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Monday, December 8, 2014

Where to Incorporate Your Small Business

Should you incorporate your business in your home state? What about Delaware or Nevada, long known as havens for corporate entities? This decision should not be taken lightly because incorporating your business in a particular state will determine, to a significant extent, the laws that will apply to your business.

Often times, the best choice for corporate jurisdiction is the home state where your business is located.  There are several reasons for this. First, filing in a different state will not absolve you of the obligation to pay corporate taxes and comply with filing requirements in the state where your corporation has its operations. For example, if the corporation is located in California it will be subject to California fees and taxes, either as a domestic California Corporationor as a “foreign corporation” doing business in California. Additionally, if you are incorporated in a state other than where you are physically located, you will likely incur another set of filing fees and expenses for a registered agent who is physically located in the state of incorporation.

Many companies opt to incorporate in the State of Delaware, even though very few of them are actually based there. Approximately 60% of Fortune 500 companies are incorporated in Delaware. These major companies do so because Delaware’s corporate laws are generally favorable to business and management.  Delaware also has a special Court of Chancery that hears only business law cases. These courts afford companies a degree of consistency and predictability in rulings, which may or may not be found in other states.

Many entrepreneurs also consider the State of Nevada. Many companies are attracted to Nevada’s pro-business laws and favorable tax policy. Nevada also has a special business court, similar to Delaware’s Court of Chancery, although it is not as well established and lacks the breadth of case law that Delaware has.

If your company is engaged in risky or litigious business, then Delaware,Nevada or Wyoming may provide some additional liability protection.  For businesses that are essentially holding companies or otherwise lack operations as a traditional business would, forming a company in these states can also make a lot of sense since the business would not be subject to the laws of multiple states.
 


Monday, November 24, 2014

What’s really covered on your homeowners insurance policy?

A solid homeowners insurance policy can provide peace of mind about securing one of your most valuable assets. Unfortunately, many homeowners don’t fully grasp what exactly is covered under that policy, and most importantly, what isn’t

Homeowners insurance policies generally cover your home itself and other physical structures on the property. Your personal belongings also fall under most policies, along with property damage and bodily injury sustained by you or others on your property. You, your spouse and children, and any guests, tenants, or employees in your home can all be covered under this policy, just be sure to check when you purchase the policy.

Sounds like they’ve got you covered, right? Not so fast; there are a number of possible perils that are often not covered under basic homeowners insurance. Knowing what falls into this category can save you a lot of time and trauma if you ever experience one of these situations in the future.

The two main exceptions are earthquake and flood damage. The impacts of these natural disasters would not be covered by your standard policy. Earthquake insurance and coverage for some types of water damage can often be purchased as an addendum, but flood insurance must be purchased on its own as a separate policy.

Further, standard policies don’t cover damages to your building as a result of your failure to perform regular maintenance on your property. Insect, bird, or rodent damage, rust, mold, and any kind of wear and tear on your property is typically not covered. Neither are hidden defects, mechanical breakdowns, or food spoilage in the event of a power outage. Though there is no current concern for this, damage caused by war or nuclear exposure is also not covered.

Some things have minimal coverage built into your standard policy, for which you can purchase additional coverage as an addendum. Valuable property, including firearms, jewelry, silverware, etc., is usually covered by a standard $1,000. Insurance for replacement value of lost or damaged property is usually determined on an itemized basis that takes depreciation into account. You can expand this coverage by paying to remove depreciation from consideration.  Liability coverage can be increased if desired as well.

These should serve as general guidelines for your homeowners insurance, but be sure to consider the details on your specific policy.  It’s important to consider exactly what you have covered in order to determine what additional types of insurance you may want to purchase.

 


Monday, November 17, 2014

Adopting a Grown-Up: Top Three Reasons for Adult Adoption

While the vast majority of adoptions involve adults adopting children, all states have laws that permit “adult adoption,” in which a person 18 or older is adopted by another adult as mutually agreed by the parties. Some states may restrict adult adoptions to cases where the person being adopted is of diminished capacity. If the person being adopted is married, some states require the spouse to consent. Other states simply require the two adults to consent to the adoption.

Why would an adult want to be adopted?

There are typically three reasons why adults choose to adopt another adult. The most common reason is inheritance. Whether it takes place when the adopted party is a child or an adult, the adoption creates a legally recognized parent-child relationship, enabling the adoptive child to inherit property from the adoptive parents in accordance with state law.

Secondly, adult adoptions can be used to formalize a parent-child relationship. For example, there may have previously existed a stepparent-stepchild, or foster parent-foster child relationship, and the adult parties now wish to formally recognize the relationship.

Finally, adult adoption can help ensure perpetual care for a person of diminished capacity. Formally adopting the adult with special needs may enable him or her to qualify for lifetime care under family insurance, and can help ensure assets pass to the adoptive child.

As with any traditional adoption of a minor child, an adult adoption triggers several significant, legal changes. When the adoption is finalized, the parental relationship with the biological parents is severed, and a new parent-child relationship is created. A new birth certificate will be issued, bearing the adoptive parents’ names, and the adoptive child may change his or her last name to that of the adoptive parents.  


Monday, November 10, 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.  


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.

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