The Importance of Regularly Updating Your Will or Living Trust

It is a common misconception. An individual sets up his or her will or living trust and, following that, believes the job is done. In reality, a will, trust, or other estate-controlling document is as much a living, breathing creature as you are. As your circumstances, relationships, and the laws change, so too must your will reflect those changes. Otherwise, you may have an estate that is being distributed in accordance with your preferences from the 1990s as opposed to 2015.

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There are numerous reasons to review, update, or modify your will or living trust. Perhaps new people have come into (or out of) your life. Perhaps you have joined an organization or charity group and have decided you’d like to leave a percentage of your estate to ensure the continued viability of that association. A good general rule of thumb is that any time you or anyone named in your will experiences a major life change (birth of a child, adoption, death of someone named in a will, children reach the age of 18, separation/divorce, relocation to a new state), it is time to at least consider revising your will or trust to indicate how these changes impact the manner in which you want your property distributed at death.

Perhaps the most important reason to regularly check on the status of your will or living trust is to account for any changes in the law and the effect these changes can have on your estate plan as currently laid out. Estate tax, inheritance tax, and gift tax exclusions continue to move up and down. Being aware of these changes and adjusting accordingly is key to providing maximum protection to your assets and providing for your loved ones.

If it has been longer than three years since you’ve last reviewed your will, it is likely in your best interest to arrange a time with your attorney to review this document. If you don’t have a will, or you have a will which you drafted which has not been reviewed by a licensed attorney, now is a good time to consider creating or reviewing your document with an attorney. Howland Hess O’Connell has several attorneys practicing in the field of Estate Planning and available to help you today, including: Richard Torpey, George O’Connell, Michael Cassidy, Thomas Guinan, Bruce Hess, John Howland, Karen Angelucci, Dennis Meakim, and Karen Mavros.

Legal Disclaimer: The contents of this website are intended solely for informational purposes. They neither constitute nor imply an official legal opinion on behalf of Howland, Hess, Guinan, Torpey, Cassidy and O’Connell nor do they establish an attorney-client relationship of any kind. Howland, Hess and O’Connell encourages all readers to seek and consult professional counsel before acting upon the information contained on this site.

 

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What to do When: Involved in a Car Accident

Below is a non-comprehensive checklist of actions to take following a motor vehicle accident. For more specific insights feel free to contact the attorneys at Howland Hess O’Connell today.

Car Accident

  1. React Safely: If there are no serious injuries and it’s safe to do, move your car off the road (but never leave the scene). If you’re in a high traffic area, assess your ability to either safely move your car or exit your vehicle. Never move seriously injured people unless there is greater danger in leaving them where they are.
  2. Write it Down: Write down the time of the accident, location, date, weather and traffic conditions, police involvement, any injuries, and your recollection of the event ASAP. Don’t rely on others to get your story right.
  3. Pictures Speak a Thousand Words: Almost everyone has a phone with a camera. Photograph damage to your vehicle and other vehicle(s), the license plate(s) of vehicles involved, any relevant landmarks (street signs, buildings), and anything that might have contributed to the accident (a broken stop-light, covered sign, etc.)
  4. NAME NAMES: First get the name(s) of the other motorist(s) involved. If there are any witnesses, get their names next before they leave. Write down the names of these people, as well as investigators like police officers or insurance adjusters. And later when you speak to an insurance agency, get the name of the representative you’re speaking with.
  5. Get the Essentials: Never leave an accident without getting these essentials: other driver’s full name, insurance company, policy number, and the phone number for their insurance company. But note, neither you nor the other driver is required to disclose home addresses, phone numbers or driver’s license numbers.
  6. Do not Admit Fault: At the scene, it is not advisable to admit you were at fault. This means no apologies, and don’t sign documents which indicate you were the at-fault party. Cooperate with police and be courteous to the other driver, but this can be done without saying you’re the reason this accident occurred.
  7. Don’t Agree to Not Report: It’s strongly advised not to make any written agreement or accept payment for not reporting an accident. Call 911, get a written report. Following an accident, even a minor one, emotions and adrenaline are running high. There may be unseen damages to your car or undetected injuries to your body.

Protect yourself by knowing (and preserving) your rights. If you’ve been involved in a motor vehicle accident or are just looking for more information or advice, the attorneys at Howland, Hess, Guinan, Torpey, Cassidy and O’Connell are available now to assist you.

Legal Disclaimer: The contents of this website are intended solely for informational purposes. They neither constitute nor imply an official legal opinion on behalf of Howland, Hess, Guinan, Torpey, Cassidy and O’Connell nor do they establish an attorney-client relationship of any kind. Howland Hess O’Connell encourages all readers to seek and consult professional counsel before acting upon the information contained on this site.

New Montgomery County Rule Provides That Civil Cases Progress Quickly

The Court of Common Pleas in Montgomery County, PA is implementing a new local rule regarding all civil actions filed in the county (Montgomery County Local Rule of Civil Procedure 200). Beginning January 1, 2016, the court will transition from a system once driven by the attorneys handling a case to a system driven by deadlines set forth by the court.

Calendar

In the past, civil cases such as injury claims from slip & falls or car accidents were permitted to resolve or reach trial at a time determined wholly by the attorneys representing the parties. It was not unheard of for such cases to take 3 years or more to become trial ready. Other cases involving more complicated issues like commercial contracts and other lengthy agreements had the potential of taking even longer to finish.

As directed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, all local jurisdictions must develop a plan that will prevent a large or long-term backlog in cases on a court’s docket. Under the Montgomery County plan, attorneys will still be directing the case until the 9 month or 18 month anniversary of the filing date. For cases below the arbitration cut-off amount of $50,000, the 9 month deadline will apply. For matters involving sums above the arbitration amount, the 18 month deadline will apply. Attorneys handling such matters must be prepared to arbitrate/try the case by the appropriate deadline. In the event one side or the other is unprepared to do so, the court will impose a strict case management order providing up to 120 additional days to have the matter ready for judicial action.

What does this mean for you? It means that if you are involved in a civil case in Montgomery County, deadlines are automatically imposed to ensure your case proceeds in a timely manner. For those hesitant to file an action because of concerns over timeliness in having their civil case heard, this is good news.

The attorneys at Howland Hess O’Connell are readily prepared to meet the court’s new program and look forward to prompt dispositions of any civil matters moving forward.

Legal Disclaimer: The contents of this website are intended solely for informational purposes. They neither constitute nor imply an official legal opinion on behalf of Howland, Hess, Guinan, Torpey, Cassidy and O’Connell nor do they establish an attorney-client relationship of any kind. Howland Hess O’Connell encourages all readers to seek and consult professional counsel before acting upon the information contained on this site.

Applying for Social Security Disability Benefits and Maximizing Likelihood of Success

Social Security Disability Benefits are payments made to you and, potentially, certain members of your family if you have worked long enough and have a medical condition that has prevented you from working or is expected to prevent you from working for at least 12 months or end in death.

Social SecurityThere are several ways to apply for social security disability benefits. The first option is to go to your local social security office where you can apply in person. If you don’t know where the nearest social security office is, you can go to the Social Security Office Locator website where all you need is your zip code to find the office nearest you. If you are comfortable filing an application online, you can do so here. Click on “video instructions” for an tutorial on filing your claim online.

Finally, if you are not comfortable filing a claim online and don’t want to travel to one of the offices or are not able to do so, you can call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213. If someone is not available to take your application, a time will be scheduled when someone can call you back to fill out your application.

There are numerous intricacies critical to your chances of succeeding on a claim for disability benefits, a few of which will be mentioned below. It is important to note that it is difficult to win social security disability benefit claims, which is why the assistance of an experienced attorney can be crucial.

The first tip to help solidify your claim for disability benefits is to be as specific as possible in your description of how your disability (be it an injury or an illness) impacts your ability to perform any type of work. It is critical that you describe all the limitations you are experiencing which impact your ability to work.

Next, recognize that one of the quickest ways your claim will be denied by Social Security is if you are no longer receiving treatment for the injury or illness you claim renders you disabled. Treatment by a doctor specific to the limitations claimed and relevant documentation can make or break your case. If your doctor’s records effectively detail your functional limitations, you stand a better chance of receiving social security disability benefits.

Finally, if you have a physical injury or illness and it has impacted you mentally, be sure to explain that. Many people feel the need to emphasize their physical limitations and skip over or downplay the significance of the mental hurdles their injury has created. If you are struggling with concentration or memory, or are depressed or anxious, this is something the Social Security Administration will generally take into consideration. While some people may feel embarrassed, explaining the full extent of the impact of your injury is the best way to succeed in a claim for disability benefits.

If you are contemplating filing a claim for disability benefits with social security, the attorneys at Howland Hess O’Connell are willing and able to advise and assist you in this process.

Legal Disclaimer: The contents of this website are intended solely for informational purposes. They neither constitute nor imply an official legal opinion on behalf of Howland, Hess, Guinan, Torpey, Cassidy and O’Connell nor do they establish an attorney-client relationship of any kind. Howland Hess O’Connell encourages all readers to seek and consult professional counsel before acting upon the information contained on this site.

The Issue of Pet Custody

When we hear about a divorce, most people’s immediate thoughts go to issues such as child custody and property settlement. But for families with pets, many who consider these pets as parts of their family, there is another issue: what to do in terms of custody of the animals. [Please take special note that this article deals with the issue of contested custody/ownership of an animal between former spouses or partners, not an agreed upon property settlement.]

The law in Pennsylvania is quite clear: pets are “chattel.” What this means is that pets, like your beloved Labrador Retriever or Himalayan kitten, are viewed under the law as “personal property” in a light analogous to a kitchen table or television. Riley RevisedPennsylvania is certainly not alone in this stance, as pets are considered personal property in many states. Pennsylvania applies what is known as an “equitable division” scheme for distributing personal property upon divorce. The court’s goal in an equitable division is to be fair, which means the division does not need to be equal.

While Pennsylvania courts are generally in favor of child custody agreements worked out between spouses when it’s in the best interest of the child, if a divorcing or separating couple attempts to draft an agreement regarding shared custody of a pet, it is unlikely that such an agreement will be upheld. For example, in DeSanctis v. Prictchard, the Pennsylvania Superior Court invalidated a provision in a property settlement agreement between a former husband and wife providing the wife custody of the couple’s dog while the husband received visitation. The Court, in explaining its decision refusing to enforce any custody arrangement regarding the pet, stated that enforcing such a custody agreement would be “analogous, in law, to a visitation schedule for a table or a lamp.” [Ouch!]

In loving memory of Chloe L.
In memory of Chloe L.

To date, many courts confronted with contested pet custody stick to the equitable distribution test, holding that pets are personal property which must be awarded to one party as part of a fair distribution of property. Parties may certainly attempt to enter into their own custody agreement, and if both parties abide by it, that is an amicable resolution. However, any agreement as to shared custody of a pet, if violated, will likely not then be enforced by the courts. Simply stated, just like a piece of furniture, pets are not subject to custody or visitation agreements.

As previously stated, since animals are considered property, the court’s role is to fairly (not equally) divide ownership of the pet as part of the distribution of property. If it gets to court, a judge can and will award ownership to only one party. However, there are still options available to negotiate and push for ownership of your pet, such as a property settlement agreement, but recognize this may require you to forfeit other assets during negotiations.

If you are facing a divorce and are dealing with concerns of pet ownership, the family law attorneys at Howland Hess O’Connell, Michael Cassidy, Dennis Meakim, and Karen Angelucci, are here to help.

Legal Disclaimer: The contents of this website are intended solely for informational purposes. They neither constitute nor imply an official legal opinion on behalf of Howland, Hess, Guinan, Torpey, Cassidy and O’Connell nor do they establish an attorney-client relationship of any kind. Howland Hess O’Connell encourages all readers to seek and consult professional counsel before acting upon the information contained on this site.

IRS Fraud Alert: Spot the Scam

Today’s posting, while on the lengthier side, is intended to serve as a reminder to remain aware of the potential dangers of IRS scams. There are bullet points listed below highlighting key takeaways as previously emphasized by the U.S. Department of Treasury Inspector General’s office and the Internal Revenue Service’s Taxpayer Guide to Identity Theft, as well as the video linked below.

According to the U.S. Department of Treasury Inspector General’s Office, individuals posing as IRS employees have targeted thousands of people by randomly calling taxpayers claiming that federal taxes are owed and must be paid immediately. The caller uses a fake name, IRS I.D. number and alters the caller ID to make it appear as though the call is originated from the IRS. The caller will insist that the taxpayer use a pre-paid debit card or wire transfer for payment. Should the taxpayer refuse, they are threatened with arrest, deportation or loss of a business or license.

Another tactic includes callers advising taxpayers they are entitled to a refund and then requesting personal information to process payment. Sadly, victims have lost millions of dollars in tax refunds as a result of these telephone scams.

Please recognize the following:

  1. The IRS will never call to demand immediate payment for any reason;
  2. The IRS will never call about taxes owed without first having mailed correspondence detailing their actions;
  3. The IRS will never demand an individual pay taxes without providing instructions on the appeal process that is afforded to all U.S. taxpayers;
  4. The IRS will never require an individual to use a specific payment method;
  5. The IRS will never ask for credit or debit card numbers;
  6. The IRS will never threaten to utilize local police or other law; enforcement groups to support their cause.

Identity theft/refund fraud:

Tax related identity theft occurs when someone uses your stolen Social Security number to file a tax return claiming a fraudulent refund. Generally, the identity thief will use your SSN to file a false return early in the year. You will be unaware you are a victim until you try to file your taxes and learn one already has been filed using your SSN.

♦ Know the warning signs: Be alert to possible identity theft if you receive an IRS notice or letter that states that:

• More than one tax return was filed using your SSN;

• You owe additional tax, refund offset or have had collection actions taken against you for a year you did not file a tax return;

• IRS records indicate you received wages from an employer unknown to you.

♦ Steps to take if you become a victim:

• File a report with law enforcement;

• Report identity theft at: www.ftc.gov/complaint and learn how to respond to it at www.identitytheft.gov;

• Contact one of the three major credit bureaus to place a “fraud alert” on your credit records (Equifax: 1-800-525-6285 – www.equifax.com; Experian: 1-88-397-3742 – www.experian.com; TransUnion: 1-8000-680-7289- www.transunion.com);

• Contact your financial institutions and close any accounts opened without your permission or tampered with;

• Check your Social Security Administration earnings statement annually.

If your SSN is compromised and you know or suspect you are a victim of tax-related identity theft, take these additional steps:

  1. Respond immediately to any IRS notice; call the number provided;
  2. Complete IRS Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit. Use a fillable form available at IRS.gov, print it, then mail or fax according to instructions;
  3. Continue to pay your taxes and file your tax return, even if you must do so by paper.

If you previously contacted the IRS and did not have a resolution, contact the Identity Theft Protection Specialized Unit at 1-800-908-4490. There are teams available to assist you.

♦ Ways to reduce your risk:

  1. Don’t routinely carry your SS card or any document with your SSN on it.
  2. Don’t give a business your SSN because they ask – only when absolutely necessary.
  3. Protect your personal financial information at home and on your computer.
  4. Check your credit report annually.
  5. Check your SS earning statement annually.
  6. Protect your personal computer by using firewalls; anti-spam/virus software, update security patches and change passwords for internet accounts.
  7. Don’t give personal information over the phone, through the mail or internet unless you have either initiated the contact or are sure you know who is asking.

Note that the IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email to request personal or financial information. This includes any type of electronic communication, such as text messages and social media channels.

Report suspicious online or emailed phishing scams to phishing@irs.gov. For phishing scams by phone, fax or mail, call 1-800-366-4484. Report IRS impersonation scams to the Treasury Inspector General or Tax Administration.

Legal Disclaimer: The contents of this website are intended solely for informational purposes. They neither constitute nor imply an official legal opinion on behalf of Howland, Hess, Guinan, Torpey, Cassidy and O’Connell nor do they establish an attorney-client relationship of any kind. Howland Hess O’Connell encourages all readers to seek and consult professional counsel before acting upon the information contained on this site.