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Rhode Island Legal Blog

Monday, February 13, 2017

What is an Estate Tax?

While the terms "estate tax" and "inheritance tax" are often used interchangeably, they are not synonymous. Let's try to clarify the difference.

Estate Tax

Estate tax is based on the net value of the deceased owner's property.  An estate tax is applied to these assets when they are transferred to the beneficiary. It is important to remember that an estate tax doesn't have anything to do with the beneficiary or that person's resources.

Federal estate tax only affects individuals who die with more than $5.45[s1]  million in assets and individuals with such large estates can leave that amount to their beneficiaries without being subjected to a  tax liability. Ninety-nine percent of the population will not owe federal estate tax upon their death.

In most circumstances, no federal estate tax is levied against spouses. As of the Supreme Court's recent ruling, this includes gay married couples as well as heterosexual couples. Federal estate taxes can, however, be charged if the spouse who is the beneficiary is not a citizen of the U.S. In such cases, though, a personal estate tax exemption can be used.  Even where remaining spouses have no liability for federal estate tax, they may be charged with state taxes in some states, taxes which cannot be avoided unless the couple relocates.

Inheritance Tax

Inheritance tax, as distinguished from estate tax, is imposed by state governments and the tax rate depends on the person receiving the property, and, in some locations, on how much that person receives. Inheritance tax can also vary depending upon the relationship between the testator and the benefactor. In Pennsylvania, for example, a spouse is not taxed at all; a lineal descendant (the child of the deceased) is taxed at 4.5 percent; a sibling is taxed at 12 percent, and anyone else must pay 15 percent.

Exemptions

There are exemptions that can reduce the amount of inheritance tax owed by significant amounts, but it is important that there be proper documentation of such exemptions for them to be applicable. Any part of the inheritance that is donated to charity does not require inheritance tax payment on the part of the beneficiary. Because of the inherent complexities of tax law and the variations from state to state, working with a tax attorney who has expertise with state tax laws s the best way to make sure you take advantage of any possible tax exemptions or avoidance.

 

Monday, February 6, 2017

What Does "Goodwill" Mean When Buying a Business?

Goodwill is an asset that is an intangible part of a business being purchased. In spite of its intangibility, goodwill may be worth more than concrete assets, such as property, buildings, machinery or inventory. Goodwill is the essence of the company's value to its customers, clients, and employees and, as such, is invaluable to any buyer. It is easier, as many people intending to purchase a business will tell you, to maintain goodwill than to establish it, since, among other things, goodwill takes time to build. Purchasing a business that already has established goodwill in the community can give the new owner a strong competitive edge. 

What Intangible Assets Compose Goodwill? 

Prospective buyers and sellers should be aware of the various aspects of goodwill. Not all will apply to every business, but aspects of goodwill include:

  • Brand name
  • Solid customer base
  • Good customer relations
  • Good employee relations
  • Patents or proprietary technology
  • General reputation
  • Future sales projection

 

Goodwill is a saleable asset, presumed to generate sales revenue and customer continuity. Having been established over years of honest and efficient behavior by the previous owner, it is transferable to the buyer, assuming the buyer maintains the pre-established excellent business practices.

How Is Goodwill Established?

As mentioned, goodwill can only be established over a period of years during which it is nourished and maintained. In business, it is assumed that expenditures have been involved in creating and preserving goodwill. Steps taken to do this include: 

  • Healthy and continuous investment in promotion
  • Maintenance of necessary quantity of high quality customer supplies
  • Support of excellent relationships with both customers and suppliers
  • Maintenance of efficient and respectful management and employees relationships
  • Establishment and maintenance of corporate identity and image
  • Keeping up an appropriate location

How Is Goodwill Evaluated?

 There is no set price for goodwill, though it very definitely features in sales negotiations. Generally speaking, goodwill is reflected in the amount in excess of the firm's total value of assets and liabilities. In well-established businesses, goodwill may be reflected in a price several times higher than the firm's physical assets alone would be reasonably worth.

There are several complex methods by which business goodwill can be calculated so it is essential to have a highly competent business attorney involved in the negotiation process


Monday, January 23, 2017

Do I need an attorney if I am buying a home?



Buying a home can be an exciting experience, but the process can be complicated. While some homebuyers may think hiring an attorney will be too expensive, not having proper legal representation can be even more costly. Although real estate agents typically bring buyers and sellers together, a
highly skilled attorney can perform critical due diligence, anticipate problems, and be your advocate at the closing table.

It's often been said that real estate is all about the price and "location, location, location," but there are a number of factors to consider such as purchase and sales contracts, home inspections, title issues as well as arranging for financing. An experienced real estate attorney who knows the local housing market can help a buyer navigate these issues and protect his or her investment.
Read more . . .


Monday, January 16, 2017

Responsibilities and Obligations of the Executor/ Administrator


When a person dies with a will in place, an executor is named as the responsible individual for winding down the decedent's affairs. In situations in which a will has not been prepared, the probate court will appoint an administrator. Whether you have been named  as an executor or administrator, the role comes with certain responsibilities including taking charge of the decedent's assets, notifying beneficiaries and creditors, paying the estate's debts and distributing the property to the beneficiaries.

In some cases, an executor may also be a beneficiary of the will, however he or she must act fairly and in accordance with the provisions of the will. An executor is specifically responsible for:

  • Finding a copy of the will and filing it with the appropriate state court

  • Informing third parties, such as banks and other account holders, of the person’s death

  • Locating assets and identifying debts

  • Providing the court with an inventory of these assets and debts

  • Maintaining any assets until they are disposed of

  • Disposing of assets either through distribution or sale

  • Satisfying any debts

  • Appearing in court on behalf of the estate

Depending on the size of the estate and the way in which the decedent's assets were titled, the will may need to be probated.
Read more . . .


Monday, January 9, 2017

Why Your Business Needs an Email Policy


In the contemporary workplace, email is an essential and efficient form of communication. Whether it's used internally among staff members, or for exchanges with vendors and customers, email is a necessary business tool. At the same time, misuse of this technology can expose an organization to legal and reputational risks as well as security breaches. For this reason, it is crucial to put a formal email policy in place.

First, an email policy should clarify whether you intend to monitor email usage.


Read more . . .


Monday, December 26, 2016

The Rule against Perpetuities

The law allows a person preparing a will to have almost complete control over his or her assets after the testator passes on, but there are limits to such power. A person can restrict a property from being sold, or make sure that it is used for a specific purpose. A property can be bequeathed to a family member as long on condition that the person maintains the family business in a specific city, or exercises daily, or places flowers on the deceased's grave every week, or engages in any other behavior the testator desires. This freedom, however, is not without limits. The time limit on this ability is called the rule against perpetuities. The rule is also referred to as the “dead man’s hand” statute.

The rule against perpetuities is complex and rarely utilized. At the time of the passing of the testator, the heirs of the estate are locked in. These heirs are referred to as “lives in being.” For the purposes of this rule, if a child is conceived but not yet born at the time of the testator’s death, it will be considered a life in being. Once the last living heir named in the will passes away, the restrictions on the property will continue in place as the testator desired for 21 years. The idea is that a testator may control his assets for a full generation after his or her death. The rule is notoriously difficult to apply properly. When it does apply, the conditions on the bequest are abandoned and the gift returns to the residual estate.

What makes this rule so confusing is that, when an individual writes a will, he or she may make gifts to potential children or grandchildren. These children and grandchildren, however, may not be born until years later. If a child has been born at the time the decedent passes away, he or she is subject to the restrictions on the bequest during his or her lifetime. If a grandchild is conceived and born after the decedent’s death, however, the child may avoid the restrictions 21 years after the death of the last heir alive at the time of the decedent’s death. There is no way to predict when this might occur. The rule is archaic and easily avoided. A knowledgeable attorney can help a person planning his or her estate set up an equitable trust. Similar to a will, a trust may impose conditions on the use of assets, but is not subject to the rule against perpetuities. There are other advantages to a trust, but one of the most important is avoiding this unpredictable and confusing rule.


Monday, December 19, 2016

Patents

Inventors have a right to protect their inventions through the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). With the creation of a device come a bundle of property rights issued by the United States Government.   A patent prevents all “others from making, using, or selling the invention in the United States.”  The patent may survive for varying periods of time, depending on what type of patent is applied for and issued. Typically, protection does not activate until the patent is legally granted. 

Not all creations can be patented.  Only a device that is “new, non-obvious and useful” may qualify for a “utility patent.”  Abstract or theoretical concepts or ideas may not be protected by means of a patent.  Likewise, an invention is not patentable if it has been “publically disclosed.”  In order to determine this, patent searches should be conducted prior to filing an application. These searches may be very complex and an attorney’s instruction is advised.

Creations that cannot be approved under patent law may still be protectable through another method, such as trademark or copyright law. An intellectual property (IP) attorney can help advise clients about making the appropriate distinctions. An IP attorney is available not only to educate clients on the various application requirements for all types of intellectual property, but is prepared to provide provisional or non-provisional applications for patents. A non-provisional application establishes the filing date of the patent application, beginning the application process.  A provisional application only establishes the filing date and automatically expires after one year.

If there is more than one person involved in the creation of an invention, the partners may need to file an application as "joint inventors." Unfortunately, there are often disputes concerning which individual actually created the invention; sometime both parties claim to be the "sole inventor." Usually, after thoroughly analyzing all the facts, the attorney(s) can determine whether one or both inventors have the right to file the patent or whether they should file jointly.

There are several fees involved in obtaining a patent license, including filing, issuance, and maintenance fees.  An experienced IP attorney can inform clients of the timetable they will be responsible for, and clarify when various terms, such as "patent pending" or "patent applied for" are supposed to be used to keep the public updated regarding where the inventor is in the patent application process. 


Monday, December 5, 2016

The Revocable Living Trust

There are many benefits to a revocable living trust that are not available in a will.  An individual can choose to have one or both, and an attorney can best clarify the advantages of each.  If the person engaged in planning his or her estate wants to retain the ability to change or rescind the document, the living trust is probably the best option since it is revocable. 

The document is called a “living” trust because it is applicable throughout one's lifetime.  Another individual or entity, such as a bank, can be appointed as trustee to manage and protect assets and to distribute assets to beneficiaries upon one's death. 

A living trust will also protect assets if and when a person becomes sick or disabled.  The designated trustee will hold “legal title” of the assets in the trust.  If an individual wants to maintain full control over his or her property, he or she may also choose to remain the holder of the title as trustee. 

It should be noted, however, that the revocable power that comes with the trust may involve taxation. Usually, a trust is considered a part of the decedent’s estate, and therefore, an estate tax applies.  One cannot escape liability via a trust because the assets are still subject to debts upon death.  On the upside, the trust may not need to go through probate, which could save months of time and attorneys' fees. 

The revocable living trust is contrary to the irrevocable living trust, in that the latter cannot be rescinded or altered during one's lifetime.  It does, however, avoid the tax consequences of a revocable trust.  An attorney can explain the intricacies of other protections an irrevocable living trust provides. 

Anyone who wants to keep certain information or assets private, will likely want to create a living trust.  A trust is not normally made public, whereas a will is put into the public record once it passes through probate.   Consulting with an attorney can help determine the best methods to ensure protection of assets in individual cases.   


Monday, November 28, 2016

Non-Compete Agreements - Are they enforceable?

Courts typically disfavor “covenants not to compete” or “non-compete agreements.”  Therefore, the terms and provisions of these contracts must not be overly restrictive of the employee.  In order for a non-compete to be upheld, the document must “be reasonable in scope, geography, and time.”  It cannot last for years on end, or prevent the employee from working anywhere in the entire state. Likewise, an employer cannot prohibit an employee from working in a large variety of industries, especially if the restriction includes industries wholly unrelated to the employer’s line of work. 

Two other elements are analyzed by a court to determine the validity of a non-compete agreement:  (1) there must be mutual consideration between both the employer and employee at the moment the contract is signed and (2) the non-competition agreement must protect “a legitimate business interest of the employer.”  Preventing a former employee from working for an employer’s business rival, or preventing disclosure of trade secrets or personally identifiable information of important clientele, are typically considered justifiable business interests.

Non-compete agreements are generally implemented to protect a company’s most important assets:  its reputation and its confidential information.  However, the terms protecting these assets cannot be overly broad or vague.  Thus, in evaluating the “reasonableness” of a non-competition agreement, the court will conduct a “balancing test.”  This is a comparison of the employer’s need to protect its “business interests” with the “burden that enforcement of the agreement would place on the employee.” 

The validity of non-compete agreements is decided on a case-by-case basis. The court will consider circumstances such as the length of time certain information will be kept confidential, and the company’s reasons for limiting the employee's job search to a geographical area. If the court finds that the agreement serves a valid interest and does not exceed the range necessary to protect that interest, the entire agreement may be upheld. 

The court also has the option of doing away with overly intrusive terms in a non-compete, rather than invalidating the agreement entirely. In cases in which a non-compete is perceived by the court as punitive, unduly restricting an employee from obtaining employment, the agreement will not be upheld.  A licensed attorney who specializes in employment law will be able to gauge the likelihood that a particular non-compete agreement will be enforceable.


Monday, November 21, 2016

How to calculate estate tax

In order to predict how much your estate will have to pay in taxes, one must first determine the value of the estate. To determine this, many assets might have to be appraised at fair market value. The estate includes all assets including real estate, cash, securities, stocks, bonds, business interests, loans receivable, furnishings, jewelry, and other valuables.

Once your net worth is established, you can subtract liabilities like mortgages, credit cards, other legitimate debts, funeral expenses, medical bills, and the administrative cost to settle your estate including attorney, accounting and appraisal fees, storage and shipping fees, insurances, and court fees. The administrative expenses will likely total roughly 5% of the total estate. Any assets that is bequeathed to charity through a trust escapes taxation, and the value of those assets must be subtracted from the total. Any assets transferred to a surviving spouse are not subject to taxation as long as your spouse is a US citizen.

If the net worth of an estate is less than the Federal and state exemptions, no taxes must be paid. However, the value of assets over the exemptions will be taxed. The amount over the exemptions is referred to as the taxable estate. A testator’s assets are taxed by the state in which the will is probated. Taxes paid by the estate to the state may be deducted for Federal tax purposes. The Federal exemption was $5.43 million in 2015 and is slated to increase in 2016. The top Federal estate tax rate in 2015 was 40%.

If an estate earns money while it is being administered and distributed, for example, if real estate is rented or businesses continue to operate, it will be necessary for the estate to complete a tax return and pay taxes on the income it receives. The net income of the estate can be added to the taxable portion of the estate if it is over the federal or state exemption. It is important to be aware that the laws surrounding estate taxes change frequently and require seasoned professionals to navigate, and to notify you if changes in the laws will affect your estate plan. 


Monday, November 7, 2016

Trade Secret Vs. Patent Protection

Many business owners wonder which type of Intellectual Property protection is the best fit for their business purposes?  A “trade secret” is intellectual property that is kept private in order to maintain its financial value in the marketplace.  Examples of trade secrets include: “a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique or process.”  

Alternatively, a “patent” generally protects a “new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.”  Thus, a creation may receive protection under either patent or trademark law, but not both, due to varying disclosure rules.  Also, there are several types of patents available, including utility, design, and plant patents. 

Companies that make it a priority to preserve their trade secrets will go to great lengths to prevent others from misusing or misappropriating their critical information. It is likely that a business will seek out the powers of the court system in order to protect the financially viable benefit that derives from their trade secrets. In cases where trade secrets have been violated, courts may order the culpable party to preserve confidentiality or pay expenses, which often include any damages a business sustains as a result of the misuse of a trade secret. 

However, trade secret protection is not without its limits. If a trade secret becomes publically known through an authorized admission, protection may be completely lost.  Additionally, trade secret protection does not protect a business from “independent discovery.”  Independent discovery is when a third party discovers, for example, the formula to a best-selling beverage, on its own.  

On the other hand, trade secret protection usually does not terminate the way other types of intellectual property (such as patents) do.  A patent only protects the inventor for a restricted period of time.  A patent license might not be a good fit if the intention is to keep certain data about the creation a secret.  In order to apply for a patent, intricate details about the device in question have to be revealed, and upon expiration, the information disclosed may become free for anyone to use. 

An intellectual property attorney is capable of evaluating original works and counseling clients on the various types of protection afforded under intellectual property law. He or she will offer good advice about which type of protection best suits each individual situation. 


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