Category Archives: Estate Planning

A Moment of Gratitude

Do you spend more time with your coworkers than you do with your family?  If you do, have OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAyou ever stopped to consider why that may be the case?  The West is a culture preoccupied with work. While I love the fast-paced nature of the legal field, it’s crucial that I take the time to reflect on why I do what I do every day at the office. With Thanksgiving right around the corner, here are just a few things I am thankful for:

1. I’m thankful for my clients.

I’ve said it before, and I will reiterate it here: I’ve got the best clients in Texas. I learn so much from them, and they honor me by trusting me with their lives every day. Whether I am helping them survive a bitter divorce or organizing their business for the start of a new venture, each client challenges me to provide better service and value than I did the day before. That’s a tremendous blessing that I do not take for granted.

2. I’m thankful for my staff.

This year I hired a legal assistant named Tim, and my productivity soared. He keeps me on task, helps me with administrative tasks so that I can focus on legal work, and most importantly he keeps me in communication with clients when I’m in court or otherwise unavailable to talk to them directly. Tim has allowed me to be more efficient and responsive to my clients, and for that I am incredibly grateful.

3. I’m thankful for my family and friends.

If it weren’t for my friends and family, my life would be totally out of balance. Being in a service-based industry is difficult because other people’s life problems become my problems. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by all of the very serious concerns that clients bring to my office. It’s also easy to take on more work than I can handle because it’s much harder to say no to a potential case when my cup is overflowing with obligations.  Today I vow to prioritize my family over my potential profit. If I can’t offer the best service at the time due to having a full case load or simply not being able to handle the problem before me, it is my ethical obligation to refer that potential client to another professional who can.  I’ll no longer value my professional life over my personal life because integrity goes a long way, and I took an oath to behave ethically and professionally at all times.

I hope and pray that you are taking time off from work to spend time with the people who really matter in your life. I know I will, and I can’t wait to kick back with my friends and family to recharge before coming back to work to serve more clients and help more people along the way.

 

 

Top 3 Things People Don’t Know about Community Property

file0001248906240I got a question from a colleague who works as a financial planner: he wanted to know if a 403(b) retirement account was subject to division in divorce. The short answer to this question is probably yes. Many people don’t realize that in the absence of a premarital agreement, all assets obtained during divorce (with very few exceptions) are considered community property in a Texas divorce. Most people realize that a court may determine the division of their house, vehicles, and tangible assets, but there are some subtle nuances to the presumption of community property that could dramatically affect their odds for a positive outcome in divorce. It is always preferable for spouses to agree on the division of their property, but sometimes agreement is simply impossible, so I wanted to shed some light on the three most surprising aspects of community property division in divorce.

1. Inheritance is off the table.

If a relative passes away and leaves you a large sum of money, that inheritance is not subject to division as community property in your divorce. The money you receive in an inheritance is your separate property. However, if you mingle that money with your community funds (perhaps by using it to purchase other assets with your spouse), it could become a part of the community estate. This phenomenon is known as co-mingling. If you’re married and are on the verge of receiving an inheritance, it is a good idea to meet with a family law attorney to ensure your inheritance is definitively separate property.

2. Retirement accounts are subject to division.

As previously mentioned, retirement accounts (including IRAs, pensions, defined benefit plans, defined contribution plans, 401ks, and 403(b)s) are part of your community estate once you marry your spouse. If you’ve worked for decades at the same company,  you’ve likely acquired a substantial nest egg in your retirement plan. Most people believe if they work hard and obtain retirement benefits, they’re entitled to enjoy the fruits of their labor when they retire. However, once you marry, your contributions to your retirement plans become community property, and as the value of the plan increases over time, the balance of the plan from the date of your marriage becomes subject to division in divorce.

No one wants to lose their inheritance or their retirement. So what are couples to do if they want to avoid these outcomes? Thankfully, the presumption of community property can be overcome.

3. Couples can agree to define their assets as separate or community at any time.

Premarital agreements allow future spouses to decide what assets they want to keep as their separate property and which assets will be their jointly owned community property. Ideally, each party will have his or her own attorney to review the documents and advise as to the consequences of the agreement. This is a great opportunity for them to discuss their finances at their very onset of their marriage and establish clear boundaries about how their assets will be treated if they divorce. If you do not have a premarital agreement, do not despair. You and your spouse can create what’s known as a postnuptial agreement after you marry.

Unfortunately, finances are one of the primary motivating factors for divorce, so the sooner you and your partner get on the same page about the money in your relationship, the better off you will be as a couple. For more information about community property or to discuss your financial circumstances, feel free to give me a call at (713) 574-8626 to schedule a consultation.

Free Wills Month: Your Mortality? It’s Not Morbid.

tigerThis month for the entire month of May, this law office is participating in a campaign known as Free Wills Month. Anyone over the age of 55 years old (or married to someone 55 and up) can get a FREE consultation with us to prepare a simple will.

For those of you who follow the blog, you may remember that we did this promotion two years ago. You can check out the inaugural blog here.

Anyway, this is one of those things that should be an easy sell. Everyone likes things that a free, but when it comes to pondering one’s eventual demise, people are incredibly reluctant to do so. Specifically, older people. This makes total sense and is natural, but in some way it’s counter intuitive. We plan for our weddings. We plan for vacations. We plan for every other event in our lives except  death.

This is not to disparage or demean the Baby Boomers in my life, but you guys…please, come on.  Your children and extended family will very much appreciate knowing your desires about what should happen to your belongings when you meet the fate that will greet us all. Dad, if you’re reading this, this blog is dedicated to you. I sincerely hope that after years of patient badgering, I have worn you down and finally convinced you to follow my advice.

Love always,

Your tireless youngest daughter

P.S. This campaign directly benefits Texas Children’s Hospital and will run from May 1 to May 31, 2016. For more information, check out the website.

Doing Well by Doing Good

March is an important month in my life. I was born on March 19th, and as my birthday DSCF9141approaches, my desire to make good on the New Years promises I made to myself is renewed. One of those beginning of the year promises involved spending more time in service to others, outside of my professional obligations. Recently, I took a step toward fulfilling that goal by meeting with Mike Jansen and Dayton Gilbert of the American Heart Association. I had questions about the organization, and they were very generous with their time and insights over coffee.

One of the challenges that my clients and I face is how to balance the demands of daily life with the need to give back to the community. Many of my estate planning clients are Baby Boomers, thinking about how to equitably divide their assets. Those of this generation who are religious routinely leave bequests in their wills to their local church, synagogue or mosque. The other segment of my estate planning practice are newlyweds and young parents. They want what’s best for their families in order to secure their future. Each of these types of clients asks for advice, recommendations, and warnings about how to arrange their affairs in the face of the unknown. I advise each of these groups to consider making a testamentary bequest to a reputable charitable organization.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among American men and women. The American Heart Association funds heart research, hosts scientific sessions for continued advancement of the medical community, and educates the public about lifestyle, diet, and stress management. Its primary goal is to connect the best medical research to the doctors who need it most so that they can save lives by decreasing risks in current procedures. Due to the AHA’s efforts, scientists have learned how to slow down heart attacks and make stints safer and more effective for the people who need them to keep their arteries free from blockages that cause heart attacks.

My first professional experience with the American Heart Association happened in 2014 when I participated in a marketing campaign known as Free Wills Month. The AHA was one of the featured organizations, and it sent several informational booklets and newsletters detailing its mission. I felt comfortable recommending it to clients considering a charitable bequest in 2014, and I have continued confidence in that recommendation.  The impulse to serve others is a noble one. If you have been fortunate enough to leave assets to your spouse, children, friends, family or faith tradition, why not support a good cause? I encourage you to think seriously about donating your time, influence, and money to a cause you believe in. Both of my parents have heart disease; the efforts of the American Heart Association have tangibly benefited my family, and if you look deep enough, you’ll probably find they have helped yours too.

For more information about this wonderful organization from the Sugar Land attorney who cares, give me a call at (713) 574-8626. Also pay a visit to the American Heart Association website here.

New Year New Beginnings

nyearsbaby2As we enter into a new year, it’s always tempting to think about how things will be different this year. Almost everyone I know has some version of a New Years resolution (including me), but on the eve of one of my very good friends getting married, I wanted to share a few thoughts on new beginnings.

1. Welcoming A New Addition to the Family

If you’re the proud parent of a newborn, it’s a good idea to start planning for your child’s future. If you do not have a last will & testament, now is the time to write one. It is important that you designate who you want to act as the guardian of your child in the event you and your spouse pass away before your child reaches the age of eighteen. It’s also not too early to  begin saving for your child’s education. Talk to a financial planner about what steps to take to secure your child’s future as soon as possible,

2. Entering a New Phase in Life: Marriage/Divorce

Tying the knot is an exiting time for any couple. Combining your finances and creating a life with another person requires careful planning and open communication. Although it sounds unromantic, a premarital agreement will clearly outline the expectations that each of you have about how you will handle your income and what arrangements will be made in the event you do not make it as a couple. Even if you decide against a premarital agreement, open discussions about these issues will give you insight into your partner’s point of view. The more you know about each other, the better prepared you will be for married life.

Similarly,  if your divorce has been recently finalized, you are entering a new phase in your life. If you have life insurance policies naming your ex as a beneficiary, you want to be sure to submit the proper documentation to change your beneficiary designations.  If you were awarded the family home in your divorce decree, you also want to be sure that your former spouse has executed a special warranty deed to transfer his or her share of interest in the home to you.

3. Starting a business

New businesses often start at the beginning of a new year, and entrepreneurs tend to dive into their new ventures head first. Lack of proper documentation is a trap for the unwary. If you are a sole proprietor, you must decide if you want to incorporate your business or simply file a DBA at the outset of your company. Partners in a partnership are doing themselves no favors if they do not have partnership agreements in place. Taking the time to speak to an attorney before your operation runs into any issues is the best step you can take to protect yourself from potential liability and start your business off right.

What Happened to Thanksgiving?

As I was getting ready for a holiday party a few days ago, I noticed all of the TV ads were about ttronslien-0825Black Friday sales, Veteran’s Day blow-out specials, and Christmas close-outs. Every few minutes, these advertisements were clamoring for my attention. My sweetheart yelled at me from the other room, “What happened to Thanksgiving? Did we jump from Halloween straight to Christmas?”

I had no good answer to that question. Seriously, what did happen to Thanksgiving? Most years go by with at least a cursory acknowledgment of the concept of gratitude, even if that comes in the form of reruns of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and vague references to turkeys being pardoned by the President. Personally, I bristle at the jilting of Thanksgiving. Halloween is fun. Christmas is great for the economy, but Thanksgiving is special. It’s a time for self-reflection, family, and football. It doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s the Jan Brady of the holiday season. Even though advertisers don’t care about giving thanks, I must do my part to make note of what I have to be thankful for, so here are the 4 things I’m most thankful for this year.

1. Good Health. This year I only took one sick day. Without my health and strength, I’m not able to effectively advocate for my clients. Thankfully, 2015 was very kind to me. Taking more interest in self-care and wellness has paid off in increased productivity, more efficiency, and better balance in my work and life. I have just enough time for my clients, my friends, and my family.

2. The National Spotlight on Police Brutality. Some shocking things happened in 2015. From Sandra Bland’s death to the riots in Ferguson, this year the intersection of race and our nation’s police came into the national conversation. People are becoming more aware of the inequalities present in American society, and we are finally starting to talk about the issues publicly. Sadly, people had to die to bring these issues to the forefront, but clearly their deaths were not in vain. We honor them with every step we take to hold overreaching police accountable and prevent these tragedies from happening in the future.

3. Marriage Equality.  This summer, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in United States v. Windsor that made marriage equality the law of the land. Same-sex couples now have the right to marry in all fifty states. The benefits that heterosexual couples and their children have are now afforded to all couples in this country. Religious groups still have the right to refuse to perform marriages that conflict with their religious views, but civil marriage is now a right that everyone can freely enjoy. Some of my friends and family have been able to solidify their loving relationships with the rite of marriage this year, and I am happy that this exciting time is now a reality for so many who were once deprived of a right to love in their own way.

4. Wonderful Clients. My business would not be possible without people entrusting me every day with the most important aspects of their lives. I handle some very sensitive topics for my clients. I listen to their stories of heartbreak on the verge of divorce. I walk them through the shambles of their finances when they contemplate bankruptcy. I welcome their new children into the world as we fashion an appropriate estate plan to protect their growing families. I meet their parents, their spouses, and their children. I become intimately familiar with my clients because I truly care about each and every one of them. My success depends on theirs, so anything I can do to help them is a step in the right direction for my firm. I fight hard for my clients. I tell them when they’re wrong, and I celebrate them when they’re right. We have ups and downs together, and I’m a better attorney because of those experiences. I am so blessed to have been able to serve my clients this year, and it’s my sincere prayer that I can continue to serve them and others in 2016.

If you’re looking for a lawyer who cares, look no further. For sound legal advice and a listening ear, call me at (713) 574-8626 to schedule your initial consultation. You’ll be glad you did.

 

The Challenge Presented by Difficult Clients

ANGRYThis week I’ve been confronted by the reality that a large part of what I do involves dealing with people at their worst. My clients are going through divorce. Some are facing bankruptcy. Others have been personally injured, and still others are facing jail time. Stress can do a number on a person’s ability to cope and adapt to life’s ups and downs. Sometimes that stress gets taken out on me. Occasionally, my clients will lash out at a staff member, and while I’m sensitive to what they’re going through, a vital part of my job is to remind my client that it’s never appropriate to take their frustrations out on me or my staff because we’re here to help. We’re all on the same team, and as the old adage goes: don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

There are times when I’ve had to escort clients out of meetings to remind them of the fact that while I’m sensitive to their emotional upset, at no time is it okay to curse or yell at me or anyone who works for me. How can I effectively advocate for a person who can’t maintain his composure in our private interactions? If I’m not able to reign in an irate client in private, I run the risk of allowing that person’s bad behavior to impact the outcome of his case in the eye’s of the judge when we make it to court. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take. I’d much rather offend a client and obtain the desired outcome he seeks than placate a difficult person to his own detriment.

Contrary to popular belief, lawyers are people too. We have good and bad days like everyone else, but the lawyer who can’t control her emotions is the one who cannot keep a cool head to make sound decisions for her client, and I refuse to be that type of attorney. I’ve seen lawyers in screaming fits, in tears, and visibly shaken in the hallways of court rooms, but once those lawyers reach the presence of the judge or the jury, their game face is on in spite of how they may be feeling. An important part of our job is how we relate to our clients. Any attorney who has been practicing for any amount of time has more than a few stories about the time they had to talk a client off of the ledge in order to get past the strong emotional component of their case and make sure the job is done.

We can’t always be your friend. We’re also not your therapist, although we are definitely legal counselors. Boundaries have to be maintained for our welfare and for the benefit of our clients. Keep that in mind the next time you blow off some steam on a customer service rep or anyone else you may encounter on a bad day. That person has feelings and is just trying to do his job. We’re all doing our level best to help you, and that’s made much easier when you cooperate and keep your emotions in check.

For professional advice and to schedule a legal consultation, be sure to give me a call at (713 ) 574-8626.

Should I Hire a Lawyer or Handle It on My Own?

ttronslien-8953 (1)I get asked this question in different ways from time to time, so I thought it would make a great blog topic. Is it a good idea to hire a lawyer or go pro se?

In most instances, we have no problem going to a professional for services. Car making a funny noise? Go to a mechanic. Need a haircut? See a barber. Broke your key in the door? Call a locksmith. But when it comes to legal services, people with absolutely no legal experience or training strangely believe that they can do it themselves, get the outcome they want, and successfully represent themselves in court. This is almost always a terrible mistake.

“I have the right to represent myself in a court of law”, you may be thinking. This is true. You absolutely do, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Abraham Lincoln famously said, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Like me, President Lincoln was an attorney, and he had a great reason for making this remark: the law has its own set of rules, guidelines, and vocabulary. There is a reason lawyers have to attend several years of school and pass their state bar examinations. Competence in the courtroom comes with years of experience handling legal problems again and again. A person without this background is simply not prepared to properly represent him or herself.

Typically when a person goes pro se, that person quickly realizes they’re in over their head and hires an attorney. When I meet someone who has filed their own lawsuit, I look at what they have done on their own and determine what, if anything, I can do to fix their mistakes and protect their interests. This often results in my new client paying more than he or she otherwise would if they had simply come to me with their legal problem from the very beginning. The additional work needed to pick up where a pro se litigant has left off usually results in me having to spend more time on their case, and therefore a higher bill. Sometimes they’ve waited too long to seek my help, and I can’t do anything for them because the case is too far gone.

Even a skilled lawyer who represents himself is at a disadvantage. We are humans, and our emotions tend to cloud our judgment when it is our own personal interests at stake. I take my own advice in this regard. When my grandmother passed away, I advised my mother (her executor) to hire an attorney. I did not want to bungle my grandmother’s estate. I had recently graduated from law school and had not yet learned how to handle probate matters. I wouldn’t pull my own tooth if I had a toothache, and something tells me you wouldn’t either. The same principle applies to the law: when in doubt, hire a professional.

Domestic Partners: Are you Ready to Get Married?

married_car_02This seems like a slightly rude and obtrusive question, but it’s a good one. If you have filed for domestic partnership instead of getting married (either because you’re LGBTQ and it was previously illegal or because you and your partner wanted benefits through your jobs without being married), pay close attention.  The New York Times wrote a very interesting piece on this topic that I strongly suggest you read. In part, it discussed how certain companies have rescinded their domestic partner benefits to employees living in states where same-sex marriage was legalized and has given these employees a few options. The legalization of same-sex marriage has touched on some very interesting questions: namely, is it fair for married couples to have exclusive benefits simply because they are married? Also, is it fair to coerce couples to marry for purely economic reasons now that they can do so without interference from the state?

Last July, Verizon gave its employees until the end of the year to decide whether to marry. IBM gives employees a one-year grace period, though a spokeswoman said the time frame was under review; Delta said it provided a grace period as well, about two years. And some states have sought rollbacks as well.

Many employers extended the benefits only to partners of gay employees because they did not have the option to legally wed. Plenty of other organizations, however, extended domestic partner coverage to opposite-sex couples as well — and those companies are expected to maintain the benefits more so than those that offered them only to same-sex couples.

“With no legal barriers to same-sex marriage, it is likely some employers will eliminate their benefits for unmarried same-sex partners,” Todd Solomon, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery who has written a book on domestic partner benefits, said. Is this fair? Is this what was intended by Justice Kennedy’s decision? To force people who would otherwise choose alternative arrangements to marry? I don’t think so, but there are compelling arguments to be made on each side. For a closer look into this issue, please check out the source.

To protect your family in whatever shape it may be, be sure to get solid advice and counsel from an attorney who stays abreast of current events to make the best decisions for her clients. For an initial consultation, feel free to contact me at (713) 574-8626.

3 Legal Things to Do Differently in 2015

CFPjCOO21. Write a will

Nobody likes to think about the inevitable but life can change in an instant. Does anyone ever plan to have  a car accident or fall ill? Of course not. But we buy car insurance and medical insurance anyway. If you have children, own a business, or anticipate having a family, a last will & testament makes your assets and wishes known to the people who are important to you. Make 2015 the year you get your affairs in order!

2. Stop paying for speeding tickets.

Most people get a citation for speeding, running a red light, expired registration, or any other traffic violation, and they look up the ticket number online or call the court before the deadline and pay the fine. Big mistake! You are entitled to a jury trial in traffic cases. This means the state (usually the city or county in traffic court) has the burden of proving you committed the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.  Before you pay that ticket, think about calling an attorney to represent you. We are often able to get your ticket dismissed or your fines significantly reduced.

Even if you don’t want to try your case, many offenses are eligible for deferred disposition, also known as probation. If you take this option, you simply pay a fine and promise not to commit the offense again for a period of six months to a year, as determined by the court. If you can successfully avoid being pulled over during that period, your ticket will be dismissed.

3.  Think about Incorporating Your Business

Did you know that if you own a business as a sole proprietor in your own name, and you are sued in connection with your work, all of your assets are at risk?  If you’re a start up with no money, you may be considered “judgment proof,” but you will (probably) not always be broke, and it’s a good idea to plan for the future. In the event that you are even moderately successful in your business, it’s a good idea to consider incorporating your business. Not only does it protect your personal assets from creditors, but there are a number of tax benefits available to corporations that could save you some money around tax season.

If you’re interested in starting the year off on a proactive note, be sure to contact an attorney at (713) 574-8626 to schedule your initial consultation.