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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

After A Tempestuous Life Amy Winehouse Leaves Clear and Certain Will

Following the death of British singer Amy Winehouse there have been a number of news stories and blog posts about her turbulent career and the last few years of her life. In the midst of all this scrutiny, perhaps the most surprising discovery is that it is reported that Winehouse’s affairs were in incredibly good order, with a carefully crafted will leaving all of her sizeable estate to her parents and brother instead of to her incarcerated ex-husband.

This timely article in U.S. News and World Reportremarks that “celebrities and non-celebrities alike often leave their estates in disarray when they die. That lack of awareness and planning can make death more stressful and more costly for family members as they struggle to quickly plan a funeral and think about dividing up family property while grieving.”

All too often our office is contacted by family members who are overwhelmed with the task of probating or administering a poorly planned estate. Sometimes these bereaved relatives are dealing with overwhelming and confusing debt, or terrible family infighting, but more often than not they are simply trying to make their way through the long and arduous process of probating an estate without the benefit of a will or trust.

One of the many things we can learn from the life and death of Amy Winehouse is that even in the midst of troubled times it is possible to think clearly about the future. If you’d like to start planning for your family’s future, please contact our office today.


Friday, April 8, 2011

Royal Couple Has Many Asking “How Effective Are Prenuptial Agreements?”

It’s all over the news lately that Prince William and his fiancé Kate Middleton will likely not sign a prenuptial agreement before the royal wedding on April 29th.  Although many reasons have been given as to why the couple will forgo signing a prenup, one of the reasons is that “while prenuptial agreements are common in the United States, they are far less prevalent in the UK. Only in the last year have British courts agreed to recognize such deals.” This is a statement that has some Americans asking exactly how legally binding are prenuptial agreements here in the States?

The answer to that question depends on a number of factors: your state of residence, the terms of your prenuptial agreement, how long you stay married, and more.  Fortunately, the longer prenuptial agreements are around, and the more common they become, the more respect they get from the courts.  But if you’re worried that your prenuptial agreement won’t hold up in court, here are few tips to help ensure the validity of your agreement.

Neither party must be signing under duress.  The more time each party has to review the agreement before the wedding the better.  Any prenuptial agreement signed the day of or the day before the wedding could be looked upon as being signed under duress.

The agreement should include full disclosure of income and assets.  If you live in a state where it is possible to waive full disclosure of assets then BOTH parties should specify that they do so knowingly.

Each party should have their own legal representation.In order to be sure that neither party is being taken advantage of, each party should have their own independent attorney review the document before it is signed. 

Details regarding children or child support in a prenuptial agreement may or may not be enforced by the courts.Partners my want to include details about possible custody or child support arrangements in a prenuptial agreement, but keep in mind that any court will always give the best interests of a child the highest priority, even if it means disregarding those sections of the agreement between spouses.

Of course, every couple hopes that a prenuptial agreement will never come into play, but these tips and many others can help ensure that your agreement will be considered valid by a court if the worst should happen.  Contact our office if you have any questions about prenuptial or marital agreements, we’d like to help.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

New POLST Program Raises Awareness About End-Of-Life Decisions

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal shines the light on a new program being instituted by a growing number of states called “Physician-Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment,” or POLST.  “A POLST, which is signed by both the patient and the doctor, spells out such choices as whether a patient wants to be on a mechanical breathing machine or feeding tube and receive antibiotics.”

Creating a POLST is an important step toward getting the care and medical treatment you want at a time when you may no longer be able to communicate those wishes to your family or medical staff. As estate planners we know just how important it is to communicate these preferences for health care; in fact, creating an estate plan with our office includes drafting an advance directive called a Directive to Physicians and Family or Surrogates, in which you specify whether you want certain end of life measures taken and which medical treatments or interventions you would or would not like.  We also prepare a Medical Power of Attrorney which is the document in which you nominate a health care agent to make health and medical decisions for you when you are unable to speak for yourself.

Keep in mind that although the POLST is an important step in making your wishes known, the POLST is not intended to replace an advance directive.  The POLST programs “are meant to complement advance directives, sometimes known as living wills, in which people state in broad terms how much medical intervention they will want when their condition no longer allows them to communicate.”

The WSJ article states that “A study supported by the National Institutes of Health last year found that patients with POLST forms were more likely to have treatment preferences documented than patients who used traditional documents such as living wills and do-not-resuscitate orders.“ This comes as no surprise, considering that executing a POLST includes getting the document signed by your doctor, thus ensuring that you doctor is not only aware that you’ve expressed your wishes for end-of-life care, but has also likely had a part in helping you understand exactly what your options are.

Our office recommends that our clients go one step further—give your doctor a copy of your advance directive and related documents.  We also recommend sending a copy of your directives and powers of attorney to the person you’ve named as your healthcare agent. 

The more informed your doctors and family are about your wishes for end-of-life care, the more likely it is that you will receive the treatment you prefer.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tragedy in Japan Inspires Reflection: Are You Prepared for Disaster?

Only a few days ago the world was shocked by the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  Our hearts and prayers go out the people affected by the tragedy, and many people are asking what they can do to help.

The sudden violence of nature has many of us looking at our own situations as well, wondering if we are prepared—as a country and as individuals—should an equally devastating natural disaster strike our own shores. Of course the first thought most of us have in this regard is whether or not we have a well-stocked supply of emergency rations, but as this article from CBS MoneyWatch.com points out, there is much more to surviving a natural disaster than the first 24 hours. “Most people never think about the items to take that help protect your financial assets.”

Author Steve Vernon includes in his article a list of things you can do to prepare for what comes after the first 24 hours of a natural disaster, including:

·         A stash of cash in case ATMs are shut down for a long period of time.

·         Contact information for family members, close friends, and work contacts.

·         A cell phone and charger, plus batteries and chargers for other necessary electronic equipment.

·         A list of account numbers and contact information for all your regular bills and payment obligations. 

·         Your insurance company contact information.

These are only a few of the things you’ll want to have ready (or at least have thought about) if disaster strikes here at home. 

Some natural disasters are so big in scope they are almost impossible to comprehend, let alone try to prepare for; but preparation is the best way to keep fear and panic at bay.  It doesn’t help anybody to dwell too much on what “might happen,” but having a basic emergency plan in place gives you the freedom to go on with your everyday life, knowing that you’ve done what you can to be ready if disaster does strike. 

For more information about disaster preparedness please visit the FEMA website here: FEMA Emergency Planning Checklists.

For more information about how you can help the disaster victims in Japan please check the Crisis Response Page on Google.


Friday, March 4, 2011

Tough Decisions Await Executors of 2010 Estates

If you are the executor of the estate of a decedent who died in 2010 you may think you’re in the clear.  After all, there was no estate tax in 2010 right?  Making distributions should be a piece of cake.  Wrong.  Because of the estate tax election available on the estates of 2010 decedents, administering those estates will actually be more work than you may think.

The repeal of the estate tax in 2010 also brought with it a repeal of the “step up in basis,” meaning that heirs selling inherited assets were taxed based on the original acquisition cost of the assets, not on their value as of the date of the taxpayer’s death.  This generally resulted in a higher tax paid on assets than the normal estate tax rate—not good for taxpayers. But 2010 estates don’t have to go by these rules. The legislation passed in December of 2010 gave 2010 estates the opportunity to elect whether they wanted to use the 2010 estate tax laws, or the new laws for 2011.  This article in Forbes explains what this means:

“The 2010 Tax Relief Act restored the estate tax for individuals dying in 2010 with a $5 million per person exemption and a maximum rate of 35%. It also repealed the modified carryover basis rules for property acquired from a decedent who died in 2010. However, estates of individuals dying in 2010 can elect zero estate tax and the modified carryover basis rules that would have applied before they were repealed. That means the basis of assets acquired from the decedent would be the lesser of the decedent’s adjusted basis (carryover basis) or the fair market value of the property on the date of the decedent’s death.”

In general this tax election is a good thing, it allows executors to choose which tax formula will cost the beneficiaries the least in taxes; but it does mean a lot more paperwork and a lot more attention to detail.  If you are the executor of an estate of a decedent who died in 2010, don’t hesitate to call us.  We can answer your questions and help you explore your options.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Tax-Man Cometh

It’s that time of year again; the time of year when everyone starts gathering receipts, assessing income and expenses, and making appointments with tax advisors.  Tax time can be a very stressful time for many families, but—with the help of this article from MSN Money—perhaps tax season can be made a little bit easier. The article lists 13 tax breaks from 2010 that can help save you money, including:

  • The tax credit for first time homebuyers (if you’re not a first time homebuyer don’t give up, there’s a credit for existing homeowners too.)
  • The parking and transit credit
  • The college tuition tax credit
  • The credit for energy-saving home improvements

And then of course there are the two we’ve been mentioning here on our blog for the past few months:

  • The estate tax exemption, and
  • The annual gift tax exemption

Of course, not every item on the list is going to apply to every reader, but if even one or two credits apply to you or your family it can be a huge help. 

Don’t rely only on this article to ease your 2010 tax burden, your own advisors and tax planners—who know more about your family’s personal and business finances—will be able to give you much more in-depth advice on how best to address your own tax situation.  In addition, talking to a professional advisor right now provides the perfect opportunity to tackle any issues in 2011, hopefully making this time next year a much happier and less stressful time for everybody.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Estate Tax Lessons from 2010 and Things to Watch Out for in 2011

We all know from the many news stories of last  year that estate tax laws are not set in stone, they can fluctuate and change both at the state and the federal level; and as this article in Forbes points out, keeping up with those fluctuations can be of the utmost importance to you and your loved ones.

The many celebrity news stories we saw last year provide all the examples we need of what can happen when you plan well (as was the case with Brittany Murphy’s estate plan) or when you neglect your estate plan—or even worse, when you fail to plan at all. Here are some celebrity examples of common estate planning pitfalls and mistakes:

Failing to update your estate plan.We tell all of our clients how important it is to review and update your estate plan every 2 to 5 years; Gary Coleman provides a prime example of what can happen if you neglect to follow through on those updates and reviews. “[Coleman] created a handwritten codicil to his will in 2007 leaving much of his estate to his wife, Shannon Price. After they divorced, however, Coleman never updated his will or created a new one. That led to a court fight after he died about whether Coleman was still married to Price. Even though they never officially tied the knot for a second time, Price claimed they had a ‘common-law marriage,’ which would mean that the handwritten will would be valid.”

Failing to fund your estate plan.A revocable living trust is a wonderful tool, but it’s just an empty vessel until you fund it by re-titling your assets in the name of your trust.  Michael Jackson created what is most likely a wonderful living trust, but his failure to fund it properly means that 2010 saw “The estate of Michael Jackson... dragged on with no end in sight.”

Waiting too long to create your plan.If you are a senior citizen, waiting too long to create your plan leaves you open to the exploitation or undue influence of acquaintances or family members who might try to take advantage of you.  Even if nothing of the sort has taken place, just the suspicion of undue influence can land your estate in a lengthy court battle. “Does the Anna Nicole Smith case come to mind? The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that it will hear her case for the second time. Did she wrongly take advantage of her 90-year old husband, or did his son use fraud and other improper means to stop the billionaire from leaving money to Anna Nicole?”

We can all benefit from the very public airings of these celebrity estates.  Our office can help you avoid the mistakes listed here, plus many more.  The new laws of 2011 provide the perfect opportunity to create a plan (or update your existing plan), and ensure that your family will be well protected now, and in the future.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Government Rescinds Medicare Coverage of End-Of-Life Planning

Apparently the suspicion surrounding end-of-life planning is not as far in the past as we might have hoped.  The recent Medicare regulation which would have allowed the government to pay doctors who advise patients on options for end-of-life care was rescinded only days after it was enacted.

Why such an abrupt turnaround?  The reason is probably not too difficult to guess.  Most people know that Medicare-covered end-of-life planning has a tempestuous history both in politics and in the media.  This article in the New York Times stated that “while administration officials cited procedural reasons for changing the rule, it was clear that political concerns were also a factor.”

The alteration of the rule may be disappointing, but it shouldn’t stop you from thinking—or talking to your doctor—about your choices for your own end-of-life care.  After all, this administrative change of heart does not alter the fact that having these discussions with your doctor (as well as with your health care agent and loved ones) preserve patient autonomy at a time when events may seem to spiral out of control.  As National Public Radio pointed out in their article, “it remains perfectly legal for physicians to talk with patients during annual visits paid for by Medicare about how much or little care they want when facing a terminal illness.”

Media firestorms and political debate notwithstanding, your decisions about your end-of-life care are important.  When you have these discussions with your doctor and loved ones, and when you have a living will or healthcare directive in place, you are far more likely to get the care you want at the end of your life, regardless of how invasive or restrained you want that care to be.

If you have reservations about what a health care directive might mean to your future medical care, or if you have any questions about this issue, please don’t hesitate to call our office.  Your peace of mind is our first priority.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Resolutions to Last You Through the Year

What are your resolutions for 2011? A majority of New Year’s resolutions have to do with money and health—or more specifically, with saving money and losing weight.  Unfortunately, most New Year’s resolutions don’t last through the first month of the year.  But what if there were steps you could take in that first month, when you’re still feeling inspired and motivated, that would pay-off throughout the rest of the year when all your good intentions fall by the wayside?

Luckily, there are steps you can take right now that will help you save money throughout the rest of the year. This article in USA Today lists 5 steps you can take right now to help you save money in 2011:

1.      Order your free credit report

2.      Get a medical exam

3.      Update your beneficiaries

4.      Increase your 401(k) contributions

5.      Rebalance your portfolio

All of these will help you keep your 2011 resolutions throughout the entire year, but the ones we’re most concerned with are #s 2 and 3.  Too many people “take care of business” pertaining to beneficiaries and 401(k)s when they first get hired (or open a new account or life insurance policy) and then never think of it again. But lives change over the years, and the people you listed, or the amount you contributed 5 or 10 years ago is probably not what’s best for your family right now.

The New Year brings with it new beginnings... and new hopes.  Why not take advantage of this feeling of optimistic euphoria by taking steps now that will carry you through the entire year?


Monday, December 27, 2010

Taking Time for End-Of-Life Planning

Advance Health Care Directives (legal documents which include a nomination of your health care agent, and your preferences for end-of-life care) saw a lot of press in 2009 when the Obama administration sought to include end-of-life planning in the new healthcare overhaul.  The option was dropped after a media firestorm about “death panels,” but according to this article in the New York Times Medicare-funded end-of-life discussions may be back.

According to the new regulation, Medicare will pay for “voluntary advance care planning” as part of patients’ annual visits with their doctor.  “Under the new policy, outlined in a Medicare regulation, the government will pay doctors who advise patients on options for end-of-life care, which may include advance directives to forgo aggressive life-sustaining treatment.”

The reasoning behind the new regulation is simple, and something estate planning lawyers have known for a long time; “research [has] shown the value of end-of-life planning. ‘Advance care planning improves end-of-life care and patient and family satisfaction and reduces stress, anxiety and depression in surviving relatives.’”  Additionally, “end-of-life discussions between doctor and patient help ensure that one gets the care one wants.”

So why does end-of-life planning make so many people uncomfortable when research has shown just how beneficial it can be?  Paula Span, author of this post on the New Old Age blog thinks it might simply be a matter of semantics, especially when it involved the term “Do Not Resuscitate.”   Ms. Span argues that a more friendly term such as “Allow Natural Death” could make all the difference in the world.

“The phrase “do not resuscitate” signals an intent to withhold or refuse... ‘It says you’re not going to do something.’ To “allow natural death,” on the other hand, connotes permission. ‘It doesn’t sound so overwhelming or scary.’”

Whatever term you use, or however you choose to talk about it, the important thing is that you DO talk about it—with your family and loved ones, with the person you choose as your agent, with your doctor… and even with your lawyer.  End-of-life planning is about personal and medical preferences, but the document itself is a legal one; your lawyer can help ensure that your Advance Health Care Directive will hold up in a court of law as well as in the hospital.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Technology for the Older Generation

There is a common complaint among Baby Boomers when it comes to aging parents and grandparents: It’s hard to keep in touch with them. Most communication among the middle and younger generations now takes place on the computer—e-mail, Facebook, electronic photo-sharing and more.  Very rarely do we pick up the phone for a good old-fashioned chat; and when we do it’s usually on the go, in the form of a quick call or text message from our cell phones.  Unfortunately, where all this technology helps us to be more connected to friends and family in our own cohort, it ends up leaving our elderly loved ones out of the conversation.

Karen Stabiner, in her article “Elder Tech: What’s Important” argues that it doesn’t have to be this way.  Stabiner states that the key to getting elderly relatives involved in high-tech  communication is to get out of our own heads and look at it from their point of view. “For technology to become ‘sticky’ with the older generation, we have to get into their heads and understand what would make them think this is fun… The bells and whistles that might attract us are too often counterintuitive [for them.]”

The younger, tech-savvy generations tend to look for high-tech devices that do everything, but that’s not necessarily what’s going to be appealing to grandma or grandpa.  This article in GrayTimes.com suggests that single-purpose gadgets—devices designed only for e-mail or only for sharing photos—are more intuitive for elderly users.

New high-tech devices may be harder for parents or grandparents to use, but being able to connect with their loved ones can be a huge motivating factor.  Being able to communicate with family makes our elderly parents and grandparents happy, but it also helps keep them safe.  Adult children who communicate with their parents on a regular basis are better able to recognize and respond when mom or dad suddenly have trouble caring for themselves.


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