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Gianelli Nielsen News Blog

Monday, March 13, 2017

Common Frivolous Suits Filed against Small Businesses

Frivolous lawsuits are an all-too-common problem for small businesses. This is because, under current laws, there is almost no risk to trial attorneys or their clients for bringing even absurd cases to court. While large companies routinely retain attorneys and have the financial means to protect themselves from frivolous lawsuits, small businesses may be left out in the cold if served with an unwarranted lawsuit. Regardless of whether there is any validity to the plaintiff's claim, the small business owners will have to hire attorneys and will typically incur legal fees even if they win the case.

 

Disturbing Statistics about Frivolous Lawsuits against Small Businesses

There are two common types of frivolous lawsuits small business owners have to deal with: product or professional liability and personal injury. According to a recent survey, such unnecessary lawsuits cause financial, not to mention emotional, damage throughout the country. Some of the alarming statistics concerning small business owners in the U.S. are:

  • Over 50 percent of all civil lawsuits target small businesses annually
  • 75 percent fear being targeted by a frivolous lawsuit
  • 90 percent settle frivolous lawsuits simply to avoid higher court costs
  • Owners pay $20 million out of their own pockets to pay tort liability costs
  • U.S. tort costs have increased more than the gross domestic product since 1950
  • On average, those earning $1 million per year spend $20,000 of it on such lawsuits

How Can Small Business Owners Protect Themselves from Frivolous Lawsuits?

The best way for small business owners to protect themselves from frivolous lawsuits is to consult with an experienced, reputable business attorney to help them evaluate possible areas of vulnerability in their company. The attorney should assess their potential exposure in terms of:

  • Employment law, including harassment, discrimination and wrongful termination
  • Intellectual property (IP), protecting them from unintentional theft of IP
  • Contracts management
  • Electronically stored information (ESI)
  • Fraud, establishing internal controls to prevent employee fraud

 

Beyond retaining helpful legal counsel to protect their businesses, small owners must, of course, ensure that they are taking proper precautions in terms of quality control of their own products, services, plant maintenance and staff behavior.

Insurance against Frivolous Lawsuits

If small business owners want optimal protection against frivolous lawsuits, they should look into the possibility of purchasing property or liability insurance for their company. After having an attorney examine their business practices to ensure that they are taking all possible precautions against being sued, they may want to consider buying an insurance policy their lawyer deems appropriate.


Monday, February 27, 2017

How does life insurance fit into my estate plan?

Life insurance can be an integral part of an estate plan. Policies can be set up to be paid directly to the beneficiary, without the need to pass through the estate, and without the need for any taxes to be paid. Having a life insurance policy ensures that some assets will be liquid, so that debts and expenses can be paid quickly and easily without the need to dispose of assets. Beneficiaries can be changed at any time as can the benefit amount. The policy can be used to accumulate savings if the plan is surrendered before death. Life insurance policies, especially those purchased later in life, can pay out significantly more than what was invested into them. There are many benefits to purchasing a life insurance policy as part of an estate plan.

An attorney can set up a life insurance trust to help avoid estate taxes. A life insurance trust must be irrevocable, cannot be managed by the policy holder, and must be in place at least three years before the death of the policy holder. Any money received from the life insurance trust is not a part of the taxable estate. The need for this is rare as the exemption for estate taxes is currently almost five and a half million dollars, but it is a useful tool for some nonetheless.

There is a limit to how much life insurance an individual is permitted to purchase. A person may carry a multiple of his or her gross income which reduces with age. A twenty five year old can buy a policy worth thirty times his or her annual income. A sixty five year old may only purchase ten times his or her annual income worth of life insurance. This is an important factor to consider when deciding whether life insurance should be a part of your estate plan.

Life insurance as a part of estate planning is a complicated issue. It makes sense to consult with an estate attorney and a tax professional before meeting with an insurance broker. Both can help an individual understand the benefits of insurance over other means of transferring assets.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Employee Rights in the Workplace

 

Relationships between employers and employees are regulated under various federal laws. It is essential to be aware of these regulations. Those who violate their provisions risk lawsuits and penalties for failure to comply.

Family Medical Leave Act 

Under the Family Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, an employee is afforded up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to recover from pregnancy, serious illness, or to aid a sick family member.  No adverse employment actions are permitted upon return.  That means after 12 weeks of such leave, an employee must be permitted to return to their previous position with no reduction of hours or pay.

Federal Minimum Wage

The federal minimum wage is presently $7.25 an hour. Some local governments have increased the minimum wage above the federal level. For non-salaried, non-commissioned employees, an employer is required to pay one and a half times the normal hourly wage for any hours worked in excess of 40 hours a week.

Harassment and Discrimination

An employee has the right to work in a place free from harassment and discrimination.  Sexual harassment can take the form of unwelcome sexual advances or a hostile work environment. Adverse employment actions taken for the reason of race, religion, gender, and in some states, sexual orientation, may result in a lawsuit. It is also against the law for an employee who files a lawsuit for workplace discrimination, sexual harassment or another wrong doing to face retaliation for whistleblowing.

Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Under Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, an employee has the right to work in an environment free of dangerous conditions, safety hazards and toxic substances. Employees dealing with potentially dangerous equipment must be trained to use it safely, and all employees should undergo training on workplace safety. The OSHA handbook has 19 subsections, each dealing with a specific topic such as fire prevention, heavy machinery, hazardous materials and walking/working surfaces.

National Labor Rights Act

The National Labor Rights Act, or NLRA, allows employees to organize a union to negotiate working conditions and compensation through collective bargaining and the use of strikes.  The NLRA does not apply to public employees, domestic employees, agricultural employees, railroad employees, airline employees, supervisors, management, independent contractors or close relatives of the owners of the company that employs them.  


Monday, February 6, 2017

Disinheritance

Inheritance laws involve legal rights to property after a death and such laws differ from state-to-state.   Heirs usually consist of close family members and exclude estranged relatives.  Depending on the wording of a will, an individual can be intentionally, or even unintentionally, disinherited.

In most cases, spouses may not be legally disinherited.  Certain contracts, however, allow for a legitimate disinheritance, such as prenuptial agreements or postnuptial agreements.  These contracts are typically valid methods of disinheritance because the presumed-to-be inheriting spouse has agreed to the arrangement by signing the document.  

If there is no prenuptial arrangement, then the state’s elective share statute or “equitable distribution” laws protect the surviving spouse.  Pursuant to the elective share statute, he or she may collect a certain percentage of the estate. 

In states that follow “community property” or “common law” rules, however, the outcome may be different.   An attorney should be consulted for clarification of the differences in the law.  Divorces affect spousal inheritance rights.  Post-divorce, it is prudent to consult an attorney to draft a fresh will, in order to prevent confusion and unintentional dissemination of assets.

If the will is unambiguous, it is usually possible for a child to be disinherited.   It should be noted, however, that it is highly likely that close relatives will challenge or contest a will in which they have been disinherited.  Fighting such a lawsuit may put a great financial strain on the estate's assets.  Depending on how time-consuming and expensive it is to defend the will, less money may be available for distribution to the intended beneficiaries. 

There are ways to protect estate assets from such problems, for example through trusts.  It is essential for an individual to receive the counsel of a licensed lawyer in order to effectively protect his or her estate as inexpensively as possible.


Monday, January 16, 2017

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.
Read more . . .


Monday, January 9, 2017

Why Your Business Needs an Email Policy


In the contemporary workplace, email is an essential and efficient form of communication. Whether it's used internally among staff members, or for exchanges with vendors and customers, email is a necessary business tool. At the same time, misuse of this technology can expose an organization to legal and reputational risks as well as security breaches. For this reason, it is crucial to put a


Read more . . .


Monday, December 26, 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.


Monday, December 19, 2016

Capacity to Contract - Minors, The Mentally Disabled & The Intoxicated

The value and success of a business often rests on the ability of the principals involved to make and enforce contracts with third-parties.  However, if the person who entered into a particular agreement did not have the “capacity to contract” in the first place, then those contracts may be “voidable.”  A contract is “voidable” if it permits the person without legal capacity to either terminate or enforce the agreement.  This is meant to ensure that the weaker party does not get taken advantage of due to unequal bargaining power. 

Again, contracts become “voidable” at the discretion of the party who does not have the ability to execute an agreement.  The “capacity to contract” is an individual’s lawful competence “to enter into a binding contract.”  In other words, there is a presumption that certain individuals cannot understand what they are agreeing to.  This category typically includes mentally incompetent individuals or minors. 

Minors (typically those under the age of 18), do not have the legal power to form a contract.  However, if a minor does enter into a contract, he or she usually has the option to cancel while still under the age of 18. If the individual is no longer a minor and has not yet exercised the right to void the contract, the contract may be enforceable after the person has turned 18. 

Similarly, a person who is mentally incompetent can either have his or her guardian void the agreement or personally cancel it. Tests for mental fitness at the time a contract is signed vary from state to state. Nevertheless, minors and the mentally disabled may not be permitted to void contracts intended to provide them with necessities, such as clothing, shelter and food.   

Persons under the influence of alcohol or drugs do not usually have the same power to void contracts as do minors and the mentally disabled. Typically, intoxication is deemed a “voluntary” act and courts encourage intoxicated individuals to assume accountability for their actions.  If an individual was so inebriated as to be unable to appreciate “the nature and consequences of the agreement,” however, the intoxicated party may be able to void the contract. If another person used the intoxicated party’s condition as a means to take advantage of the situation, this can also be used as a loophole for the intoxicated party to void the contract. Anyone attempting to void a contract should consult with a savvy business attorney in order to explore the possibilities of viable options in his or her particular case.


Monday, December 12, 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, November 28, 2016

Oral Contracts & The Statue of Frauds - Is the Agreement Binding?

There is a widespread misconception that verbal contracts are unenforceable.  Nevertheless, a contract made orally with another party, without embodying the particular terms in a signed writing, can still be valid and binding. Even so, any disagreement concerning the deal may pose multiple problems for both parties.  In order for the court to give a verbal contract legal effect, the terms of the deal will have to be demonstrated. This could involve pricey litigation and an extensive discovery process.  Therefore, it is advisable to have an attorney draft any contractual agreement.

Moreover, according to the Statute of Frauds, there are certain contracts that must be in writing in order to be legally binding.  This may include contracts for the sale of land or real estate, surety agreements, in which one person guarantees to take over another's contractual obligations, and service agreements that take over one year to complete.  Other agreements that must be written to be legally binding may include agreements “made in the consideration of marriage,” or those made for the sale of goods valued at $500 or more. If the requirements for contractual validity are not met, either party runs the risk of the other party rescinding the contract by declaring it void.

The Statute of Frauds not only aims to prevent deception or fraud; it requires precise terms to be set in writing for a contract to be valid. The Statute of Frauds typically requires the document to include a description of the “subject matter” of the agreement, the main stipulations to the deal, and the signatures of the parties.  Nevertheless, these requirements may vary with the sale of goods under the Uniform Commercial Code, where a signature by the “party to be charged” may be sufficient.  For a sale of goods, the terms typically should include the price and quantity of the goods. 

Sometimes, if the contract is unenforceable under the Statute of Frauds, it may be saved if one party suffered by relying on the contract and if the injured party can prove this reliance in court.  Likewise, an exception may exist if “specially manufactured goods” were provided under the contract or one party “partially performed” what was required by the agreement.  The outcome may also vary if two merchants were the contracting parties.  Seek advice from a licensed business law and contract attorney to evaluate agreements and determine whether they are legally enforceable. 


Monday, November 7, 2016

Is There Anyway a Disinherited Child Could Receive an Inheritance From an Estate?

If your estate plan and related documents are properly and carefully drafted, it is highly unlikely that the court will disregard your wishes and award the excluded child an inheritance.  As unlikely as it may be, there are certain situations where this child could end up receiving an inheritance depending upon a variety of factors.

To understand how a disinherited child could benefit, you must understand how assets pass after death.  How a particular asset passes at death depends upon the type of asset and how it is titled. For example, a jointly titled asset will pass to the surviving joint owner regardless of what a will or a trust says. So, in the unlikely event that the disinherited child was a joint owner, that child would still inherit the asset because of how it was titled.

Similarly, if you left that disinherited child as a named beneficiary on a life insurance policy or retirement plan asset, such as an IRA or 401k, that child would still receive some of the benefits as the named beneficiary even if your will stated they were to take nothing. Another way such a "disinherited" child might receive a benefit is if all other named beneficiaries died before you.

So, assume you have three children and you wish to disinherit one of them and you state you want all of your assets to go to the other two, and if they are not alive, then to their descendants.  If those other two children die before you and do not have any descendants, there may be a provision that in such a case your "heirs at law" are to take your entire estate and that would include the child you intended to disinherit.

If you wish to disinherit a child, all of these issues can be addressed with proper and careful drafting by a qualified estate planning lawyer.  


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