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Bellmore, NY Estate Planning & Complex Litigation Blog

Monday, September 22, 2014

Negative Online Reviews - Do they Constitute Business Defamation?

We are living in the digital age and consumers use the internet to make a variety of decisions, including what products to buy and what professionals to hire. During their research,  many savvy consumers go online to look at the reviews the business has received on local business directories like Yelp or Google+.  These online reviews can have a profound effect on the success of your business so it is important to understand your rights should your business receive a negative one. 

In the case that your business has received a negative online review, you may have recourse under state or Federal defamation laws.  However, before pursuing that route, you should consider using any dispute or review process provided by the review site.  Defamation is generally defined as the act of intentionally publishing a false statement that has the ability to negatively effect another’s reputation.  Defamation laws protect individuals and businesses alike.  Publication is the communication of the defamatory statement to another person and the act of posting a review to a website usually qualifies.  Whether a statement has a negative effect on another’s reputation is judged using a reasonable person standard and will be looked at on a case by case basis.  In order for the statement to actionable, it does not have to be intentionally defamatory; it just has to be intentionally published.  Defamatory statements must be false and cannot be opinions.  Whether your situation meets the necessary threshold for defamation may be difficult to ascertain, so it is important to consult with a qualified attorney before pursuing a claim for business defamation.

If you believe that your business has received an online review that contains false information and is damaging to your business reputation, you might have a claim for defamation.  Recent civil cases for this type of wrong have resulted in large verdicts for the businesses that were injured.  While you most likely cannot pursue an action against the hosting website, as they are usually exempt under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), you might be able to recover from the individual that made the statement.  All litigation should be considered using a cost-benefit analysis and business defamation cases resulting from online reviews are not any different.  


Monday, September 15, 2014

Your Wishes in Your Words

During the estate planning process, your attorney will draft a number of legal documents such as a will, trust and power of attorney which will help you accomplish your goals. While these legal documents are required for effective planning, they may not sufficiently convey your thoughts and wishes to your loved ones in your own words. A letter of instruction is a great compliment to your “formal” estate plan, allowing you to outline your wishes with your own voice.

This letter of instruction is typically written by you, not your attorney. Some attorneys may, however, provide you with forms or other documents that can be helpful in composing your letter of instruction. Whether your call this a "letter of instruction" or something else, such a document is a non-binding document that will be helpful to your family or other loved ones.

There is no set format as to what to include in this document, though there are a number of common themes.

First, you may wish to explain, in your own words, the reasoning for your personal preferences for medical care especially near the end of life. For example, you might explain why you prefer to pass on at home, if that is possible. Although this could be included in a medical power of attorney, learning about these wishes in a personalized letter as opposed to a sterile legal document may give your loved ones greater peace of mind that they are doing the right thing when they are charged with making decisions on your behalf. You might also detail your preferences regarding a funeral, burial or cremation. These letters often include a list of friends to contact upon your death and may even have an outline of your own obituary.

You may also want to make note of the following in your letter to your loved ones:

  • an updated list of your financial accounts with account numbers;
  • a list of online accounts with passwords;
  • a list of important legal documents and where to find them;
  • a list of your life insurance and where the actual policies are located;
  • where you have any safe deposit boxes and the location of any keys;
  • where all car titles are located; the
  • names of your CPA, attorney, banker, insurance advisor and financial advisor;
  • your birth certificate, marriage license and military discharge papers;
  • your social security number and card;
  • any divorce papers; copies of real estate deeds and mortgages;
  • names, addresses, and phone numbers of all children, grandchildren, or other named beneficiaries.

In drafting your letter, you simply need to think about what information might be important to those that would be in charge of your affairs upon your death. This document should be consistent with your legal documents and updated from time to time.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Mediating Personal Injury Lawsuits

Personal injury cases run the gamut from slip-and-fall accidents to auto wrecks. Insurance companies are often involved, and most parties generally want to resolve cases as economically as possible. Mediation is one option to accomplish this.

Mediation is a form of alternate dispute resolution (ADR), in which the parties voluntarily agree to work with an independent third party – a mediator – to resolve their disputes. Unlike a court trial where one party is the “winner” and the other party is the “loser,” mediation involves finding a workable solution to which all parties can agree. A mediated settlement is formalized with a legally binding contract signed by all parties.

Mediation is a non-binding procedure, meaning that no party can be forced to consent to an agreement. The mediator does not have the decision-making authority that a jury, judge or arbitrator has. Even if the parties previously agreed to mediate their dispute, any party is free to walk away from the process and pursue the matter in the courts.

Mediation also affords the parties a level of confidentiality that is not available in court cases. Parties cannot be forced to disclose information. If a party opts to make admissions or disclose confidential information, those statements or information cannot be introduced in court or otherwise used outside the scope of the mediation itself. This confidentiality enables the parties to freely and productively negotiate their dispute.

Unlike court trials or arbitration hearings, which are determined based on the underlying facts of the incident and the applicable laws, mediation allows parties to make agreements based on their own interests. The parties are free to allow their choices to be guided by business interests or personal preferences. When the dialogue within a mediation is focused on each party’s true interests, a mutually satisfying result is often possible.

Parties to a personal injury dispute often choose to mediate the case to avoid a trial involving significant attorney’s fees and other costs and an uncertain outcome. When both sides are faced with uncertainties regarding the outcome, a mediated settlement agreement can be a good solution. Furthermore, taking a case to trial can take months or years and usually results in at least one party being unhappy with the outcome.

In mediating a personal injury case, the parties and their lawyers work with the mediator to devise a settlement that everyone can live with. Plaintiffs can be compensated for their property damage, medical costs, lost income, and pain and suffering. On the other hand, defendants and their insurance companies can end up paying far less than it would have spent in legal fees and costs to defend the case at trial, and a potential sizable jury award. A good mediator will help all parties see the strengths and weaknesses in their respective cases, enabling them to compromise and arrive at a result which is acceptable to both.


Saturday, August 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.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Preserving and Protecting Documents Is Part of Healthy Estate Planning

In the unsettled time after a loved one’s death, imagine the added stress on the family if the loved one died without a will or any instructions on distributing his or her assets.  Now, imagine the even greater stress to grieving survivors if they know a will exists but they cannot find it!  It is not enough to prepare a will and other estate planning documents like trusts, health care directives and powers of attorney.  To ensure that your family clearly understands your wishes after death, you must also take good care to preserve and protect all of your estate planning documents.

Did you know that the original, signed version of your will is the only valid version?  If your original signed will cannot be found, the probate court may assume that you intended to revoke your will.  If the probate court makes that decision, then your assets will be distributed as if you never had a will in the first place.

Where should you keep your original signed will?  There are several safe options – the best choice for you depends on your personal circumstances.

You can keep your will at home, in a fireproof safe.  This is the lowest-cost option, since all you need to do is purchase a well-constructed fireproof document safe.  Also, keeping your will at home gives you easy access in case you want to make changes to the document.  There are two main disadvantages to keeping your will at home:

  • You may neglect to return your will to the safe after reviewing it at home, which increases the risk it will be destroyed by fire, flood, or someone’s intentional or accidental actions.
  • Your will could be difficult to find in the event of your death, unless you give clear instructions to several people on how to find it, which then creates a risk of privacy invasion.

You can keep your will in a safety deposit box.  Most banks have safety deposit boxes of various sizes available to rent for a monthly fee.  Banks, of course, tend to be more secure than private homes, which is one primary advantage.  Also, if you keep your will in a safety deposit box, then after your death, only the Executor of your estate may access the original will.  Thus, the will is strongly protected against alteration or destruction, because family members may have access to a copy but only the Executor will have access to the all-important original.

If you do keep your will and other estate planning documents in a safety deposit box, try to do so at the same bank where you keep your accounts and inform your executor of its location.  This will streamline the financial accounting process.

You can also keep your original will and other estate planning documents at your lawyer’s office.    Law firms often have systems for long-term document storage.  However, keep in mind that the law firm may dissolve before the willmaker’s death, which can make it difficult to track down your will.  

You may also be able to store your will and other documents online.  Many large financial institutions have begun offering long-term digital storage of important documents.  However, any electronic version of your original will is – by definition – a copy, not the original.  So, you still must find a safe place to store the original, signed and witnessed will.  Online storage “safes” may be an excellent back-up, but you must still find a secure place to store the paper originals.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Joint Bank Accounts and Medicaid Eligibility

Like most governmental benefit programs, there are many myths surrounding Medicaid and eligibility for benefits. One of the most common myths is the belief that only 50% of the funds in a jointly-owned bank account will be considered an asset for the purposes of calculating Medicaid eligibility.

Medicaid is a needs-based program that is administered by the state.  Therefore, many of its eligibility requirements and procedures vary across state lines.  Generally, when an applicant is an owner of a joint bank account the full amount in the account is presumed to belong to the applicant. Regardless of how many other names are listed on the account, 100% of the account balance is typically included when calculating the applicant’s eligibility for Medicaid benefits.    

Why would the state do this? Often, these jointly held bank accounts consist solely of funds contributed by the Medicaid applicant, with the second person added to the account for administrative or convenience purposes, such as writing checks or discussing matters with bank representatives. If a joint owner can document that both parties have contributed funds and the account is truly a “joint” account, the state may value the account differently. Absent clear and convincing evidence, however, the full balance of the joint bank account will be deemed to belong to the applicant.  


Wednesday, July 30, 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.
 


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Estate Planning: How Certificates of Shares Are Passed Down

How is the funding handled if you decide to use a living trust?

Certificates represent shares of a company. There are generally two types of company shares: those for a publicly traded company, and those for a privately held company, which is not traded on one of the stock exchanges.

Let's assume you hold the physical share certificates of a publicly held company and the shares are not held in a brokerage account. If, upon your death, you own shares of that company's stock in certificated form, the first step is to have the court appoint an executor of your estate.

Once appointed, the executor would write to the transfer agent for the company, fill out some forms, present copies of the court documents showing their authority to act for your estate, and request that the stock certificates be re-issued to the estate beneficiaries.

There could also be an option to have the stock sold and then add the proceeds to the estate account that later would be divided among the beneficiaries. If the stock is in a privately held company there would still be the need for an executor to be appointed to have authority. However, the executor would then typically contact the secretary or other officers of the company to inquire about the existence of a shareholder agreement that specifies how a transfer is to take place after the death of a shareholder.  Depending on the nature of the agreement, the company might reissue the stock in the name(s) of the beneficiaries, buy out the deceased shareholder’s shares (usually at some pre-determined formula) or other mechanism.   

If you set up a revocable living trust while you are alive you could request the transfer agent to reissue the stock titled into the name of the trust. However, once you die, the "trustee" would still have to take similar steps to get the stock re-issued to the trust beneficiaries.

If you open a brokerage account with a financial advisor, the advisor could assist you in getting the account in the name of your trust, and the process after death would be easier than if you still held the actual stock certificate.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Recovering Damages for a Dog Bite: Do I have a case?

While dogs are fondly referred to as “man’s best friend”, not all are friendly and each year thousands of people across the United States are injured by dog bites. If you’ve suffered an injury as a result of a dog attack, you’ve probably wondered whether you should bring a lawsuit to collect damages. The success of your case likely depends on the following:

State Statutes
Each state has its own set of laws when it comes to dog owner liability. Some are very strict, holding the owner liable for all damages resulting from a bite or attack by the dog on another person, domestic animal or property. In others, you may only be able to bring suit if the owner knew or should have known that the dog was a danger or "had vicious propensities."

Location of the Attack
If you were attacked in a public place or on your own property, you may have a better chance of collecting damages than if you were on the owner’s property where they could reasonably argue that you were trespassing.

Was the Dog Provoked?
If the owner can prove that you provoked the dog prior to the attack, you may not be able to collect for damages. For instance, if you threatened the dog’s owner by yelling or engaging in a physical assault, or if you went to take a bone that the dog was carrying, you may not have a basis for your claim because the dog’s action could be expected as a way to protect the owner or his “property.”

Evidence
As with any injury, it’s absolutely essential that you have evidence of the bodily harm. Were there witnesses who saw the attack? Did you file a police report? Take photos and keep a copy of the medical report? All of this evidence is necessary to prove liability and help to prove why you are entitled to receive compensation.

In many cases, a dog owner’s homeowners insurance will cover some or all of the damages. In instances where insurance isn’t available and the dog’s owner does not have the means to pay for the damages, there may be a third party such as the landlord who allowed a dangerous animal to reside on their property who can be held liable. A qualified personal injury attorney can help you better understand local statutes, your rights as an injured party and protect your best interests to make sure you receive just compensation for your injury and suffering.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Damages Allowed in Personal Injury Cases

If you have been injured in an accident, and another party is to blame, you may be able to obtain monetary damages from that person or business to compensate you for medical expenses, loss of income and pain and suffering as a result of the accident.  

There are a variety of types of damages allowed in personal injury cases. Those damages can be divided into several categories. First, there are compensatory damages and punitive damages. There are also two types of compensatory damages: economic and non-economic.

Compensatory damages are damages that are intended to compensate a person for a loss or problem relating to a personal injury, including monetary losses, pain and suffering and physical impairment. Punitive damages are intended to punish the negligent party for its wrongdoing, and aren’t specifically related to a loss the plaintiff suffered.

For example, if a company decided to dump toxic waste into a creek instead of disposing of it safely, and as a result a woman living next to the creek developed cancer, her compensatory damages may include amounts for her medical expenses, her lost wages, and her pain and suffering.  In addition to these damages, the jury may also decide to award punitive damages, which are strictly intended to punish the company for its wrongdoing. Punitive damages are somewhat rare – in most cases, plaintiffs only receive compensatory damages.

Compensatory damages can be further divided into economic damages and non-economic damages. Economic damages are those damages that result in an identifiable economic loss. For example, economic damages include medical expenses, lost wages, the cost of hiring a helper or nurse, and the cost of special transportation or medical equipment that’s needed as a result of the accident.

Non-economic damages are damages for harm relating to the injury sustained that are difficult to quantify using a specific dollar amount. Instead, non-economic damages are awarded to a person who has suffered a diminished quality of life as a result of the accident. Some examples of non-economic damages include emotional distress, pain and suffering, embarrassment or humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of consortium (sexual relations) and scarring or disfigurement. Although non-economic losses can be difficult to quantify, they are an important component of a personal injury case.


Friday, June 20, 2014

6 Events Which May Require a Change in Your Estate Plan

Creating a Will is not a one-time event. You should review your will periodically, to ensure it is up to date, and make necessary changes if your personal situation, or that of your executor or beneficiaries, has changed. There are a number of life-changing events that require your Will to be revised, including:

Change in Marital Status: If you have gotten married or divorced, it is imperative that you review and modify your Will. With a new marriage, you must determine which assets you want to pass to your new spouse or step-children, and how that may relate to the beneficiary interest of your own children. Following a divorce it is a good practice to revise your Will, to formally remove the ex-spouse as a beneficiary. While you’re at it, you should also change your beneficiary on any life insurance policies, pensions, or retirement accounts. Estate planning is complicated when there are children from multiple marriages, and an attorney can help you ensure everyone is protected, which may include establishing a trust in addition to the revised Will.

Depending on jurisdiction, this may also apply to couples who have established or revoked a registered domestic partnership.

If one of your Will’s beneficiaries experiences a change in marital status, that may also trigger a need to revise your Will.

Births: Upon the birth of a new child, the parents should amend their Wills immediately, to include the names of the guardians who will care for the child if both parents die. Also, parents or grandparents may wish to modify the distribution of assets provided in their Wills, to include the new addition to the family.

Deaths or Incapacitation: If any of the named executors or beneficiaries of a Will, or the named guardians for your children, pass away or become incapacitated, your Will should be revised accordingly.

Change in Assets: Your Will may need to be changed if the value of your assets has significantly increased or decreased, or if you dispose of an asset. You may want to modify the distribution of other assets in your estate, to account for the changed value or disposition of the asset.

Change in Employment: A change in the amount and/or source of income means your Will should be examined to see if any changes must be made to that document. Retirement or changing jobs could entail moving to another state, thus subjecting your estate to the laws of that state when you die. If the change in income modifies your investing, saving or spending habits, it may be time to review your Will and make sure the distribution to your beneficiaries will be as you intended.

Changes in Probate or Tax Laws: Wills should be drafted to maximize tax benefits, and to ensure the decedent’s wishes are carried out. If the laws regarding taxation of the estate, distribution of assets, or provisions for minor children have changed, you should have your Will reviewed by an estate planning attorney to ensure your family is fully protected and your wishes will be fully carried out.


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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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