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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.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Prenup Considerations Before You Say I Do

Most people think of marriage as a declaration of love and commitment, not as a legal contract that defines the financial and familial obligations of each party. That is, until they start negotiating a divorce settlement and discover their state’s policy on the division of marital property and spousal support. Although not every couple establishes a prenuptial agreement, there are several good reasons for having a smart prenup in place before saying those magical words, “I do."


What is a Prenup?
A prenuptial agreement is a legal document that allows the couple to make decisions about their finances and marital property should they eventually decide to part ways. You cannot circumvent the child custody statutes in your state through a prenuptial agreement, although you can decide who gets to keep the family dog. The terms of the prenup must be legal and should be fair to both parties. For instance, an agreement that would leave one spouse homeless with no source of income would not be enforceable.

A prenup is particularly useful when one, or both parties, enter into the marriage with valuable assets or has children from a previous relationship. Older couples are more likely to consider a prenup because they have more assets to lose. Those who are exchanging matrimonial vows for a second or third time recognize that having a customized financial game plan in place can make divorce proceedings less stressful.

A prenup can eliminate later disputes over assets during a divorce and save the couple from acrimonious, time consuming and stressful litigation. 

When Should You Consider a Prenup?
A prenup might be a good idea if you have any of the following concerns:

  • Providing peace of mind for the partner who has significantly more income or wealth
  • Making sure your business remains intact, in your name
  • Defining assets such as property, a retirement fund or investments as separate property, not marital property
  • Retaining possession of family property, heirlooms or an anticipated inheritance after a divorce
  • Looking after the long-term interests of children from a previous marriage
  • Worrying that changing your career plan to raise children will leave you at a financial disadvantage
  • Avoiding interference with an estate plan
  • Financing long-term care for elderly parents or relatives

Starting Your Marriage the Right Way
The divorce laws in most states work on the assumption that both partners in a marriage have agreed to pool their tangible and intangible assets, and the courts generally attempt to make an equitable and fair division of these assets following a divorce.  A prenuptial agreement gives you and your intended spouse the opportunity to consider potential areas of disagreement regarding your financial future and address them in a forthright and realistic manner.

 


Monday, June 30, 2014

Do Heirs Have to Pay Off Their Loved One’s Debts?

The recent economic recession, and staggering increases in health care costs have left millions of Americans facing incredible losses and mounting debt in their final years. Are you concerned that, rather than inheriting wealth from your parents, you will instead inherit bills? The good news is, you probably won’t have to pay them.

As you are dealing with the emotional loss, while also wrapping up your loved one’s affairs and closing the estate, the last thing you need to worry about is whether you will be on the hook for the debts your parents leave behind. Generally, heirs are not responsible for their parents’ outstanding bills. Creditors can go after the assets within the estate in an effort to satisfy the debt, but they cannot come after you personally. Nevertheless, assets within the estate may have to be sold to cover the decedent’s debts, or to provide for the living expenses of a surviving spouse or other dependents.

Heirs are not responsible for a decedent’s unsecured debts, such as credit cards, medical bills or personal loans, and many of these go unpaid or are settled for pennies on the dollar. However, there are some circumstances in which you may share liability for an unsecured debt, and therefore are fully responsible for future payments. For example, if you were a co-signer on a loan with the decedent, or if you were a joint account holder, you will bear ultimate financial responsibility for the debt.

Unsecured debts which were solely held by the deceased parent do not require you to reach into your own pocket to satisfy the outstanding obligation. Regardless, many aggressive collection agencies continue to pursue collection even after death, often implying that you are ultimately responsible to repay your loved one’s debts, or that you are morally obligated to do so. Both of these assertions are entirely untrue.

Secured debts, on the other hand, must be repaid or the lender can repossess the underlying asset. Common secured debts include home mortgages and vehicle loans. If your parents had any equity in their house or car, you should consider doing whatever is necessary to keep the payments current, so the equity is preserved until the property can be sold or transferred. But this must be weighed within the context of the overall estate.

Executors and estate administrators have a duty to locate and inventory all of the decedent’s assets and debts, and must notify creditors and financial institutions of the death. Avoid making the mistake of automatically paying off all of your loved one’s bills right away. If you rush to pay off debts, without a clear picture of your parents’ overall financial situation, you run the risk of coming up short on cash, within the estate, to cover higher priority bills, such as medical expenses, funeral costs or legal fees required to settle the estate.


Friday, June 20, 2014

C-Corporation Vs. S-Corporation: Which Structure Provides the Best Tax Advantages for Your Business?

The difference between a C-Corporation and an S-Corporation is in the way each is taxed. Under the law, a corporation is considered to be an artificial person. Shareholders who work for the corporation are employees; they are not “self-employed” as far as the tax authorities are concerned.

The C-Corporation

In theory, before a C-corporation distributes profits to shareholders, it must pay tax on the income at the corporate rate. Then, leftover profits are distributed to the shareholders as dividends, which are then treated as investment income and taxed to the shareholder. This is the “double taxation” you may have heard about.

C-Corporations enjoy many tax-related advantages :

  • Income splitting is the division of income between the corporation and its shareholders in a way that lowers overall taxes, and can avoid or significantly reduce the potential impact of “double taxation.” By working with a knowledgeable tax advisor, you can determine exactly how much money the corporation should pay you as an employee to ensure the lowest tax bill at the end of the year.
  • C-Corporations enjoy a wider range of deductible expenses such as those for healthcare and education.  
  • A shareholder can borrow up to $10,000 from a C-Corporation, interest-free. Tax-free loans are not available to sole proprietors, partners, LLC members or S-Corporation shareholders.

S-Corporation
S-Corporations pass income through to their shareholders who pay tax on it according to their individual income tax rates. To qualify for S-Corporation status, the corporation must have less than 100 shareholders; all shareholders must be individual U.S. citizens, resident aliens, other S-Corporations, or an electing small business trust; the corporation may have only one class of stock; and all shareholders must consent in writing to the S-Corporation status.

Depending on your situation, an S-Corporation may be more advantageous:

  • Electing S-Corporation tax treatment eliminates any possibility of the “double taxation” referenced above. S-Corporations pay no federal corporate income tax, but must file annual tax returns. Because losses also flow through, shareholders who are active in the business can take most business operating losses on their individual tax returns.
  • S-Corporations must still file and pay employment taxes on employees, as with a C-Corporation. An S-Corporation may not retain earnings for future growth without the shareholders paying tax on them. The taxable profits of an S-Corporation pass through to the shareholders in the year they are earned.
  • S-Corporations cannot provide the full range of fringe benefits that a C-Corporation can.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Don’t Let Your Social Networking Activities Undermine Your Divorce Negotiations

According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, in the past five years 81% of its members have represented clients in cases involving evidence from social networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn. Posted pictures and comments can make the job all-too-easy for your former spouse’s attorney to attack your credibility and ensure you do not receive the relief that you are requesting from the court.

A picture is worth a thousand words. And that picture you posted of yourself, in various stages of undress, or with a marijuana cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, speaks volumes to the court and can result in unfavorable rulings regarding child custody or visitation. But the information posted doesn’t even have to be tawdry or illegal to land you in trouble. What about the ex-husband who claims he has no income, but his Facebook profile is chock-full of photos of luxury purchases or exotic vacations? What about the parent who posts profanity-laden status updates, insulting the judge’s competence? Should it find its way into the court, none of this information is going to help your case.

All of these communications can be considered by the court in making its rulings. Nothing you post online is 100% private, regardless of your privacy settings. Opposing attorneys can always subpoena the records, share your dirty secrets with the court, impeach your credibility, and obtain a favorable ruling for their client – your ex-spouse.

The lasting implications of a negative court ruling can far outweigh the momentary, fleeting satisfaction of venting your frustration at the judge or your ex, or sharing “fun” photos on your Facebook profile. The bottom line is that you have to think before you post. It has often been said that you should not publish anything that you wouldn’t want your Mother to see. A similar standard should be applied for those going through a divorce. What if that comment you are about to make, or the photo you are about to post, were to fall into the hands of your ex-spouse’s lawyer? This can have far-reaching consequences, affecting your income and support obligations, or visitation and custody of your children.

To avoid the pitfalls of information sharing in the digital age, you must assume that anything and everything you post will be obtained by opposing counsel and find its way into the courtroom. Family law cases involve some of our most private matters and care should be taken to ensure you protect your own privacy. Preserve your attorney-client privilege by refraining from sharing any details of your relationship or conversations with your attorney. Avoid posting compromising photos, or making derogatory remarks on your social networking profiles.

Above all, do not post anything you wouldn’t want your ex, his or her attorney, or the judge to see. Regardless of how restrictive your privacy settings may be, this information can easily be subpoenaed and become a part of the court record. If there is any doubt, do not post. You cannot “unring that bell!”
 


Friday, May 30, 2014

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.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

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.
 


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