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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Overview of the Ways to Hold Title to Property

You are purchasing a home, and the escrow officer asks, “How do you want to hold title to the property?” In the context of your overall home purchase, this may seem like a small, inconsequential detail; however nothing could be further from the truth. A property can be owned by the same people, yet the manner in which title is held can drastically affect each owner’s rights during their lifetime and upon their death. Below is an overview of the common ways to hold title to real estate:

Tenancy in Common
Tenants in common are two or more owners, who may own equal or unequal percentages of the property as specified on the deed. Any co-owner may transfer his or her interest in the property to another individual. Upon a co-owner’s death, his or her interest in the property passes to the heirs or beneficiaries of that co-owner; the remaining co-owners retain their same percentage of ownership. Transferring property upon the death of a co-tenant requires a probate proceeding.

Tenancy in common is generally appropriate when the co-owners want to leave their share of the property to someone other than the other co-tenants, or want to own the property in unequal shares.

Joint Tenancy
Joint tenants are two or more owners who must own equal shares of the property. Upon a co-owner’s death, the decedent’s share of the property transfers to the surviving joint tenants, not his or her heirs or beneficiaries. Transferring property upon the death of a joint tenant does not require a probate proceeding, but will require certain forms to be filed and a new deed to be recorded.

Joint tenancy is generally favored when owners want the property to transfer automatically to the remaining co-owners upon death, and want to own the property in equal shares.

Living Trusts
The above methods of taking title apply to properties with multiple owners. However, even sole owners, for whom the above methods are inapplicable, face an important choice when purchasing property. Whether a sole owner, or multiple co-owners, everyone has the option of holding title through a living trust, which avoids probate upon the property owner’s death. Once your living trust is established, the property can be transferred to you, as trustee of the living trust. The trust document names the successor trustee, who will manage your affairs upon your death, and beneficiaries who will receive the property. With a living trust, the property can be transferred to your beneficiaries quickly and economically, by avoiding the probate courts altogether. Because you remain as trustee of your living trust during your lifetime, you retain sole control of your property.

How you hold title has lasting ramifications on you, your family and the co-owners of the property. Title transfers can affect property taxes, capital gains taxes and estate taxes. If the property is not titled in such a way that probate can be avoided, your heirs will be subject to a lengthy, costly, and very public probate court proceeding. By consulting an experienced real estate attorney, you can ensure your rights – and those of your loved ones – are fully protected.
 


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Protecting the Rights of Parents with Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law in 1990, recognized the civil rights of a large class of citizens with physical and mental disabilities by making it illegal to discriminate against them in employment, transportation or public services and accommodations. Since its enactment, much progress has been made, enabling people with disabilities to obtain an education, pursue a career, live independent lives and fulfill their dreams. 

Despite this progress, people with disabilities who have children are more likely to have their parental rights terminated or lose custody after a divorce. 

Discrimination in the Courts

These discriminatory actions are often justified on the grounds that the courts are protecting the best interests of the child, but there is little research to support the assumption that someone who is disabled is incapable of being a good parent. In fact, according to advocacy groups there are likely more than 4 million parents with physical disabilities currently raising children. 

Most family courts work diligently to provide services and support to ensure that children maintain contact with their parents whenever possible. This is not always the case when disability is involved. There have been cases where disabled parents have not been allowed to bring their newborns home and the state subsequently filed to have their parental rights revoked, even in the absence of evidence of abuse or maltreatment. The presumption is that the disability endangers the welfare of the child. Currently, two thirds of the states have laws permitting the removal of children based on the disabled status of the parent.

Disadvantage in Custody Cases

Parents with disabilities are also at a disadvantage in custody cases, particularly if the ex-spouse does not have a disability. Competent parents with special disabilities require knowledgeable advocates who can demonstrate that they are able to effectively carry out their parenting duties in their own adaptive ways.

Fighting Discriminatory Practices

Advocates for the legal rights of parents with disabilities are waiting for a landmark trial that halts the discrimination suffered by parents with disabilities and protects their rights to have and raise children. While everyone agrees that children should not be exposed to a hazardous environment, decisions to remove children from homes where a parent is deaf or has a low IQ are often made by individuals who fail to grasp the remarkable capabilities of such parents despite their significant handicaps. More education on disability issues is needed at all levels of the child welfare and family court systems. At the same time, parents with disabilities must have better access to fair legal representation and support services. 


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Trademarks and Service Marks

A trademark or service mark is a word, name, logo, symbol or design that identifies the source of a product or service, distinguishing it from the competition. While trademarks are used to identify products, service marks are used to identify services. Both marks are afforded the same protections and subject to the same requirements.

To qualify for trademark protection, the mark must be used in commerce and it must be distinctive. Trademark law is tied to the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce.Therefore, to qualify for federal trademark protection a mark must be used in interstate commerce. Marks used in intrastate commerce are eligible for state trademark protection. If a mark is not being used in commerce at the time a trademark application is filed, the mark may still be registered if you can establish a good faith intent to use the trademark in commerce on a future date. Nevertheless, trademark rights are awarded to the first individual or entity to actually use the mark in commerce.

The trademark must also be sufficiently distinctive to identify and distinguish the goods or services from those of other sources. Distinctiveness generally falls within one of four categories: 1) arbitrary or fanciful; 2) suggestive; 3) descriptive; and 4) generic.

A trademark categorized as arbitrary or fanciful, or suggestive, is automatically considered to be inherently distinctive, and the exclusive right to use the mark is determined solely based on who was first to use the mark in commerce. Descriptive trademarks are only protected if the mark has acquired secondary meaning to members of the public.  If the mark merely describes the type of product or service, it will not stand out and leave an impression in the minds of consumers. Generic terms are ineligible for any trademark protection. A trademark may be generic at the outset, or it can become generic over time through common usage, such as “aspirin”.

Trademarks can be registered at either the federal or state level, depending on whether the product or service will be sold across state lines or within one state only. Registration is not required for trademark protection, but there are significant advantages to registration. Registration puts the public on notice that the mark is used to identify a particular good or service. Under federal law, a registered trademark can achieve incontestable status following five years of continuous use.Under state law in most jurisdictions, even unregistered trademarks are protected under unfair competition laws.

Trademarks that are registered at the federal level are permitted to use the ® designation. Absent registration with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, trademark owners can use the letters “TM” or “SM” in conjunction with the mark, to alert the public of the owner’s claim to the mark.

Trademark owners are obligated to protect the mark by taking legal action against any infringers, regardless of how insignificant the infringement may seem. Owners must be consistent in asserting and defending their rights to the mark. Failure to do so could result in a waiver of the right to enforce the mark.
 


Monday, September 22, 2014

Estate Planning: The Medicaid Asset Protection Trust

The irrevocable Medicaid Asset Protection Trust has proven to be a highly effective estate planning tool for many older Americans. There are many factors to consider when deciding whether a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust is right for you and your family. This brief overview is designed to give you a starting point for discussions with your loved ones and legal counsel.

A Medicaid Asset Protection Trust enables an individual or a married couple to transfer some of their assets into a trust, to hold and manage the assets throughout their lifetime. Upon their deaths, the remainder of the assets will be transferred to the heirs in accordance with the provisions of the trust.

This process is best explained by an example. Let’s say Mr. and Mrs. Smith, both retired, own stocks and savings accounts valued at $300,000. Their current living expenses are covered by income from these investments, plus Social Security and their retirement benefits. Should either one of them ever be admitted to a skilled nursing facility, the Smiths likely will not have enough money left over to cover living and medical expenses for the rest of their lives.

Continuing the above example, the Smiths can opt to transfer all or a portion of their investments into a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust. Under the terms of the trust, all investment income will continue to be paid to the Smiths during their lifetimes. Should one of them ever need Medicaid coverage for nursing home care, the income would then be paid to the other spouse. Upon the deaths of both spouses, the trust is terminated and the remaining assets are distributed to the Smiths’ children or other heirs as designated in the trust. As long as the Smiths are alive, their assets are protected and they enjoy a continued income stream throughout their lives.

However, the Medicaid Asset Protection Trust is not without its pitfalls. Creation of such a trust can result in a period of ineligibility for benefits under the Medicaid program. The length of time varies, according to the value of the assets transferred and the date of the transfer. Following expiration of the ineligibility period, the assets held within the trust are generally protected and will not be factored in when calculating assets for purposes of qualification for Medicaid benefits. Furthermore, transferring assets into an irrevocable Medicaid Asset Protection Trust keeps them out of both spouses’ reach for the duration of their lives.

Deciding whether a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust is right for you is a complex process that must take into consideration many factors regarding your assets, income, family structure, overall health, life expectancy, and your wishes regarding how property should be handled after your death. An experienced elder law or Medicaid attorney can help guide you through the decision making process.
 


Monday, September 15, 2014

Stepparent Adoptions

Stepparent adoption is the most common form of adoption in the United States. Once the adoption is finalized, the stepparent assumes full financial and legal responsibility for his or her spouse’s child and the non-custodial parent’s rights and responsibilities are terminated.  

Stepparent adoptions are handled according to state law, which can vary across jurisdictions. For example, some states do not require a home study in cases of stepparent adoption. Most states require that the biological parent and stepparent be married for a specified length of time before an adoption may be finalized. Fortunately for blended families, most states make the adoption process easier for stepchildren to be adopted by their stepparents.

Stepparent adoptions require the consent of both of the child’s birth parents, but the process is handled differently in various states. In some states, the non-custodial parent must file papers with the court or appear before a judge, while a simple written statement is sufficient in other jurisdictions. Some states require the non-custodial parent to seek counseling or speak to a lawyer in order to give valid consent.

The consent requirement is not absolute and in fact, consent may not be required in certain situations. In some states, a stepparent adoption may be finalized even if the child’s biological, non-custodial parent contests the adoption, such as when the non-custodial parent has not contacted the child for a specified period of time. If you are having difficulty obtaining consent, you should speak with an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, you may be eligible for free legal aid or the court may appoint a guardian ad litem to represent your child.
 


Monday, September 8, 2014

The Risks of Tenant-in-Common Investments

Historically, tenant in common (TIC) projects were owned by a relatively small group of investors who knew each other, such as long-time friends, business partners or family members. Strategies to maximize tax savings and preserve equity typically guided investors to this type of structure, rather than creating a limited liability company or partnership to own the property.

In the late 1990s, real estate sales in the form of tax-deferred 1031 exchanges created a new industry. Promoters began soliciting and pooling funds from investors to purchase real estate. Participation in the pool helped investors find replacement property to guarantee their capital gains tax deferment continued.

In 2002, the IRS clarified when this type of pooling is considered a partnership interest as opposed to a TIC interest, a critical distinction for investors using funds from a 1031 exchange transaction. Following that, investments in TIC interests grew considerably due to the numerous advantages. For those who needed a place to invest their 1031 exchange funds quickly, TIC interests provide a relatively simple way to ensure the funds are spent within 180 days of the sale of the previous property, without the hassle of researching, investigating, negotiating and financing a property in less than six months. TIC investors do not have to burden themselves with the day-to-day management of their investment property. Finally, TIC investors can pool their resources to purchase fractional shares of investment-grade property which would otherwise be out of reach.

With all of its advantages, the TIC interest also carries its share of risks. For example, many TIC promoters charged fees that were excessive, or sold the property to the investors for more than it was worth. If property values decline or purchase loans mature, it may be difficult to refinance, forcing the property into foreclosure and taking the entire investment with it.

Other promoters failed to maintain reserve funds separate for each property. If a promoter filed for bankruptcy and did not properly use the reserve funds, TIC investors were left with no recourse and were forced to cover the reserves out of their own pockets or risk losing their investment.

Further risks are caused by the investors themselves and the nature of their relationship to one another – or lack thereof. Owners of TIC typically do not know each other. Decisions regarding TIC governance often require unanimous agreement by all owners, and just one objection can grind the action to a halt. When owners don’t know each other, or are spread across many states, it can be difficult to communicate and obtain a unanimous agreement.

Despite the risks, TIC interests can still be a good place to park your money – but you must be a cautious, diligent purchaser. Visit the property, seek information from sources other than the promoter, and carefully review the past and projected financial data.
 


Saturday, August 30, 2014

Overview of Life Estates

Establishing a Life Estate is a relatively simple process in which you transfer your property to your children, while retaining your right to use and live in the property. Life Estates are used to avoid probate, maximize tax benefits and protect the real property from potential long-term care expenses you may incur in your later years. Transferring property into a Life Estate avoids some of the disadvantages of making an outright gift of property to your heirs. However, it is not right for everyone and comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Life Estates establish two different categories of property owners: the Life Tenant Owner and the Remainder Owner. The Life Tenant Owner maintains the absolute and exclusive right to use the property during his or her lifetime. This can be a sole owner or joint Life Tenants. Life Tenant(s) maintain responsibility for property taxes, insurance and maintenance. Life Tenant(s) are also entitled to rent out the property and to receive all income generated by the property.

Remainder Owner(s) automatically take legal ownership of the property immediately upon the death of the last Life Tenant. Remainder Owners have no right to use the property or collect income generated by the property, and are not responsible for taxes, insurance or maintenance, as long as the Life Tenant is still alive.

Advantages

  • Life Estates are simple and inexpensive to establish; merely requiring that a new Deed be recorded.
  • Life Estates avoid probate; the property automatically transfers to your heirs upon the death of the last surviving Life Tenant.
  • Transferring title following your death is a simple, quick process.
  • Life Tenant’s right to use and occupy property is protected; a Remainder Owner’s problems (financial or otherwise) do not affect the Life Tenant’s absolute right to the property during your lifetime.
  • Favorable tax treatment upon the death of a Life Tenant; when property is titled this way, your heirs enjoy a stepped-up tax basis, as of the date of death, for capital gains purposes.
  • Property owned via a Life Estate is typically protected from Medicaid claims once 60 months have elapsed after the date of transfer into the Life Estate. After that five-year period, the property is protected against Medicaid liens to pay for end-of-life care.

Disadvantages

  • Medicaid; that 60-month waiting period referenced above also means that the Life Tenants are subject to a 60-month disqualification period for Medicaid purposes. This period begins on the date the property is transferred into the Life Estate.
  • Potential income tax consequences if the property is sold while the Life Tenant is still alive; Life Tenants do not receive the full income tax exemption normally available when a personal residence is sold. Remainder Owners receive no such exemption, so any capital gains tax would likely be due from the Remainder Owner’s proportionate share of proceeds from the sale.
  • In order to sell the property, all owners must agree and sign the Deed, including Life Tenants and Remainder Owners; Life Tenant’s lose the right of sole control over the property.
  • Transfer into a Life Estate is irrevocable; however if all Life Tenants and Remainder Owners agree, a change can be made but may be subject to negative tax or Medicaid consequences.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Top 3 Real Estate Tips for Small Businesses

The only real estate transaction most small businesses engage in is to enter into a lease for commercial space. Whether you are considering office, manufacturing or retail space, the following three tips will help you navigate the negotiation process so you can avoid costly mistakes.

 

“Base Rent” is Not the Only Rent You Will Pay

Most prospective tenants focus their negotiation efforts on the “base rent,” the fixed monthly amount you will pay under the lease agreement. You may have negotiated a terrific deal on the base rent, but the transaction may not be the best value once other charges are factored in. For example, many commercial lease agreements are “triple net,” meaning that the tenant must also pay for insurance, taxes and other operating expenses. When negotiating “triple net,” ensure you aren't being charged for expenses that do not benefit your space, and that you are paying an amount that is in proportion to the space you utilize in the building. Another provision to watch for is tenant's responsibility to also pay a pro rata share of increases in real estate taxes. 

 

There’s No Such Thing as a “Form Lease”

Most commercial property owners and managers offer prospective tenants a pre-printed lease containing your name and various terms. They present these documents often with a rider, and adamantly explain that it is the landlord’s “typical form lease.” This, however, does not mean you cannot negotiate. Review every provision in the agreement, bearing in mind that all terms are open for discussion and negotiation. Pay particular attention to the specific needs of your business that are not addressed in the “form lease.”

 

Note the Notice Requirements

Your lease agreement may contain many provisions that require you to send notices to the landlord under various circumstances. For example, if you wish to renew or terminate your lease at the end of the term, you will likely owe a notice to the landlord to that effect, and it may be due much earlier than you think – sometimes up to a year or more. Prepare a summary of the key notice requirements contained in your lease agreement, along with the due dates, and add key dates to your calendar to ensure you comply with all notice requirements and do not forfeit any rights under your lease agreement.

 


Friday, August 15, 2014

(Grand)Parenting 2.0

According to the National Census Bureau, grandparent-headed homes are among the fastest growing household types in the United States. Grandparent-headed homes are defined as living arrangements where the primary financial and caregiving responsibilities are held by one or more grandparents rather than a parent. Though the reasons that lead to this type of arrangement vary, many speculate that a difficult job market and bleak economy has led to an increase in the past few years.

At the height of the financial crisis, the Wall Street Journal published an article describing the financial strain placed on grandparent-headed households. For grandparents who have already retired, finding a job at an advanced age can be next to impossible. The unemployment rates for this demographic are disproportionately high as are levels of ‘discouragement,’ or the part of the population so frustrated with trying to find work that they are driven from workforce. The degree of financial hardship is exacerbated by the increase in the price of everyday goods and necessities, like food and clothing.

Beyond the financial strain, taking care of a young child can also have a significant impact on a grandparent’s mental and physical well-being. If an infant is placed in the grandparent’s care, he or she may have disrupted sleep due to nightly feedings. Grandparents raising young children are also frequently exposed to diseases and infections common in childhood. Depression and anxiety disorders are not uncommon and for children with developmental delays or behavioral problems, the demands placed on caregivers are that much greater.

In some cases, grandparents may become the head of a household even when parents are present. In situations where a parent has become unemployed or otherwise cannot care for the children, he or she may move the entire family into his or her parents’ home. In addition to grandparent-headed homes, other types of arrangements where the parent is not the primary caregiver are on the rise. These may include instances where an aunt or uncle takes responsibility for a nephew or niece.

Fortunately, many federal and state governments have started to recognize this trend and are putting resources in place to assist non-parent-headed homes. The American Association of Retired Persons has also created a comprehensive guide and resource center for grandparents parenting a child.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Know the Risks of “D-I-Y” Divorce

“Do it yourself” divorce is fraught with risks – even if your case is “simple” and both parties agree on all issues regarding division of property, support, and child custody and visitation. As many have learned the hard way, it is all too easy to make critical missteps today that will come back to haunt you down the road.

The proliferation of DIY websites and non-attorney legal document preparers give the impression that the process is simpler than it is. These services can help you deal with the court forms required to dissolve a marriage, including financial disclosures, motions, hearing notices and child support paperwork. It’s tempting to save money by using one of these services to prepare and file your divorce forms without using a lawyer.

Unfortunately, these services will leave you in the lurch when things do not go as planned, as they cannot offer you any legal advice or engage in any negotiations on your behalf. Worse still, they cannot point out the pitfalls contained in your paperwork which can pose risks to your financial future long after you think you’ve put the marriage behind you.

The typical do-it-yourselfer believes that everything is correctly resolved because the court accepted and processed the forms and has issued the divorce decree. However, this may or may not be the case; and any problems can remain undiscovered for years until, for example, one spouse embarks on a significant financial transaction such as purchasing a home.

A common scenario involves incomplete (or incorrect) provisions in a marital settlement agreement, leaving both spouses legally on the hook for a mortgage. What happens when the spouse who kept the home and obligated to make the monthly payments fails to do so? What happens when the other spouse applies for a mortgage on a new home, but the amount of the monthly payment of the previous mortgage is still considered when calculating the debt-to-income ratio? This is just one example of how “saving money” on the front end of your divorce can cost you greatly in the future.

Even if your divorce is “uncontested,” in that you and your spouse agree on all of the settlement terms, getting legal advice upfront will ensure the process goes smoothly and that you do not encounter any unpleasant surprises in the future. A consultation with a family law attorney can identify what issues must be addressed, point out potential negative consequences of certain decisions, and let you know what to expect throughout the divorce process.

If your divorce case is “contested,” meaning you cannot agree on terms regarding your property or children, it is important that you consult with a lawyer to obtain a realistic idea of what you can expect based on your legal rights under the circumstances. And, unlike the DIY services, an attorney can also represent your interests during settlement negotiations. If settlement negotiations are unsuccessful, your lawyer can ensure the court fully considers all information in your favor prior to making any rulings.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Family Business: Preserving Your Legacy for Generations to Come

Your family-owned business is not just one of your most significant assets, it is also your legacy. Both must be protected by implementing a transition plan to arrange for transfer to your children or other loved ones upon your retirement or death.

More than 70 percent of family businesses do not survive the transition to the next generation. Ensuring your family does not fall victim to the same fate requires a unique combination of proper estate and tax planning, business acumen and common-sense communication with those closest to you. Below are some steps you can take today to make sure your family business continues from generation to generation.
  • Meet with an estate planning attorney to develop a comprehensive plan that includes a will and/or living trust. Your estate plan should account for issues related to both the transfer of your assets, including the family business and estate taxes.
  • Communicate with all family members about their wishes concerning the business. Enlist their involvement in establishing a business succession plan to transfer ownership and control to the younger generation. Include in-laws or other non-blood relatives in these discussions. They offer a fresh perspective and may have talents and skills that will help the company.
  • Make sure your succession plan includes:  preserving and enhancing “institutional memory”, who will own the company, advisors who can aid the transition team and ensure continuity, who will oversee day-to-day operations, provisions for heirs who are not directly involved in the business, tax saving strategies, education and training of family members who will take over the company and key employees.
  • Discuss your estate plan and business succession plan with your family members and key employees. Make sure everyone shares the same basic understanding.
  • Plan for liquidity. Establish measures to ensure the business has enough cash flow to pay taxes or buy out a deceased owner’s share of the company. Estate taxes are based on the full value of your estate. If your estate is asset-rich and cash-poor, your heirs may be forced to liquidate assets in order to cover the taxes, thus removing your “family” from the business.
  • Implement a family employment plan to establish policies and procedures regarding when and how family members will be hired, who will supervise them, and how compensation will be determined.
  • Have a buy-sell agreement in place to govern the future sale or transfer of shares of stock held by employees or family members.
  • Add independent professionals to your board of directors.

You’ve worked very hard over your lifetime to build your family-owned enterprise. However, you should resist the temptation to retain total control of your business well into your golden years. There comes a time to retire and focus your priorities on ensuring a smooth transition that preserves your legacy – and your investment – for generations to come.


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