a lie detector test. No individual can be legally fired for complaining about OSHA violations, for refusing to commit an illegal act, or for reporting an illegal act committed by a co-worker or employer (whistle blowing). If an employee exercises a legal right, like voting or taking family leave based on the Family Medical Leave Act, he or she cannot legally be fired for the lost time.

Terminating or otherwise negatively affecting an individual's employment because of any of the above-mentioned events is illegal. Employers should go out of their way not to fire employees contemporaneously with such events, even for other causes, since this may give the appearance of impropriety,and potentially provoke an expensive lawsuit.


Monday, March 21, 2016

Estate Planning for the Chronically Ill

There are certain considerations that should be kept in mind for those with chronic illnesses.   Before addressing this issue, there should be some clarification as to the definition of "chronically ill." There are at least two definitions of chronically ill. The first is likely the most common meaning, which is an illness that a person may live with for many years. Diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, hepatitis C and asthma are some of the more familiar chronic illnesses. Contrast that with a legal definition of chronic illness which usually means that the person is unable to perform at least two activities of daily living such as eating, toileting, transferring, bathing and dressing, or requires considerable supervision to protect from crisis relating to health and safety due to severe impairment concerning mind, or having a level of disability similar to that determined by the Social Security Administration for disability benefits. Having said all of that, the estate planning such a person may undertake will likely be similar to that of a healthy person, but there will likely be a higher sense of urgency and it will be much more "real" and less "hypothetical."

Most healthy individuals view the estate planning they establish as not having any applicability for years, perhaps even decades. Whereas a chronically ill person more acutely appreciates that the planning he or she does will have real consequences in his or her life and the life of loved ones. Some of the most important planning will center around who the person appoints as his or her health care decision maker and also who is appointed to handle financial affairs. A will and/or revocable living trust will play a central role in the person's planning as well.  Care should also be taken to address possible Medicaid planning benefits.  A consultation with an estate planning and elder law attorney is critical to ensuring all necessary planning steps are contemplated and eventually implemented. 


Monday, March 7, 2016

Things to Consider When Picking an Executor

The role of an executor is to effectuate a deceased person’s wishes as declared in a will after he or she has passed on. The executor’s responsibilities include the distribution of assets according to the will, the maintenance of assets until the will is settled, and the paying of estate bills and debts. An old joke says that you should choose an enemy to perform the task because it is such a thankless job, even though the executor may take a percentage of the estate’s assets as a fee. The following issues should be considered when choosing an executor for one's estate.

Competency: The executor of an estate will be going through financial and legal documents and transferring documents from the testator to the beneficiaries. If there are legal proceedings, the executor must make all necessary court appearances. There is no requirement that a testator have any financial or legal training, but familiarity with these areas does avoid the intimidation felt by lay people, and potentially saves money on professional fees.

Trustworthiness: The signature of an executor is equivalent to that of the testator of an estate. The executor has full control over all of an estate’s assets. He or she will be required to go through all of the papers of the deceased to confirm what assets are available to be distributed. The temptation to transfer assets into the executor's own name always exists, particularly when there is a large estate. It is important to choose a person with integrity who will resist this temptation. It makes sense to utilize an individual who is an heir to fill the role to alleviate this concern.

Availability: The work of collecting rents, maintaining property, and paying debts can take more than a few hours a week. Selecting an executor with significant obligations to work or family may cause problems if he or she does not have the time available to devote to the task. If an executor must travel great distances to address issues that arise, there will be more of a time commitment necessary, not to mention greater expenses for the estate.

Family dynamics: Selection of the wrong person to act as executor can create resentment and hostility among an estate’s heirs. A testator should be aware of how family members interact with one another and avoid picking someone who may provoke conflict. Even the perception of impropriety can lead to a lawsuit, which will serve to take money out of the estate’s coffers and delay the legitimate distribution of the estate. 


Monday, February 29, 2016

What Is the Spousal Share of an Estate?

There are many reasons why a person might leave a spouse or another loved one out of his or her will. It is possible that the will in question was executed prior to a marriage and was never properly updated. It may also be the case that the husband and wife, though still technically married, are estranged, and do not contribute to one another’s support. An end of life revelation of a past infidelity may anger a spouse enough to rewrite his or her last will and testament. Individuals may make rash decisions to disinherit spouses based on a single argument or misunderstanding. This can be exacerbated by symptoms of dementia. Regardless of the reason, a person who is not named in his or her spouse’s will may petition the court for the spousal share to receive a portion of the estate.

The spousal share of an estate, also called an elective share, is a holdover from the concept of dower in English common law. Traditionally, dower is a portion of a man’s estate guaranteed to a wife when she is widowed to ensure that she does not fall into poverty after her husband dies. The practice continues today without the same restrictions on gender. Every state in America has a provision in its laws to protect an individual whose spouse dies from being left with nothing. Similar provisions for children also exist in some states. Attempts have been made to introduce legislation to protect unmarried romantic partners the same way as married couples, but these attempts have had little success.

The structure of these protections vary from state to state. The value of the estate for the purposes of establishing the spousal share may include the widow’s assets depending on the jurisdiction. Some states provide a widowed spouse a larger share of the deceased’s estate than others, but almost every state prohibits an individual from disinheriting a spouse entirely. The one state that does not permit an elective share to the spouse in a probate case requires that an estate pay a disinherited spouse financial support for up to one year after the death.


Monday, February 22, 2016

What is a Surety Bond?

A "surety bond" is a legal tool used to guarantee that a promise will be kept.  It ensures that contractual requirements will be met and work will be done according to specifications.  If they are not, the bond will cover some or all of the damages that result.

The "surety bond" commits three parties to a binding contract. 

First, there is the "principal," the contractor, business or individual purchasing the "surety bond" as a way to assure others that work will be done as agreed.

Second, there is the "obligee," the party seeking assurance that the "principal" will fully complete the task.  Obligees are sometimes government agencies putting out bids, or any company or institution trying to be certain that it does not suffer financial loss at the hands of a contractor.

Third, there is the "surety," often an insurance company, which backs the bond and makes payment to the obligee in the event that the principal fails to meet its responsibilities.

How Does a Surety Bond Work?

A contractor  (the principal) usually pays an annual premium to an insurance company (the surety) in exchange for the insurer's commitment to uphold the contractor's promise to the organization or company that hired the contractor (the obligee).  If the contractor misses a deadline or breaches some other term of a contract, the organization it contracted with can ask the insurer to cover any losses that have ensued, up to the amount of the surety bond.  If the company has a valid claim, the insurance company will make payment.  After making good on the bond, whether the maximum amount or a lesser sum, the insurer usually tries to recover the funds from the contractor.

When Is a Surety Bond Required?

There are a number of circumstances in which an individual or business may need to buy a surety bond. 

  • To receive contracts from the government or from some general contractors, a construction firm or other bidder may need to have a surety bond.  Varieties of surety bond can include:  "bid bonds" guaranteeing that a contractor will accept a contract if its bid is successful; "performance bonds" guaranteeing that a contractor will complete a contract according to its terms; "payment bonds," guaranteeing that a contractor will pay subcontractors and suppliers, particularly on federal projects; and "maintenance bonds," guaranteeing that a contractor will provide upkeep and repairs for a certain amount time.
  • A surety bond such as a "license bond" or "permit bond" is sometimes a requirement for receiving certain business licenses or permits.
  • A business may need a "business service bond" or "fidelity bond" to protect itself or its clients against theft or other crimes by its employees
  • "Judicial bonds" may be needed by parties in civil or criminal litigation to guarantee court remedies or penalties.  These can include "bail bonds."
  • "Fiduciary bonds" are sometimes needed by individuals working with probate courts.  These ensure that these individuals will care for the assets of others professionally and honestly.

If you need advice relating to surety bonds, a business law attorney can help.


Monday, February 8, 2016

Is There Anyway a Disinherited Child Could Receive an Inheritance From an Estate?

If your estate plan and related documents are properly and carefully drafted, it is highly unlikely that the court will disregard your wishes and award the excluded child an inheritance.  As unlikely as it may be, there are certain situations where this child could end up receiving an inheritance depending upon a variety of factors.

To understand how a disinherited child could benefit, you must understand how assets pass after death.  How a particular asset passes at death depends upon the type of asset and how it is titled. For example, a jointly titled asset will pass to the surviving joint owner regardless of what a will or a trust says. So, in the unlikely event that the disinherited child was a joint owner, that child would still inherit the asset because of how it was titled.

Similarly, if you left that disinherited child as a named beneficiary on a life insurance policy or retirement plan asset, such as an IRA or 401k, that child would still receive some of the benefits as the named beneficiary even if your will stated they were to take nothing. Another way such a "disinherited" child might receive a benefit is if all other named beneficiaries died before you.

So, assume you have three children and you wish to disinherit one of them and you state you want all of your assets to go to the other two, and if they are not alive, then to their descendants.  If those other two children die before you and do not have any descendants, there may be a provision that in such a case your "heirs at law" are to take your entire estate and that would include the child you intended to disinherit.

If you wish to disinherit a child, all of these issues can be addressed with proper and careful drafting by a qualified estate planning lawyer.  


Monday, January 25, 2016

Investment Strategies for Minority Investors

As a minority business investor, it is essential to have an investment strategy that will maximize your returns. Once an investment decision is made, it is critical that a target business will enhance value of a broader investment portfolio.  At the same time, many minority investors are also business owners who know what makes for a successful enterprise. This post is a discussion of what minority investors should look for in a privately held business.

What makes for a great minority investment?

Since a minority investor has a significant but non-controlling ownership interest in a business, the first rule of thumb is to invest in business enterprises that you understand and with which you are comfortable. At the same time, great investments can also be found outside your business comfort zone provided that you have good management skills and the acuity to understand your target's business model.

Investing in a small business starts at the top,  that is with the owners. Accordingly, getting to know the owner and understanding how they do business is critical in your decision-making process. One key attribute you should look for in an entrepreneur is passion. Without it, he or she will lack the vision to steer the company toward success. It is also wise that you exercise caution by conducting background checks particularly with an eye toward ascertaining any legal actions in which the owner and other key people have been involved.

Of course, it's not only a matter of the people, it's about the numbers. The onus is on you to do your own due diligence, perform your own research and undertake an analysis of the proposed business plan. An investment proposal can be filled with numbers that amount to nothing more than smoke and mirrors. It's your job to ensure the numbers add up.

Level of Investment

Once you've done your homework on the target business, you need to decide how much to invest and how closely you will be aligned with the entity. Determining how much to invest is really a matter of risk management. In order to safeguard your investment, it is critical to negotiate a deal that is mutually beneficial. In particular, you should consider having an exit strategy with an understanding that your investment will be repaid by a certain date at an agreed upon rate of return.

You must also decide whether you will have no active participation in the decision-making and operations of the business or if you will be involved in the management of the entity. Even as a minority investor, your stake in the business may be significant enough to warrant having a seat at the table in order to advise on policy and evaluate management's performance.

Business Categories

As a minority investor, there are many business categories to consider that depend on your investment strategy. For example, investing in a start-up tends to be high-risk since management may not have a track record of success or a proven business model. Nonetheless, start-ups can also offer great rewards if they are breaking ground in a new business method or technology. The caveat is that the majority of start-ups are short-lived and destined for failure within the first 5 years.

If you are looking for a growth opportunity, there are business enterprises that have successfully launched but need another infusion of capital to grow. These businesses have an initial track record that will allow you to determine if your investment will be rewarded, even if it is subordinated to original investors. On the other hand, opportunities can also be found in companies that have stopped growing because of insufficient capital but still have a solid business plan.

For investors with a greater appetite for risk, companies that are failing can be ripe for a turn- around, provided that your stake comes with a hand in the decision-making and that the business fundamentals remain sound. Even bankrupt entities with cash flow potential offer investment opportunities for investors who are willing to have a high level of involvement.

The Bottom Line

For the minority investor, the nature of investing is high-risk, and every opportunity is unique - some offer greater rewards as well as higher risks. Your ability to make a decision on the merits of a business plan depends on your capacity to be a good business manager as well as a shrewd dealmaker. Investing in a privately held business requires a lot of up-front sweat equity in researching your target company, analyzing financial reports, evaluating the businesses track record, and ascertaining management's skills.

In particular, investing in a closely held business is an investment in the owners as well as the business. These entrepreneurs need to be innovative and have the ingenuity and passion to grow the business. In the final analysis, investors and owners need to be honest partners and strike a deal that is a win-win. The goal for both parties is to ensure the enterprise is successful and offers a worthwhile return on investment.

If you do your homework, your investment in privately-held businesses can be quite lucrative. That being said, it's always in your best interest as a minority investor to have a lawyer on your side of the table to craft an investment agreement, advise you of your responsibilities and shield you from potential litigation.


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