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Bellmore, NY Estate Planning & Complex Litigation Blog

Monday, May 23, 2016

I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt. Can I still sue?

It is well accepted that wearing a seatbelt greatly reduces the risk of injury in an automobile accident. It is designed to keep a car’s occupant from being thrown around the passenger compartment or even ejected from the vehicle. It is significantly more dangerous to ride in an automobile without wearing one. That is why all cars are required to have them installed and almost every state has passed a law requiring drivers and passengers to wear their seatbelts. The answer to whether a person who fails to observe these laws can still collect money for injuries by filing a lawsuit depends entirely on the state.

In some jurisdictions, if an individual is not wearing a seatbelt, he or she may be barred from recovering any compensation for his or her injuries. These states are Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, South Dakota, and Washington DC. This is called contributory negligence.

In other states, a different system is used. A jury must determine what percentage of a plaintiff’s injuries were caused by the plaintiff’s failure to wear a seatbelt. The court will then reduce the award by that percentage. The states that follow this system are Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington. This system is known as comparative negligence.

All other states use a hybrid system to determine whether or not a person can recover in a car accident when he or she was not wearing a seatbelt. If more than half of that individual’s injuries were caused by his or her failure to wear a seatbelt, he or she may not collect damages in court.

Even though the law varies from state to state, in every state, failure to wear a seatbelt can significantly reduce, or even completely bar, a person’s ability to recover damages and be made whole after a traffic accident. The law is meant to compensate a person for what he or she has lost through no fault of his or her own. The law says that failure to wear a seatbelt places some of that fault on the victim in a car accident.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Why shouldn't I use a form from the internet for my will?

In this computer age, when so many tasks are accomplished via the internet -- including banking, shopping, and important business communications -- it may seem logical to turn to the internet when creating a legal document such as a will . Certainly, there are several websites advertising how easy and inexpensive it is to do this. Nonetheless, most of us know that, while the internet can be a wonderful tool, it also contains a tremendous amount of erroneous, misleading, and even dangerous information.

In most cases, as with so many do-it-yourself projects, creating a will most often ends up being a more efficient, less expensive process if you engage the services of a qualified attorney.  Just as most of us are not equipped to do our own plumbing repairs or automotive repairs, most of us do not have the background or experience to create our own legal documents, even with the help of written directions.

Situations that Require an Attorney for Will Creation

 In certain cases, the need for an estate planning attorney is inarguable. These include situations in which:

  • Your estate is large enough to make estate planning guidance necessary
  • You want to disinherit your legal spouse
  • You have concerns that someone may contest your will
  • You worry that someone will claim your mind wasn't sound at the signing

Mistakes and Omissions 

It has always been possible to write a will all by yourself, even before the advent of the typewriter, let alone the computer.  Such a document, however, is unlikely to deal with the complexities of modern life.  Many estate planning attorneys have seen, and often been asked to repair, wills that have mistakes or significant omissions. These experts have also become aware of situations in which the survivors of the deceased wind up in court, spending thousands of dollars to contest ambiguously worded or incomplete wills. Without legal guidance from a competent estate planning attorney, creating a "boxtop" will can result in tremendous financial and emotional risk.

Evidence that Online Wills Are Not Foolproof

Evidence that many other complications can arise when an individual creates a will using generalized online directions can be found in the following facts: 

  • Each state has its own rules (e.g. requiring differing numbers of disinterested party signatures)
  • Even uncontested wills can remain in probate if not executed in an exacting fashion
  • Estate planning attorneys find legal software programs inadequate
  • Even legal websites themselves recommend bringing in an attorney in all but the very simplest cases
  • Some legal websites provide inexpensive monthly legal consultations with attorneys to protect their client and themselves

Areas that Frequently Cause Problems 

Self-constructed wills often become problematic when the testator:

  • Names an executor who has no financial or legal knowledge
  • Leaves a bequest to a pet  (legally, you must leave the bequest to an appointed caretaker)
  • Puts conditions on payouts to an that are difficult, or impossible, to enforce
  • Makes unusual end-of-life decisions or puts living will information into the will
  • Designates guardians for children, but neglects to name successor guardians
  • Neglects to coordinate beneficiary designations where, for example, the will and  insurance policy designations contradict one another
  • Leaves funeral instructions into the will since the document will most likely not be read until after the funeral has taken place
  • Leaves inexact or ambiguous instructions dealing with blended families
  • Neglects to mention small items in the will which, though of small financial value, are meaningful to loved ones and may cause contention

In order to ensure that you leave your assets in the hands of those you wish, and to avoid leaving your loved ones with bitter disputes and expensive probate costs, it  is always wise to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney when making a will.  In this area, as in so many others, it is best, and safest, to make use of those with expertise in the field.


Monday, May 9, 2016

Things to Consider When Picking an Executor

The role of an executor is to effectuate a deceased person’s wishes as declared in a will after he or she has passed on. The executor’s responsibilities include the distribution of assets according to the will, the maintenance of assets until the will is settled, and the paying of estate bills and debts. An old joke says that you should choose an enemy to perform the task because it is such a thankless job, even though the executor may take a percentage of the estate’s assets as a fee. The following issues should be considered when choosing an executor for one's estate.

Competency: The executor of an estate will be going through financial and legal documents and transferring documents from the testator to the beneficiaries. If there are legal proceedings, the executor must make all necessary court appearances. There is no requirement that a testator have any financial or legal training, but familiarity with these areas does avoid the intimidation felt by lay people, and potentially saves money on professional fees.

Trustworthiness: The signature of an executor is equivalent to that of the testator of an estate. The executor has full control over all of an estate’s assets. He or she will be required to go through all of the papers of the deceased to confirm what assets are available to be distributed. The temptation to transfer assets into the executor's own name always exists, particularly when there is a large estate. It is important to choose a person with integrity who will resist this temptation. It makes sense to utilize an individual who is an heir to fill the role to alleviate this concern.

Availability: The work of collecting rents, maintaining property, and paying debts can take more than a few hours a week. Selecting an executor with significant obligations to work or family may cause problems if he or she does not have the time available to devote to the task. If an executor must travel great distances to address issues that arise, there will be more of a time commitment necessary, not to mention greater expenses for the estate.

Family dynamics: Selection of the wrong person to act as executor can create resentment and hostility among an estate’s heirs. A testator should be aware of how family members interact with one another and avoid picking someone who may provoke conflict. Even the perception of impropriety can lead to a lawsuit, which will serve to take money out of the estate’s coffers and delay the legitimate distribution of the estate. 


Monday, April 25, 2016

What is strict liability?

In personal injury law, strict liability refers to certain types of cases in which the injured party does not need to show intentional action, negligence, fault, or even awareness in order to collect an award. This significantly lowers the burden of proof for the plaintiff. The plaintiff only needs to prove an interaction with the defendant, and that an injury resulted; however, the rules as to when strict liability applies are limited to specific situations. When a person engages in any abnormally dangerous activity, there is always a risk of injury. Any injuries that occur when engaged in these activities are strictly the responsibility of the person conducting them, even if that person takes every reasonable safety precaution to avoid injuries. Examples of abnormally dangerous activities include storage of explosives, transportation of flammable or hazardous materials, or anything that emits toxic fumes.

 

When a company produces a defective product that injures a customer, it is strictly liable for the defect. There are different types of defects such as a flaw in the design of the product itself or a manufacturing defect for that specific item. The defect might also be a failure to warn consumers of a potentially dangerous condition. Any predictable use of a product must be anticipated.

 

The most common type of strict liability cases involve dog bites. Thirty five states and the District of Columbia have statutes making injuries caused by animals the strict responsibility of that animal’s owner. While these  statutes are not  uniform,  all of them impose some level of liability for dog bites. Some statutes impose strict liability for dogs outside of their enclosures or off a leash. In other cases, a possible defense is that the injured party provoked the attack. In some states, strict liability only applies if the dog has a history of aggressive behavior. A sign warning of the dog’s dangerous propensity might be enough to protect a dog owner from liability. If the injured person was trespassing, he or she might not be able to collect.


Monday, April 18, 2016

What is an Estate Tax?

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

Estate Tax

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

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

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

Inheritance Tax

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

Exemptions

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

 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Injured at Daycare

Over the past few decades, the number of women entering the workforce has increased dramatically.  With both parents working outside of the home, more children are being cared for at local daycare centers starting at a young age. When parents send their children off to daycare, they expect them to be kept safe and engaged. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case; each year, thousands of children are injured at daycare facilities across the country. If your child has been injured under the supervision of a child care provider, you may be wondering what steps you should take after the accident.

Following any injury, medical treatment should be your first and foremost concern. Be sure to keep an account of all doctors’ appointments, medications, procedures, and medical records.  You should also keep a log of complaints of pain from your child and retain the results of any tests performed. If there are visible injuries or if the unsafe condition which led to the injury can be seen, be sure to take photos.

The daycare center may have an accident report procedure that you must follow. This will generally consist of a number of forms; be sure to complete these in their entirety and follow the submission guidelines. Following the injury, you should also consult a personal injury attorney to ensure you protect and preserve your rights under the law.  A personal injury attorney can help you to establish that the childcare provider failed to exercise due care to prevent injury to your child. This will require the attorney to assess the circumstance leading up to the injury and how it could have been prevented with proper precautions. All too often, injuries are caused by a lack of supervision or a poorly maintained facility.

An experienced injury attorney can help you file a claim with the facility’s insurance carrier and review any settlement agreements to ensure you are getting the full compensation that you deserve. If the settlement offers are not adequate, your attorney may advise you to proceed with a lawsuit against the negligent care center.

Our law firm will work diligently to ensure your child receives the treatment he or she needs to make a full recovery in addition to helping you obtain the financial means you need to support your child for years to come. 


Monday, March 28, 2016

What is a tax basis and how will it affect my estate plan?

A tax basis is essentially the purchase price of a piece of property. Whenever that property is sold, the seller must pay taxes on the difference between the sale price and the original purchase price. This concept applies to all property, including stocks, bonds, vehicles, mechanical equipment, and real estate. If debts are assumed along with the purchase price, the principal amount of the debt will be included in the basis. The basis can be adjusted downwards when a person deducts depreciation costs on his or her income tax returns, and may be increased for capital investments towards improving the property that are not deducted for income tax purposes. Selling a property that has been held for a long time can carry a serious tax burden because of inflation, particularly when real estate prices have increased.

When an individual receives property as an inheritance, the tax basis is reset to whatever the fair market value is at the time of the transfer of title. This means that the heir would pay significantly less taxes if that property is sold by the beneficiary than if the original owner were to sell it and devise the money to his beneficiaries. Most simple wills provide that all of a testator’s assets are placed into a residual estate to be divided equally among the heirs. This means that an executor must liquidate the assets of the estate and divide the proceeds among the heirs. However, because there is no transfer of title before the property is sold, the heirs are stuck with the grantor’s basis and they lose an opportunity for a sizeable tax break.

A person planning his or her estate may also reset the basis in his or her property by giving it as a gift directly to his or her heirs or by gifting the property to an inter vivos trust. These actions can have their own tax related consequences, or create other unintended problems for the beneficiaries. Only an experienced estate planning attorney can advise you on the most efficient way to pass your assets on to your heirs.


Monday, March 21, 2016

Deciding Who to Sue: How Do I Know Who to Name as Defendants?

When you decide to start a lawsuit, it can be confusing to identify the responsible parties. Sometimes there are a lot of people involved in your injury; maybe you're suing a business, and you're not sure about its official name or who the owners are. Factual investigation is often a crucial part of starting a personal injury lawsuit.

You can select more than one defendant to sue if that person or company is somehow connected to the harm you suffered. There are "necessary" defendants -- people without whom a court will not be able to evaluate all the facts of your case or reach a conclusion. "Permissive" defendants are not essential to the case, but if your dispute with them involves the same facts and issues as your dispute with the necessary defendants, you can usually include them in your lawsuit.

You may also want to expand your lawsuit to parties not directly involved but still liable. For example, if you are suing someone who harmed you in the course of performing a job, his or her employer may be liable. If a poorly designed or malfunctioning product is involved, you may be able to sue the companies and individuals involved in the product's design, manufacture, distribution or sale.

Suing individual owners of corporations, or a corporate parent of a subsidiary, can be difficult. The corporate structure limits liability, but there are exceptions. A court will "pierce the corporate veil" when fraud is involved or when justice demands it.

Before filing your lawsuit, you need to consider all those who have a connection to your claim. An experienced personal injury attorney can help you evaluate the facts of your case and determine who to sue.


Monday, March 7, 2016

Can an Individual be held responsible for his or her deceased loved one's debts?

When a loved one dies, an already difficult experience can be made much more stressful if that loved one held a significant amount of debt. Fortunately, the law addresses how an individual’s debts can be paid after he or she is deceased.

When a person dies, his or her assets are gathered into an estate. Some assets are not included in this process. Assets owned jointly between the deceased and another person pass directly to the other person automatically. If there are liens on the property at that time, they will stay on the property, but no new liens can be placed on the property for debts in the name of the deceased. Similarly, debt jointly in the name of the deceased and another party may continue to be collected from the other party. In community property states, all assets and debts are the joint property of both spouses and pass automatically from one to the other. The community property states are Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. 

From the pool of assets in the estate, an executor is required to pay all just debts. This means that, before a beneficiary may receive anything, all debts must be satisfied. Property might be sold to create liquidity in order to accomplish this. If there are more debts than there are assets, the estate must sell of as many assets as possible to pay off the creditors. If there is no money in the estate, the creditor can not collect anything. Rather than force people into this tiresome process, many creditors will agree to discharge a debt upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate or obituary. This is particularly true of small, unsecured debts. Life insurance proceeds were never owned by the decedent and should pass to a beneficiary without consequence to the estate. Proceeds of a retirement account may also be exempt from debts.

If creditors continue harassing the beneficiaries of debtors, they may be violating federal regulations under the FDCPA. They can be held accountable by their actions, either by the FTC, the state attorney general, or a private consumer law attorney.


Monday, February 29, 2016

Does Old Man Winter Shield Property Owners from Slip and Fall Liability?

Slipping and sliding around on the snow and ice is part of dealing with winter. If you were injured during a fall caused by poor weather conditions, however, there may be someone to blame other than Old Man Winter.

Property owners have a duty to exercise reasonable care when it comes to maintaining the areas of their property that are open to the public. That duty does not end when winter weather arrives. Property owners are required, often explicitly by local law, to promptly remove snow and ice from the public areas of their property in order to reduce the risk of falls and injuries.

Property owners can meet their duty by removing the snow and ice themselves or by hiring a contractor, such as a plow company, to do so for them. No matter who does the snow or ice removal, if you are injured because you slipped and fell on poorly maintained property, you may be able to seek compensation from the owner.

This does not mean that you are exempt from exercising caution when getting around in bad weather. Members of the public also have a duty to use reasonable care when walking in an area known or reasonably expected to be snowy or icy. Failing to do so may reduce your recovery in any potential lawsuit.

Slipping and falling is so common, particularly in winter, that some people are embarrassed by their injury or think asking someone else to pay for it would be wrong. However, injuries caused by slipping and falling due to snowy or icy conditions can be quite serious, and the party responsible for your injury should be held accountable.

If you have been injured after slipping and falling on snow or ice, an experienced personal injury attorney can help you seek compensation.


Monday, February 15, 2016

The Rule against Perpetuities

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

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

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


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Lawrence M. Gordon, Attorney at Law, P.C. has offices in Bellmore, NY and assists clients throughout Long Island, including: the north shore of Long Island, The Town Of Oyster Bay, The Town Of North Hempstead, The Town Of Hempstead, The Town Of Huntington, Nassau & Suffolk Counties & throughout the Five Boroughs of The City Of New York.



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