Law FAQ: What is Probate and why is it bad?

What is Probate and why is it bad?  (a.k.a. Why simply having a will might not be enough.)

Probate is the legal process through which the court sees that, when you die, your debts are paid and your assets are distributed according to your will.  Indeed, a will is a “ticket” to Probate.  If you don’t have a valid will, your assets are distributed according to state law.  But….

Probate can be expensive.  Legal fees, executor fees and other costs must be paid before your assets can be fully distributed to your beneficiaries.  If you own real estate in other states, your family could face multiple probates, each one according to the laws in the state where real estate is owned.  These costs vary, but a good rule of thumb is the cost of Probate will be 6% of your total estate.

Probate takes time, usually nine months to two years, but often longer.  During part of this time, assets are normally frozen so an accurate inventory can be taken.  Nothing can be distributed or sold without court and/or executor approval.

Your family has no privacy.  Probate is a public process, so anyone can see what you owned, whom you owed, who will receive your assets and when they will receive them.  The process “invites” disgruntled heirs to contest your will and can expose your family to solicitors.

Most importantly, your family has no control.  The Judge and the Probate Court process determines how much it will cost, how long it will take, and what information is made public.

Our firm employs estate planning strategies that can reduce the hassle of the probate process, or even eliminate it altogether.

Feel free to contact us for more information.

Law FAQ: I run a small landscape business. Do I need a contractor’s license?

In Tennessee, The Board for Licensing Contractors enacts and enforces administrative rules pertaining to the licensing of various contractors operating within the state.  Typically most of us think of a contractor as being someone who builds or remodels a home, perhaps a roofer or brick mason.  But the Board has recently started enforcing certain provisions against smaller companies that until recently have been overlooked or otherwise ignored by the Board.

The most common type of business to get the attention of the Board is the small to mid-size landscape company.  Now, depending on various factors, even small companies that do nothing but cut grass in the summertime may need to obtain a contractor’s license from the Board.  Specifically, grass cutters need the “BC-29” license.  Failure to obtain the license can be costly.  Indeed, I have represented multiple landscape companies after they have been cited and fined by the Board for operating without the required license.  The fines imposed can be expensive – i.e. several thousand dollars.

If you operate a small business that you think may need to be licensed, contact our office.  We can assist you in determining whether or not you need a license and also help walk you through the process.

Law FAQ: My mom’s will leaves everything equally to me and my sister. Why am I not getting anything?

A person’s will only applies to assets or accounts that are in the person’s sole name or are payable to the person’s estate.  Typically, we are dealing with assets in someone’s sole name name if we are looking at someone’s will.  I frequently tell clients that assets are often payable to someone’s estate on accident.  For example, assume mom’s husband was named as beneficiary on her life insurance policy.  He dies several years before her, and she never added another beneficiary and does not have a contingent beneficiary on the policy.  In most cases, that policy will say her estate is the beneficiary by default.

The important thing to note is that jointly-owned assets and assets with a beneficiary designation do not pass pursuant to mom’s will.  They pass upon death by operation of law, which means that jointly-owned assets pass to the surviving owner and accounts with a beneficiary designation pass to the named beneficiary on the account, regardless of what mom’s will says or if she has a will.  These assets do not pass through probate, and mom’s will does not apply to these assets.  So, if sister was the joint owner on mom’s checking account and CDs because she was the primary caretaker, the checking account and CDs belong to the sister upon death, even if the will specifically says everything is to be divided equally between the children.  This means that your sister gets everything, and you get nothing.  The will simply does not apply to the distribution of these assets.  To add insult to injury, if your sister wants to fulfill mom’s intent, she may have to deal with gift taxes and the gift tax ramifications of splitting the accounts with you.  Thus, even if sister wants to split the accounts because she knew what mom wanted and wants to comply, she may not want to split the accounts bad enough to pay gift tax on the transfer from her to you.

In many cases, this result is not what mom wanted or intended.  I will be posting more in the coming weeks about intent versus content because all too frequently the content of someone’s will or trust or the structure of their assets do not coincide with what their intent.  After someone dies, it is often too late to reconcile the two, even if most people involved agree as to what the person’s intent was.  An effective estate plan can prevent this disparity between intent and content.   Unfortunately, the true test of an estate plan occurs after someone dies when it is often too late to go back and correct the discrepancy.  Please contact our office if you need assistance in establishing an estate plan or determining if your plan accomplishes your goals and intentions.


Law FAQ: Will my insurance premium go up if I get hit by a uninsured driver & have no choice but to submit a claim on my own UM coverage?

I explained in a recent blog post about how Uninsured/Underinsured (UM) insurance coverage works, and how your UM coverage basically kicks in to protect you in the event you are involved a car wreck or auto related accident with someone who has little or no insurance.

We’ve found that our clients who find themselves in this situation are frequently worried about making a claim on their own insurance.  Indeed, clients often say something along the following lines:

“The car wreck wasn’t my fault, so why should I have to put this on my insurance?  That’s not fair.  I can’t afford for my insurance premium to go up, or worse yet — what if they cancel my policy?  I mean, I can’t afford the medical bills and damage to my car either, but maybe I’d be better off in the long run just doing the best I can and forgetting the insurance claim.”

On the surface, all of those concerns are perfectly valid.  However, there is actually no reason to worry.  Indeed, the law in Tennessee is absolutely clear on this point — it is unlawful by statute for your insurance carrier to raise your insurance premium or cancel your policy simply because you had the misfortune of getting hit by an irresponsible deadbeat who was driving around illegally with no liability insurance.  That’s exactly why you have UM coverage, and it would be wrong for your insurance company to be able to penalize you for something that isn’t your fault.

Accordingly, Tennessee Code Annotated § 56-7-1201(f) states that “No insurer shall increase the automobile insurance rate or premium of an insured with uninsured motorist coverage nor cancel the coverage due solely to the payment of any claim under uninsured motorist coverage.”

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Law FAQ: Why would I want a revocable living trust?

Contrary to what you’ve probably heard, a will may not be the best plan for you and your family. That’s primarily because a will does not avoid probate when you die.  A will MUST be validated by the probate court before it can be enforced, and the probate process is part of the public record (thus potentially airing your family’s personal financial details), can be extremely costly, burdensome, potentially divisive to the family, and consume considerable time and energy at precisely the time you are trying to deal with the loss of your loved one.

Also, because a will can only go into effect after you die, it provides no protection if you become physically or mentally incapacitated.  So a court could easily take control of your assets before you die – a concern of many elderly people and their families.

Fortunately, there is a simple and proven alternative to a will – the revocable living trust.  It avoids probate and lets you keep control of your assets while you are living, even if you become incapacitated, and also after you die.

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Law FAQ: What are the duties of landlords under Tennessee law?

A frequent question that clients ask is what obligations does their landlord owe to them.  Tennessee has adopted an act referred to as URLTA (“Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act”) that is limited to certain counties in Tennessee, including Davidson and Shelby counties, and that only applies to residential leases.  While URLTA includes many detailed provisions, the most common problems stem from inadequate maintenance by landlords.

Under URLTA, a landlord must do the following:

  • Comply with requirements of applicable building and housing codes materially affecting health and safety;
  • Make all repairs and do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition;
  • Keep all common areas of the premises in a clean and safe condition; and
  • In multi-unit complexes of four (4) or more units, provide and maintain appropriate receptacles and conveniences for the removal of ashes, garbage, rubbish and other waste from common points of collection.

Tenants should also note that URLTA allows the landlord and tenant to make a written agreement where the tenant agrees to perform specified repairs, maintenance tasks, alterations, and remodeling.  While such an agreement cannot be made by the landlord to escape the above obligations, it does allow the tenant to have a degree of control over how such maintenance is performed.

If your landlord fails to do any of the above, you should immediately give him/her written notice of the URLTA violation.  Depending on how your landlord responds, you should then consider contacting an attorney for legal guidance.  There are various remedies available to tenants when landlords fail to meet the above obligations.  Our firm handles a wide variety of such issues.  If you feel that your landlord has violated URLTA, please give us a call.

To read find out more about URLTA, its provisions can be found in T.C.A. § 66-28-101 et seq.

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What is uninsured motorist coverage, and how much do I need?

uninsured motorist coverage lawyer auto accidentUnder Tennessee law, a driver is required to maintain liability insurance to cover any damages that the driver might cause in a car wreck or related accident.  That way, innocent victims are protected. Unfortunately, though, the minimum legal limit required under Tennessee law for liability coverage is only $25,000 — which is extremely low.  A car wreck can easily exhaust $25,000 in coverage.  And, of course, many drivers choose to violate the law by not carrying any auto insurance at all.  We see it all the time here in Memphis. This is why you need uninsured motorist coverage or “UM” coverage.

What happens if I get hit by a driver with little or no liability insurance?

This is where your own uninsured motorist coverage or underinsured motorist coverage would kick in to protect you.

In insurance lingo, uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage is typically referred to as “UM coverage.”  UM coverage is included as part of your own liability policy, and it is usually the same amount as your liability coverage.  So, if you have $50,000 in liability coverage, then you also have $50,000 in UM coverage.  The UM component of your policy essentially makes up the difference for any deficiency in the liability coverage of the negligent driver.

But there’s a catch:  UM coverage is only available to the extent your own policy limit is greater than the policy limit of the negligent driver in the auto accident.

Examples of How Uninsured Motorist Coverage Works

Example 1:  Our client suffered spinal injuries and a broken pelvis in a car crash requiring significant surgeries and medical treatment.  The negligent driver only had $50,000 in insurance coverage, but fortunately, our client carried $250,000 coverage of her own.  We were therefore able to negotiate a total settlement of $250,000 (the first $50,000 from negligent party’s insurance company and the remaining $200,000 from our client’s own insurance company).  

Example 2:  Our client was partially paralyzed in a car crash. Unfortunately, the negligent driver only had $25,000 in liability insurance coverage, and the client only had $50,000 herself.  As a result, the client was only able to recover a total of $50,000 ($25,000 from negligent party’s insurance company plus an additional $25,000 from her own insurance company).  The negligent driver had no assets to pursue.

Review your insurance policy today and check your coverage.

The examples above highlight a very important LESSON.   While it may be tempting when buying your own insurance to choose the cheaper option of low liability limits, you must remember that you are not just choosing liability protection for others, or making a risk calculation about whether you think you are a safe driver who may never  cause an accident or need liability coverage.  Indeed, when choosing your coverage limits, you are — in effect — also choosing the insurance limits that will cover your own family if a potential UM coverage situation occurs where an uninsured driver negligently crashes into you or another member of your family.  In other words, low liability limits may seem like a bargain until someone with little or no insurance causes a catastrophic injury to you or someone in your family.  Often, the marginal price for an increase in coverage is quite minimal.  And well worth it!

If you need a car accident lawyer

If you’ve been in a car crash, even relatively minor injuries can be overwhelming. Medical treatment can be  expensive, and injuries often result in lost wages. We would be honored to review your case free of charge.  Please either submit an online request for a Free Case Review, or call to speak with one of our car accident lawyers at 901-372-5003.

Law Talk: A Conservation Easement Can Save You Thousands in Taxes

In 2010, Congress extended the enhanced tax deduction for Conservation Easement Donations (“CEDs”), but only for a limited time.  This provision is a real gem for anyone owning a piece of undeveloped land.  But you must act quickly.

CEDs allow landowners to create and grant a property easement to a land trust or other non-profit and deduct the value of the easement form their income taxes, all while maintaining full control and ownership of the property.  The amount of the deduction is determined by the decrease in value of the property from before the easement to after.

Example:   Farmer John owns 100 undeveloped acres near a growing town.   John decides to donate a conservation easement to ABC Land Trust.  The easement simply restricts John from developing the property into residential or commercial development, which he never intended to do anyway.  Essentially, John and his family and his heirs can still farm, hunt, fish, ride ATVs and otherwise enjoy the outdoors on the land as they had always planned.  Indeed, the great part is that John still owns and controls his land.  He can even still sell the land as encumbered by the easement.  He has only donated the right (and the value associated with the right) to development the land.

So what does John get for the donation?   He gets an income tax deduction equal to the value of the donation, which is determined by comparing the appraised value of the land with development rights vs. the appraised value of the land without the development rights.  For example, if his 100 acres of developable land was worth $1 million dollars, but the land – as restricted by the easement prohibiting future development – would be worth $100,000, then John would get a tax deduction of $900,000!

Moreover, the recent Congressional legislation allows individuals to spread out the value of the deduction for up to 15 years.

This is just an overview of CEDs.   Each situation is unique, and landowners should consider taking advantage of this amazing tax deduction.  While Congress may ultimately extend the time period to take advantage of this tax strategy, the legislation is currently expected to expire on December 31, 2011.

Wiseman Bray PLLC — Law FAQ Series: Submit Your Legal Questions!

In thinking about how we might better serve our friends, clients, and prospective clients seeking reliable information on the web about Tennessee law, we decided to start a new series called Law FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions).  Similarly, we will have periodic blog posts regarding current legal news or informative topics called Law Talk.

Using “Question & Answer” format, we will provide a 30-45 second shot of useful information a few times each week.  Sample topics may include personal injury, business law, construction law, commercial litigation, negligence, medical malpractice, technology, estate planning, auto accidents or car wrecks, insurance law, asset protection, civil rights, brain injury, wrongful death, hospital negligence, nursing home abuse, pharmacy error, workers’ compensation, probate, charitable planning, and trusts.  See a sample Law FAQ here.

We also want this series to be interactive, and so we invite you to submit questions or suggested topics by filling out the Contact Form here and including “Law FAQ” in the Subject/Inquiry box.  Please be assured that your privacy is paramount, so you can be confident that we will not include any names or any identifying details or information when posting about a particular question or topic.  Further, while we may not have the space to answer every specific question, we will do our best to cover in a general way any topics that are submitted.

We also welcome your thoughts and feedback in the Comments section below any of the posts on the blog.

We hope you will enjoy Law FAQ and Law Talk series.  You can easily follow the series by adding our blog address to your Google/RSS feeder, or you can follow along on Facebook by clicking here and then hitting the “Like” button.  You can also keep up with the series on Twitter by clicking here and then hitting the “Follow” button.

We hope you won’t necessarily need all of the information included in the Law FAQ series, but we hope that you will be able to pick up some interesting and valuable information along the way.

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Wiseman Bray PLLC serves the communities of Memphis, Cordova, Bartlett, Germantown, Collierville, Millington, Southaven, Shelby County, Oakland, Tennessee, Nashville, Brentwood, Franklin and surrounding areas.

Memphis-Shelby County Schools — See the Judge’s Order for Yourself

The Order issued by Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays in the local schools’ case has — with good reason — captured the attention of the public and the media alike during the past week.

We’ve all been subjected to countless media reports describing and analyzing the Order — What does it say?  What does it mean?  Who won?  Who lost?  What happens next?

I’ve read lots and lots of opinion.  What I haven’t seen, though, are many links in the media to the Order itself.

Mindful of that, I wanted to pass a copy of the document so that you can read the Order for yourself, make your own analysis, and draw your own conclusions.

Microsoft Word – FINAL Order Deciding Case – FINAL

Warning:  The Order is long (146 pages).  However, it is well organized and very well written — an easy read insofar as legal opinions go.

I’d be interested to know what you think.  I may offer some of my own observations after further reflection.