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Rhode Island Legal Blog

Monday, March 23, 2015

Overview: Buy-Sell Agreements and Your Small Business

If you co-own a business, you need a buy-sell agreement. Also called a buyout agreement, this document is essentially the business world’s equivalent of a prenup. An effective buy-sell agreement helps prevent conflict between the company’s owners, while also preserving the company’s closely held status. Any business with more than one owner should address this issue upfront, before problems arise.

With a proper buy-sell agreement, all business owners are protected in the event one of the owners wishes to leave the company. The buy-sell agreement establishes clear procedures that must be followed if an owner retires, sells his or her shares, divorces his or her spouse, becomes disabled, or dies. The agreement will establish the price and terms of a buyout, ensuring the company continues in the absence of the departing owner.

A properly drafted buy-sell agreement takes into consideration exactly what the owners wish to happen if one owner departs, whether voluntarily or involuntarily.  Do the owners want to permit a new, unknown partner, should the departing owner wish to sell to an uninvolved third party? What happens if an owner’s spouse is involved in the business and that owner gets a divorce or passes away? How are interests valued when a triggering event occurs?

In crafting your buy-sell agreement, consider the following issues:

  • Triggering Events - What events trigger the provisions of the agreement?  These normally include death, disability, bankruptcy, divorce and retirement.
     
  • Business Valuation - How will the value of shares being transferred be determined? Owners may determine the value of shares annually, by agreement, appraisal or formula.  The agreement may require that the appraisal be performed by a business valuation expert at the time of the triggering event.  Some agreements may also include a “shotgun provision” in which one party proposes a price, giving the other party the obligation to accept or counter with a new offer.
     
  • Funding - How will the departing owner be paid?  Many business owners will obtain insurance coverage, including life, disability, or business continuation insurance on the life or disability of the other owners.  With respect to life insurance, the agreement may provide that the company redeem the departing owner’s shares (“redemption”).  Alternatively, each of the owners may purchase life insurance on the lives of the other owners to provide the liquidity needed to purchase the departing owner’s shares (“cross purchase agreement”).   The agreement may also authorize the company to use it’s cash reserves to buy-out the departing owners.  
     

Monday, March 16, 2015

Planning Pitfall: Probate vs. Non-Probate Property

Transfer of property at death can be rather complex.  Many are under the impression that instructions provided in a valid will are sufficient to transfer their assets to the individuals named in the will.   However, there are a myriad of rules that affect how different types of assets transfer to heirs and beneficiaries, often in direct contradiction of what may be clearly stated in one’s will.

The legal process of administering property owned by someone who has passed away with a will is called probate.  Prior to his passing, a deceased person, or decedent, usually names an executor to oversee the process by which his wishes, outlined in his Will, are to be carried out. Probate property, generally consists of everything in a decedent’s estate that was directly in his name. For example, a house, vehicle, monies, stocks or any other asset in the decedent’s name is probate property. Any real or personal property that was in the decedent’s name can be defined as probate property.  

The difference between non-probate property and probate centers around whose name is listed as owner. Non-probate property consists of property that lists both the decedent and another as the joint owner (with right of survivorship) or where someone else has already been designated as a beneficiary, such as life insurance or a retirement account.  In these cases, the joint owners and designated beneficiaries supersede conflicting instructions in one’s will. Other examples of non-probate property include property owned by trusts, which also have beneficiaries designated. At the decedent’s passing, the non-probate items pass automatically to whoever is the joint owner or designated beneficiary.

Why do you need to know the difference? Simply put, the categories of probate and non-probate property will have a serious effect on how plan your estate.  If you own property jointly with right of survivorship with another individual, that individual will inherit your share, regardless of what it states in your will.  Estate and probate law can be different from state-to-state, so it’s best to have an attorney handle your estate plan and property ownership records to ensure that your assets go to the intended beneficiaries.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Which Business Structure is Right for You?

Which entity is best for your business depends on many factors, and the decision can have a significant impact on both profitability and asset protection afforded to its owners. Below is an overview of the most common business structures.

Sole Proprietorship
The sole proprietorship is the simplest and least regulated of all business structures. For legal and tax purposes, the sole proprietorship’s owner and the business are one and the same. The liabilities of the business are personal to the owner, and the business terminates when the owner dies. On the other hand, all of the profits are also personal to the owner and the sole owner has full control of the business.

General Partnership
A partnership consists of two or more persons who agree to share profits and losses. It is simple to establish and maintain; no formal, written document is required in order to create a partnership. If no formal agreement is signed, the partnership will be subject to state laws governing partnerships. However, to clarify the rights and responsibilities of each partner, and to be certain of the tax status of the partnership, it is important to have a written partnership agreement.

Each partner’s personal assets are at risk. Any partner may obligate the partnership, and each individual partner is liable for all of the debts of the partnership. General partners also face potential personal legal liability for the negligence of another partner.

Limited Partnership
A limited partnership is similar to a general partnership, but has two types of partners: general partners and limited partners. General partners have broad powers to obligate the partnership (as in a general partnership), and are personally liable for the debts of the partnership. If there is more than one general partner, each of them is liable for the acts of the remaining general partners. Limited partners, however, are “limited” to their contribution of capital to the business, and must not become actively involved in running the company. As with a general partnership, limited partnerships are flow-through tax entities.

Limited Liability Company (LLC)
The LLC is a hybrid type of business structure. An LLC consists of one or more owners (“members”) who actively manage the company’s business affairs. The LLC contains elements of both a traditional partnership and a corporation, offering the liability protection of a corporation, with the tax structure of a sole proprietorship (if it has only one member), or a partnership (if the LLC has two or more members). Its important to note that in certain states, single-member LLCs are not afforded limited liability protection.

Corporation
Corporations are more complex than either a sole proprietorship or partnership and are subject to more state regulations regarding their formation and operation. There are two basic types of corporations:  C-corporations and S-corporations. There are significant differences in the tax treatment of these two types of corporations, however, they are both generally organized and operated in a similar manner.

Technical formalities must be strictly observed in order to reap the benefits of corporate existence. For this reason, there is an additional burden of detailed recordkeeping. Corporate decisions must be documented in writing. Corporate meetings, both at the shareholder and director levels, must be formally documented.

Corporations limit the owners’ personal liability for company debts. Depending on your situation, there may be significant tax advantages to incorporating.


Monday, February 23, 2015

How Par Value Affects Start-Up Businesses

Many entrepreneurs are unclear about the “par value” of a stock, and what par value they should establish for their new corporation. Generally, par value (also known as nominal or face value) is the minimum price per share that shares can be issued for, in order to be fully paid. In the old days, the par value of a common stock was equal to the amount invested and represented the initial capital of the company; but today the vast majority of stocks are issued with an extremely low par value, or none at all.

A share of stock cannot be issued, sold or traded for less than the par value. Therefore, incorporators often opt for such a low – or no – par value to reduce the amount of money a company founder must invest in exchange for shares of ownership in a start-up corporation. Regardless of the par value, the company’s board of directors retain the right to sell shares in the company at a higher price.

Some online incorporation services recommend setting par value at zero, however this is not necessarily the best approach and can have unintended consequences. Many corporations want to assign a par value, so that an actual investment (money or services) is necessary in order to acquire ownership in the company. This way, the corporation can generate capital and recoup start-up costs.

Some states restrict the number of shares which may be offered at zero par value, or charge additional taxes or filing fees based on the number of zero par value shares. For example, Delaware corporations can issue up to 1,500 shares at zero par value before additional filing fees kick in.

Zero par value can pose problems at tax time in some jurisdictions. In Delaware, for example, there are two methods of calculating franchise taxes corporations must pay annually. In one example, the same corporation would owe annual tax in excess of $75,000 if the stock had zero par value, as opposed to annual taxes of just $350 with a nominal par value of $.01 per share.

Consider establishing a par value that is above zero and below $.01 per share to minimize the initial investment required from the founders and to protect against potential tax consequences associated with zero par value stock. Some also recommend issuing founder shares at a multiple of whatever par value is, to avoid future complications if the corporation needs to execute a stock split that results in a new share price that is below par value.

Par value has no bearing on the market value of a stock, but is an important decision in the formation of your new enterprise. Consultation with an experienced business or tax lawyer can help you ensure your ultimate decision serves your company well into the future, in terms of raising capital, lowering taxes and retaining control as a shareholder in your corporation.


Monday, February 16, 2015

6 Events Which May Require a Change in Your Estate Plan

The purpose of writing a Last Will and Testament is to make sure that you – and not an anonymous probate court judge – have control over the distribution of your property after your death.  If one or more family members disputes the instructions in your will, however, then it is possible  that a probate court judge may decide how your assets will be distributed.

Protect yourself, your family members and your last wishes by taking steps to prevent a will contest after your death.  Will contests (this is the legal term used to describe a family member’s challenge to the contents of a will) can be based on one or more of these claims:

  • The will was not properly executed
  • The willmaker was under improper or undue influence from a beneficiary
  • The willmaker or another person committed fraud
  • The willmaker lacked the mental capacity to make the will

There are a number of steps that you can take to help prevent will contests based on any of those claims.  It is important to remember, though, that different states have different laws regarding wills and probate.  What is advisable in one state may be inadvisable in another, which is why the first suggestion for preventing a will contest is:

  1. Obtain qualified legal advice regarding your estate plan.  Estate planning has become a popular “do it yourself” legal task, but you should at least consider having your will reviewed – if not written – by a qualified estate planning lawyer.  Writing your will with the help of an estate planning attorney will also ensure that your will is a properly executed and valid legal document.
     
  2. Don’t delay estate planning.  Plan your estate while you are in good health – “of sound mind and body.”  If you create your will while your physical or mental health is failing, your will becomes vulnerable to claims that it is invalid due to your lack of mental capacity.
     
  3. Consider a no-contest clause.  A no-contest clause (also called an in terroreum clause) in a Last Will and Testament disinherits anyone who contests the will.  Keep in mind, though, that no-contest clauses are valid in some states but not in others.
     
  4. Consider using trusts.  Trusts are becoming more widely usedin estate planning , and are useful for various situations.  A will is a public document once it is filed in probate court, and the public nature of the document can give rise to disputes and will contests.  In contrast, a revocable living trust is a personal and private document that does not have to be filed as a public record.  Furthermore, lifetime trusts can be used to provide financially for “troublesome” beneficiaries who might otherwise spend through their inheritance.  Lifetime trusts are flexible and can link financial inheritance to the accomplishment of goals that you set forth in the trust documents.
     
  5. Write your will independently.  To avoid claims of undue influence after your death, make sure you write your will in circumstances that are clearly free from interference by family members or other beneficiaries.  Avoid having beneficiaries serve as witnesses, for example, and don’t allow beneficiaries to attend your meetings with your estate planning attorney.  This is especially important if you are under the care of a family member who is also a beneficiary.
     
  6. Be of sound mind and body.  At the time you write and sign your will, you can ask your physician to perform a physical examination and certify that you are mentally competent to execute your will.  Another option is for your attorney to ask you a series of questions before you sign your will and document that the questions were asked and answered.  It may also be a good idea to make a video recording of the process of signing your will, as another way to prove mental competency.
     
  7. Answer your family’s questions.  Consider sharing your intentions with your family and other beneficiaries.  If you explain the reasons for the decisions you made regarding bequests, you may help prevent will contests after your death.  Instead or in addition, you may write a letter to your beneficiaries that will be read at the same time your will is read.
     
  8. Keep your will dust-free.  Once your Last Will and Testament and other estate planning documents are complete, don’t just file and forget them.  Review your will with an attorney at least once a year and make any necessary changes in a timely manner.
     

Monday, February 9, 2015

Should I Incorporate My Business?

The primary advantages of operating as a corporation are liability protection and potential tax savings. Like any important decision, choosing whether to incorporate involves weighing the pros and cons of the various business structures and should only be done after careful research.

Once incorporated, the business becomes a separate legal entity, and assets of the corporation are separated from the owner’s personal finances. As a result, the owner’s personal assets generally can be shielded from creditors of the business.

To maintain this legal separation and avoid “piercing the corporate veil,” the corporation must observe certain formalities, including:

  • Keeping corporate assets and personal assets separate (no commingling of funds)
  • Holding shareholder and director meetings at least annually
  • Maintaining a corporate record book including bylaws, minutes of shareholder and director meetings, and shareholder records
  • Filing annual information statements with the Secretary of State
  • Filing a separate tax return for the corporation

Many business owners are concerned about “double taxation” of income that affects certain types of corporations known as “C-Corporations”.   Double taxation results when the C-corporation has profit at the end of the year that is distributed to the shareholders. That profit is taxed to the corporation, at the corporate tax rate, and then the dividends are taxable income to the shareholders on their personal tax returns. However, the corporate tax and dividend rates can be lower than the individual tax rate that a sole-proprietor would pay on a 1040 Schedule C, and a knowledgeable accountant or tax attorney may be able to advise on how to minimize the burden of double-taxation and indeed pay an effective tax rate which is lower than what a sole proprietor would pay.

For example, a small C-Corporation will likely have a shareholder who is also an employee. Paychecks to the shareholder/employee are, of course, tax deductible to the business. To the shareholder/employee, they are taxable income (as would be the case with a paycheck from any employer). A bonus could be paid to the shareholder/employee in order to lower the corporation’s taxable profit, eliminating the double-taxation. These calculations should be performed by a tax advisor, but shifting income from the corporation to the shareholder/employee (or not, depending on which has the lower tax rate) can be an effective way to lower your overall tax liability. In addition, there are certain advantages that are only available with a C-Corporation, such as full tax-deductibility of medical benefits for a shareholder/employee.

The S-Corporation avoids the double-taxation by offering a tax structure similar to the Limited Liability Company. A corporation with 100 or fewer shareholders can elect to be treated as an S-Corporation. If the corporation is profitable, the shareholder/employee must draw a reasonable salary (and pay employment tax on it), but then all remaining corporate profits flow through to the shareholder’s personal tax return (thereby avoiding the FICA tax on the portion of profits that is taken as a dividend).

An experienced attorney can help you decide which form of ownership is best for your business, help you establish the entity, and ensure the required formalities are observed.


Monday, January 26, 2015

Negotiating a Commercial Lease? Be Sure to Address These Issues

When it comes time for your business to move into a new commercial space, make sure you consider the terms of your lease agreement from both business and legal perspectives.  While there are some common terms and clauses in many commercial leases, many landlords and property managers incorporate complicated and sometimes unusual terms and conditions.   As you review your commercial lease, pay special attention to the following issues which can greatly affect your legal rights and obligations.

The Lease Commencement Date
Commercial leases typically will provide a rent commencement date, which may be the same as the lease commencement date. Or not. If the landlord is performing improvements to ready the space for your arrival, a specific date for the commencement of rent payments could become a problem if that date arrives and you do not yet have possession of the premises because the landlord’s contractors are still working in your space. Nobody wants to be on the hook for rent payments for a space that cannot yet be occupied. A better approach is to avoid including in the lease a specific date for commencement, and instead state that the commencement date will be the date the landlord actually delivers possession of the premises to you. Alternatively, you can negotiate a provision that triggers penalties for the landlord or additional benefits for you, should the property not be available to you on the rent commencement date.

Lease Renewals
Your initial lease term will likely be a period of three to five years, or perhaps longer. Locking in long terms benefits the landlord, but can be off-putting for a tenant. Instead, you may be able to negotiate a shorter initial term, with the option to extend at a later date.  This will afford you the right, but not the obligation to continue with the lease for an additional period of years.   Be sure that any notice required to terminate the lease or exercise your option to extend at the end of the initial lease term is clear and not subject to an unfavorable interpretation.

Subletting and Assignment
If you are locked into a long-term lease, you will likely want to preserve some flexibility in the event you outgrow the space or need to vacate the premises for other reasons. An assignment transfers all rights and responsibilities to the new tenant, whereas a sublease leaves you, the original tenant, ultimately responsible for the payments due under the original lease agreement. Tenants generally want to negotiate the right to assign the lease to another business, while landlords typically prefer a provision allowing for a sublease agreement.

Subordination and Non-disturbance Rights
What if the landlord fails to comply with the terms of the lease? If a lender forecloses on your landlord, your commercial lease agreement could be at risk because the landlord’s mortgage agreement can supersede your lease. If the property you are negotiating to rent is subject to claims that will be superior to your lease agreement, consider negotiating a “nondisturbance agreement” stating that if a superior rights holder forecloses the property, your lease agreement will be recognized and honored as long as you fulfill your obligations according to the lease.


Monday, January 12, 2015

What’s Involved in Serving as an Executor?

An executor is the person designated in a Will as the individual who is responsible for performing a number of tasks necessary to wind down the decedent’s affairs. Generally, the executor’s responsibilities involve taking charge of the deceased person’s assets, notifying beneficiaries and creditors, paying the estate’s debts and distributing the property to the beneficiaries. The executor may also be a beneficiary of the Will, though he or she must treat all beneficiaries fairly and in accordance with the provisions of the Will.

First and foremost, an executor must obtain the original, signed Will as well as other important documents such as certified copies of the Death Certificate.  The executor must notify all persons who have an interest in the estate or who are named as beneficiaries in the Will. A list of all assets must be compiled, including value at the date of death. The executor must take steps to secure all assets, whether by taking possession of them, or by obtaining adequate insurance. Assets of the estate include all real and personal property owned by the decedent; overlooked assets sometimes include stocks, bonds, pension funds, bank accounts, safety deposit boxes, annuity payments, holiday pay, and work-related life insurance or survivor benefits.

The executor is responsible for compiling a list of the decedent’s debts, as well. Debts can include credit card accounts, loan payments, mortgages, home utilities, tax arrears, alimony and outstanding leases. All of the decedent’s creditors must also be notified and given an opportunity to make a claim against the estate.

Whether the Will must be probated depends on a variety of factors, including size of the estate and how the decedent’s assets were titled. An experienced probate or estate planning attorney can help determine whether probate is required, and assist with carrying out the executor’s duties. If the estate must go through probate, the executor must file with the court to probate the Will and be appointed as the estate’s legal representative.  Once the executor has this legal authority, he or she must pay all of the decedent’s outstanding debts, provided there are sufficient assets in the estate. After debts have been paid, the executor must distribute the remaining real and personal property to the beneficiaries, in accordance with the wishes set forth in the Will. Because the executor is accountable to the beneficiaries of the estate, it is extremely important to keep complete, accurate records of all expenditures, correspondence, asset distribution, and filings with the court and government agencies.

The executor is also responsible for filing all tax returns for the deceased person including federal and state income tax returns and estate tax filings, if applicable. Additional tasks may include notifying carriers for homeowner’s and auto insurance policies and initiating claims on life insurance policies.

The executor is entitled to compensation for his or her services.  This fee varies according to the estate’s size and may be subject to review depending on the complexity as well as the time and effort expended by the executor.

   


Monday, January 5, 2015

Umbrella Insurance: What It Is and Why You Need It

Lawsuits are everywhere. What happens when you are found to be at fault in an accident, and a significant judgment is entered against you? A child dives head-first into the shallow end of your swimming pool, becomes paralyzed, and needs in-home medical care for the rest of his or her lifetime. Or, you accidentally rear-end a high-income executive, whose injuries prevent him or her from returning to work. Either of these situations could easily result in judgments or settlements that far exceed the limits of your primary home or auto insurance policies. Without additional coverage, your life savings could be wiped out with the stroke of a judge’s pen.

Typical liability insurance coverage is included as part of your home or auto policy to cover an injured person’s medical expenses, rehabilitation or lost wages due to negligence on your part. The liability coverage contained in your policy also cover expenses associated with your legal defense, should you find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit. Once all of these expenses are added together, the total may exceed the liability limits on the home or auto insurance policy. Once insurance coverage is exhausted, your personal assets could be seized to satisfy the judgment.

However, there is an affordable option that provides you with added liability protection. Umbrella insurance is a type of liability insurance policy that provides coverage above and beyond the standard limits of your primary home, auto or other liability insurance policies. The term “umbrella” refers to the manner in which these insurance policies shield your assets more broadly than the primary insurance coverage, by covering liability claims from all policies “underneath” it, such as your primary home or auto coverage.

With an umbrella insurance policy, you can add an addition $1 million to $5 million – or more – in liability coverage to defend you in negligence actions. The umbrella coverage kicks in when the liability limits on your primary policies has been exhausted. This additional liability insurance is often relatively inexpensive in comparison to the cost of the primary insurance policies and potential for loss if the unthinkable happens.

Generally, umbrella insurance is pure liability coverage over and above your regular policies. It is typically sold in million-dollar increments. These types of policies are also broader than traditional auto or home policies, affording coverage for claims typically excluded by primary insurance policies, such as claims for defamation, false arrest or invasion of privacy.
 


Monday, December 22, 2014

Living Trusts & Probate Avoidance

You want your money and property to go to your loved ones when you die, not to the courts, lawyers or the government. Unfortunately, unless you’ve taken proper estate planning, procedures, your heirs could lose a sizable portion of their inheritance to probate court fees and expenses. A properly-crafted and “funded” living trust is the ideal probate-avoidance tool which can save thousands in legal costs, enhance family privacy and avoid lengthy delays in distributing your property to your loved ones

What is probate, and why should you avoid it? Probate is a court proceeding during which the will is reviewed, executors are approved, heirs, beneficiaries, debtors and creditors are notified, assets are appraised, your debts and taxes are paid, and the remaining estate is distributed according to your will (or according to state law if you don’t have a will). Probate is costly, time-consuming and very public.

A living trust, on the other hand, allows your property to be transferred to your beneficiaries, quickly and privately, with little to no court intervention, maximizing the amount your loved ones end up with.

A basic living trust consists of a declaration of trust, a document that is similar to a will in its form and content, but very different in its legal effect. In the declaration, you name yourself as trustee, the person in charge of your property. If you are married, you and your spouse are co-trustees. Because you are trustee, you retain total control of the property you transfer into the trust. In the declaration, you must also name successor trustees to take over in the event of your death or incapacity.

Once the trust is established, you must transfer ownership of your property to yourself, as trustee of the living trust. This step is critical; the trust has no effect over any of your property unless you formally transfer ownership into the trust. The trust also enables you to name the beneficiaries you want to inherit your property when you die, including providing for alternate or conditional beneficiaries. You can amend your trust at any time, and can even revoke it entirely.

Even if you create a living trust and transfer all of your property into it, you should also create a back-up will, known as a “pour-over will”. This will ensure that any property you own – or may acquire in the future – will be distributed to whomever you want to receive it. Without a will, any property not included in your trust will be distributed according to state law.

After you die, the successor trustee you named in your living trust is immediately empowered to transfer ownership of the trust property according to your wishes. Generally, the successor trustee can efficiently settle your entire estate within a few weeks by filing relatively simple paperwork without court intervention and its associated expenses. The successor trustee can solicit the assistance of an attorney to help with the trust settlement process, though such legal fees are typically a fraction of those incurred during probate.
 


Monday, December 15, 2014

Are You Bound by the Terms of a Real Property Letter of Intent?

Complex commercial real estate transactions typically involve a back-and-forth negotiation of numerous terms of the agreement, a process which does not occur overnight. Accordingly, parties to a real estate purchase or lease transaction generally first execute a letter of intent (LOI), which documents the parties’ intent to proceed with the negotiation of a full contract. The LOI includes the essential terms of the agreement, such as closing date and purchase price, or lease term and rate. However, detailed terms and conditions are reserved for the final, formal lease agreement or purchase contract.

The LOI, with its brief description of only the most basic, essential terms, is not intended to be a binding contract.  However, if it is not properly drafted, the parties could find themselves locked into a binding LOI. For example, the existence of elements required in an enforceable contract, such as property description, price, closing date and payment terms, without expressly declaring parties’ intent that it be non-binding, could constitute it as a valid contract.

While parties who enter into an LOI generally intend to consummate the transaction, if the LOI is deemed enforceable as a stand-alone contract, both parties may be subject to undesirable consequences. For example, the LOI lacks essential contract terms such as indemnity clauses, warranties, financing arrangements, or any other detailed terms necessary to protect one or both parties. To ensure the LOI serves its intended purpose, it must contain a specific provision that states the LOI is intended to be non-binding until such time a final agreement is executed by the parties.

What if you want parts of the LOI to be binding, regardless of whether the deal is finalized? Perhaps buyers and tenants want an enforceable provision stating that the seller or landlord will not offer to sell or lease the property to others while the parties are in negotiations. A hybrid LOI can be drafted to ensure the negotiations and final terms are kept confidential until a final agreement is executed. Just as with the provisions stating the LOI is intended to be non-binding, the provisions that are intended to be binding must be carefully drafted to ensure they are enforceable and do not pose unintended consequences for other provisions within the document. A hybrid letter of intent can be a very effective tool in facilitating the purchase or lease of commercial real estate, but care must be taken to ensure it is drafted so that it serves its intended purpose.  


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