Probating the Texas Estate of a Missing Person

At first glance, it might seem impossible to probate the estate of someone who is missing and presumed dead. However, the Texas Estates Code provides for this very process under Title 2, Subtitle J, Chapter 454 entitled, “Administration of Estate of Person Presumed Dead.”

That chapter clearly states that a probate court has the required jurisdiction to determine the likelihood of a person’s death when specific steps are followed — even if the main evidence presented is entirely circumstantial. However, the Texas Estates Code was carefully drafted to prevent fraud by requiring a lengthy delay before the assets of these types of estates can be distributed.

What are the main steps usually taken to probate the estate of a missing person?

  • Request for letters testamentary. After the probate process has begun with the filing of a request for letters testamentary, the court-appointed personal representative must serve a citation on the person presumed dead in the manner required by the court. Since the person is missing, this often means publishing a notice of the proceeding in one or more print newspapers – and in any other manner dictated by the court;
  • Contacting the proper authorities. The personal representative must then formally contact the proper authorities about the estate owner’s missing status. Among others, law

enforcement officials and state welfare agencies should be notified – along with any others suggested by the court;

  • A professional investigative agency should be hired. This must be done in keeping with the provisions of  Section 454.003 of the Texas Estates Code (requiring efforts to locate the missing owner of the estate). During this process, the investigator may encounter potential heirs who may have crucial information that can help locate the missing person – or help determine where s/he was living shortly before death.

The investigator should create a report based on all research and interviews conducted and then present it to the court – documenting that the missing person cannot be located. The cost of this investigation is normally reimbursed by the estate, after the court has had time to review the requested fees.

How quickly can the estate be distributed?

Section 454.004 of the Texas Estates Code clearly states that this can only be done after three years have passed since the date on which the letters testamentary were issued by the court to the personal representative.

What personal liabilities can arise if the person presumed dead reappears after distribution?

If the missing person returns and presents conclusive evidence that s/he was alive at the time the

letters testamentary were granted, that individual has the legal right to regain control of the estate — whatever remains of the funds or property.

However, this person who was presumed dead – yet has now reappeared – cannot get his/her property back that was sold for value to a bona fide purchaser. Instead, this person only has the right to the proceeds or funds obtained for the sale of the property to the bona fide purchaser.

In addition, Section 454.052 states that the personal representative who handled all the legal sales transactions for the estate, not knowing that the missing person was actually alive, cannot be held liable for any financial losses suffered by that individual who has now returned. And any surety who issued a bond to that personal representative cannot be held liable for anything the personal representative did while complying with approved court-ordered activities.

Should you need help probating any estate, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We’ve had the opportunity to help many clients and can readily answer all your questions.

Should You Always Enforce Covenants Not to Compete?

Covenants not to compete are binding contracts that are designed to protect companies against exiting employees unlawfully sharing different types of proprietary information, “trade secrets” and intellectual property with their new employers and others and engaging in post-employment activities that can be detrimental to the company they left.

Before discussing whether it’s wise to develop an ironclad attitude toward enforcing these covenants, it’s helpful to review the basic reasons why these documents are usually drafted and what standards courts consider when deciding whether they should be upheld.

Companies must protect specific types of information

Whether your business sells cutting-edge security software or sends out consultants to advise clients in mostly rural areas, your employees often learn highly detailed information about how you help your clients. If you were to always let key employees leave and immediately put that proprietary information and knowledge to work for a competitor, your business might quickly lose its competitive edge and market dominance.

Therefore, many companies regularly require employees to sign noncompete agreements to prevent them from using what they learn while employed for a limited time post-employment. Should former employees violate these agreements, they (and their new employers) can often be sued in court.

Common types of proprietary interests you’ll usually want to protect

  • Trade secrets. Perhaps your company has invented a manufacturing process that should not be shared with any competitors. It’s also possible that you’ve designed a highly effective training program for your employees that makes them uniquely effective at handling their work. You clearly don’t want them to share those training methods with others;
  • Client databases. You’ll want to prevent all departing employees from reviewing any past buying practices, requests and needs of your clients;
  • Other highly confidential materials. These could include almost anything – perhaps you’ve implemented a specialized marketing plan that’s helped your business grow several times over during recent years.

These examples should help remind you of the many proprietary types of information you must protect by requiring your exiting employees to sign covenants not to compete.

Within such covenants, you’ll need to address various topics that may include the following ones.

  • A specific time period. Any time period must be reasonable, normally 1-3 years;
  • A description of the types activities the employee cannot engage in post-employment. You can list specific industries, customers or businesses the departing employee should not contact for a new employer;
  • A specific geographical area where the departing employee cannot work. You can state a certain region where the employee who left cannot compete with you for a set time period.

When evaluating the reasonableness of covenants not to compete, courts look to see if they are over-broad or too restrictive. While businesses have a right to protect certain information or “legitimate business interests”, they aren’t allowed to unfairly prevent a departing employee from pursuing most forms of gainful employment.

Should you always enforce your contracts containing noncompete clauses?

Although the most obvious response is to say you’ll always strictly enforce them, it’s important to recognize certain factors before suing someone for not honoring a noncompete covenant.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can help you draft any contracts you need containing covenants not to compete. We can that someone is currently asking you to sign – or assist you in enforcing or defending a lawsuit.

How Texas Estates Are Often Handled When Wills Cannot Be Found

Given how hard most people work to pay their bills and save up for their retirement years, you would think all of us would want to maintain strict control over who will inherit from us. Yet statistics reveal that only about forty percent (40%) of Americans have faced their mortality and asked their lawyers to help them create Wills.

When we make this error, we increase the chances that relatives we don’t know very well – or perhaps even like – may one day receive all our wealth. That’s regrettable since most of us have specific family members who would benefit the most from an inheritance. And great charities and faith-related beneficiaries can always use our funds to bless many others.

Hopefully, this article will help you see the advantages of meeting with your Houston estate planning attorney to create a first Will — and then later update it as your estate grows.

What are the five ways Texas wealth is often distributed when there is no Will?

  1. Under the state’s intestate succession laws. While these are useful, they do not let you determine who will inherit from you. Furthermore, if you own any of the following types of accounts or property, you must make sure that you’ve provided an updated list of beneficiaries to those who maintain these accounts (or other forms of wealth) on your behalf.
  1. Proceeds from a life insurance policy
  2. Retirement account funds that may include a 401k, IRA — or another, similar type of account
  3. Property that you and another person own together
  4. POD or payable-on-death account funds
  5. Property that’s already held in some type of living trust
  1. Through the filing of an Affidavit of Heirship. This approach can normally only be used when the assets requiring a title transfer are real estate. However, you can sometimes use this type of affidavit for non-property assets – depending on the rules of the institution that currently manages those items. Be prepared to discuss this topic in detail with your lawyer since there are certain limitations involved with using this type of affidavit.

For example, some title companies will not accept these types of affidavits when you’re trying to establish a legally valid chain of title for property. In addition, since no personal representative will be appointed, there won’t be anyone who can manage the estate’s assets and pay all required debts. Also, two witnesses must sign this type of affidavit and both are liable for any false statements that may be contained in it.

  1. By filing a Small Estate Affidavit. If your attorney takes this approach, he’ll first have to determine if the estate is solvent and if it’s worth $75,000 or less. In addition, the affidavit can only be used to transfer title to a homestead. Furthermore, there will be no appointed personal representative to collect all the assets, pay all required debts and deal with necessary third parties. Financially responsible witnesses must also sign this type of affidavit.
  1. Using a probate court proceeding called a determination of heirship. The advantages of this approach include having a hearing, the presentation of evidence and a court issuing a judgment accepting or rejecting all submitted affidavits of heirship. However, some relatives eager to settle an estate may find this approach less appealing since it can be rather costly – mainly due to the need to file various pleadings with the probate court. You must also coordinate everything with the court appointed attorney ad litem who will investigate whether there’s any possible fraud regarding the filed affidavits of heirship. However, obtaining a court ruling that specific parties are lawful heirs is very useful;
  1. Handling the matter as either an independent or dependent administration of the estate.

The difference between these two types of administrations is based on the degree to which the probate court must be involved in the proceedings. The term “independent administration” simply means that the court has minimal involvement.

Whichever approach is chosen, there will need to be an appointment of a personal representative who is qualified to receive letters of administration provided by the probate court. These “letters” allow the personal representative to collect all the assets and pay all the debts. The biggest drawback of this approach is that it’s often the most expensive way to handle the estate of someone who died without a Will.

Hopefully, this general information has helped you see that creating a Will is one of the best ways to move forward into a more stable financial future.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb lawyers so we can answer any questions you may have about settling someone else’s estate — or drawing up a Will (or full estate plan) of your own. We appreciate the opportunity to help our clients handle these types of matters and look forward to hearing from you soon.

Why Most Adults Under Age 35 Needs an Estate Plan

Many young adults assume they won’t need a simple or comprehensive estate plan until they’ve created or inherited a sizeable amount of wealth. However, all adults, especially those who are married or have children, need estate plans to protect their legal interests.

After all, none of us know when we may suddenly become the victim of a severe pedestrian or auto accident – or receive a devastating medical diagnosis. When you have a basic Will, it can greatly simplify matters for your loved ones if you become too incapacitated to manage your own finances or even pass away.

The following information helps explain why no one should want to continue being one of the approximately 60% of American adults who are without a Will or estate plan.

While it may be a bit uncomfortable requesting documents that directly address your own possible incapacitation or death – the peace of mind you and your loved ones will gain always makes the effort worth it.

Key reasons why all younger adults can benefit from a Will or comprehensive estate plan

  • They each allow you to specifically name the beneficiaries you want to receive your real property and investment accounts. When you fail to create a Will, the state of Texas will apply its laws of intestacy to decide who will inherit everything you own. Even if you’ve only had time to pay into a 401k or other investment account for a few years, chances are you also own a car and a few other valuable possessions. Creating an estate plan lets you decide who will receive your assets – although community property and other laws will also come into play if you’re married;
  • You can designate a guardian for any minor children. There may be good reasons why your child shouldn’t go live with certain relatives if you become critically ill (or too disabled) to care for the child. A Will lets you designate one or more people to shoulder this responsibility, along with one or two back-up guardians.
  • You can designate someone else to speak for you in a medical Advanced Directive. This type of estate planning document lets a person you trust choose the specific medical care you wish to receive if you become seriously ill and can’t make decisions for yourself;
  • Your Houston estate planning attorney can provide you with valuable legal advice on how to protect your wealth against excessive taxes as your estate begins to grow. Even if you hold a degree in asset or wealth management, you’ll always need to make sure you’re using tax-efficient wealth transfers to others that fully comply with all recent changes in IRS laws and regulations. You may also want to have a trust account created to help you annually transfer wealth to specific individuals or charitable organizations;
  • Creating an estate plan helps you develop meaningful savings goals as you begin to plan for your eventual retirement. If you begin funding your retirement in your early 20s and 30s, you’ll increase the chances of being able to choose the date when you’ll retire or reduce your workload. Should you marry, having an estate plan can help you and your spouse make more informed choices about assuming a new mortgage, having children, setting aside funds to help pay for your children’s education — and possibly even one day funding a charitable trust or family foundation.

Perhaps the best part of creating an estate plan when you’re very young is that you’ll be able to reflect on how your legal documents are helping you “grow your income.” And you’ll always be able to change and update your financial goals when new life circumstances develop.

While many younger people request an entire set of estate planning documents, others are more comfortable just requesting a Will that will cover all their current, limited possessions.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can provide you with the estate planning advice you currently need. We’ll always be available to answer any questions you have and update your legal paperwork as your life changes and moves forward.

Protecting Seniors & Disabled Loved Ones Against Financial Abuse

At present, there are 3.2 million Texans (12% of the total population) who are age 65 and older. By the year 2050, that percentage is expected to rise to twenty percent (20%). Our state also has an unusually large number of disabled citizens – close to 11.7 percent of our population fits into this category.

All these individuals are at a higher risk of being financially abused than others. Furthermore, a highly regarded MetLife Study found that the annual cost of elder financial abuse equals about $2.9 billion – and that number would be far higher if we added in the losses incurred by the disabled population

For this reason, all honest adults should do whatever they can to help their older family members and friends protect themselves against being defrauded of their money and possessions.

Defining financial abuse – and noting who most often commits this type of crime

Before reviewing how the elderly and disabled can protect themselves against financial abuse and scams, it’s important to define “financial abuse” more precisely. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this type of abuse involves the improper or unauthorized use of an older person’s resources for the wrongdoer’s personal profit, benefit or gain

Sadly, ninety percent (90%) of those who commit fraud against the elderly (and disabled) are already people known to them. A February 2018 article published by AARP entitled, “Fraud in the Family,” provides highly useful information on this topic.

Financial safety tips to share with the elderly and disabled regarding financial fraud

  • Each person should put together a small “team” of professionals who will help them manage their funds – and meet with them every few months for this purpose. This team should include two or more of the following individuals.
  1. A reputable Houston estate planning attorney
  2. A highly trusted family member – or friend
  3. A geriatric (or disability) case manager, social worker or therapist
  4. A bonded accountant or bookkeeper

           Advise your elderly or disabled friends to meet quarterly with their small group – and

           make sure their Durable Power of Attorney, Advanced Directive for Healthcare and other

           legal documents clearly indicate that no major life decisions should be made without the

           added input of the individuals named within those documents;

  • Always confer with others before making any major purchases, sales or life decisions. Never rush into to making any new financial investments or decisions about moving into a new home or senior care facility;
  • Keep important items either in a desk or safe at home. Put copies of the person’s Will and all other estate planning documents in their desk at home – making sure that at least one family member or close friend knows where they can be found in case the person becomes suddenly ill. It’s also wise to place all blank checks and major credit cards in a locked safe at home – and only take them out on days when they will be needed to make purchases. These actions can help the senior or disabled person greatly minimize chances of fraud and identity theft. All older bills and bank statements should always be shredded;
  • Never accept any phone calls from strangers. If the person accidentally takes a call from someone they don’t know and is asked to make some type of donation, tell the caller donations or only made by check – and only in response to a written request received by mail. Never, ever give out any bank or credit card information over the phone to such callers;
  • Seniors and the disabled should always ask a family member or friend to help them run a comprehensive background check on anyone them would like to hire as a caregiver in their home or current residence;
  • All routine bank and investment statements should be reviewed with a family member, a bonded bookkeeper or a trusted close friend. Any suspicious withdrawals from such accounts should be reported right away;
  • Consider having all credit reports frozen if any unauthorized credit card accounts are opened in the person’s name. Also, find out which type of fraud alert or security watch program is best suited to daily monitoring all larger financial accounts;
  • Never readily make gifts or loans to family members or friends – especially if they are currently battling drug or alcohol addictions. Ask other people to help address this problem;
  • Finally, advise the senior or disabled person to create a workable monthly budget, allowing for unexpected medical fees and limited travel and entertainment expenses.

If you or a senior friend or disabled person need additional advice and help with these issues, please contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We would be happy to answer any questions you may have concerning this topic.

Legal Documents Often Needed by Caregivers

Careful planning is required once you agree to act as the legal caregiver of a family member or close friend. Always make sure the person making this request promptly provides you with copies of properly executed legal documents that will help you address their most critical needs on a timely basis.

Fortunately, your Houston estate planning attorney can help you decide which legal documents may be required by the person needing care. These documents can help you make such crucial decisions as where the person needing care may want to live — and choose the types of medical care they’re willing to receive from specific healthcare providers.

Depending on if you’re personally named in all the required documents, you may also need to handle burial needs – and make sure that all money and possessions are properly transferred to the correct beneficiaries once your loved one or ailing friend passes away.

Here’s a brief overview of the types of legal documents you’ll need the person you’ll be taking care of to obtain from a lawyer.

Key documents to consult while taking care of an ailing friend or family member

  • Power of Attorney. While many older or ailing adults can still often make sound decisions for themselves – they may want you to stand ready to step in and handle key business transactions for them with various companies should they become too ill to manage these matters on a temporary basis;
  • Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare. This may also be called an Advance Directive for Healthcare and other similar terms. Its purpose is to clearly indicate the types of medical care the named party is open to receiving – and when certain types of life-extending treatments should be discontinued when the party named in the documents is suffering from a terminal or irreversible condition. The document also clearly provides authority for the person named as the Medical Power of Attorney to have full access to all medical records required while making decisions in coordination with doctors and other healthcare providers;
  • A Living Will. This document is different than an Advance Directive because it states how the person needing medical treatment wants their medical care to be handled – as opposed to the Advance Directive which states how another person (the agent) should handle the ill person’s medical treatment needs when that person is unable to do so. This type of Will also often addresses whether life support procedures should be provided under specific circumstances;
  • A Basic Will. This sets forth the name of the executor who’s been chosen to manage the ill person’s estate once they pass away — so the chosen beneficiaries will receive all the designated wealth and possessions. Hopefully, the person you’re helping will remember to ask their lawyer if they need to create one or more trust accounts so that all or part of the estate can be easily transferred without going through the probate process.

Be sure the person you’ll be taking care of informs their lawyer about any unusual or special circumstances that may need to be addressed in all the documents named above.

You may also want to obtain a document sometimes referred to as an Appointment of Agent to Control Disposition of Remains. This will allow the older or disabled person needing your care to state who will handle their remains once a funeral home has prepared them for burial (or placement in an urn). Many people today who’ve chosen to be cremated obtain this form, so they can state the location of a specific cemetery or columbarium where their remains will be interred.

Please feel free to have the person who’s asked you to act as caregiver to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can help prepare all of these important legal documents. We are always available to respond to any questions you may have regarding any of these documents and the entire estate planning and probate process.

Tenants: Beware and Negotiate

In a matter of first impression before the Texas Supreme Court, the Court ruled that a Residential Lease provision that obligated the Tenant to pay for any damages that result from “any cause not due to Landlord’s negligence or fault” was not void and unenforceable.

The background facts:  A young lady, Carmen White, got her first apartment and signed a standard Texas Apartment Association (“TAA”) lease.  Her parents gave her a washer and dryer set as a gift.  While using the dryer, it caught fire and burned her apartment and others nearby.  The damages to the apartment complex exceeded $83,000.00.  The source of the ignition was unknown and no fault was placed on White or the Landlord.  The landlord’s insurance company paid the claim, subrogated, and demanded reimbursement from Ms. White.  When she refused to pay the insurance company brought suit against her. 

The Procedural facts:  The case was tried to a jury.  After trial, the jury answered “no” to a question asking if White’s negligence proximately caused the fire.  However, the jury answered “yes” to the question whether White breached the lease agreement by failing to pay the casualty loss.  The jury awarded the landlord $93,498.00 in damages.  White moved for judgment not withstanding the verdict which was granted and the trial court rendered a take-nothing judgment.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court ruling holding that that the Reimbursement Provision was void as against public policy.  The Appeals Court found a fatal conflict between the Reimbursement Provision’s broad language and Chapter 92 of the Texas Property Code restricting a Landlord’s ability to contractually allocate repair responsibilities.

The Supreme Court ruling:  The Supreme Court was to determine, as a matter of first impression, whether public policy embodied in the Texas Property Code precludes enforcement of a residential lease provision imposing liability on a tenant for property losses resulting from “any other cause not due to the landlord’s negligence or fault”.  In so holding the Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) repeatedly stated the well known legal axiom that “Parties in Texas may contract as they wish, so long as the agreement does not violate the law or offend public policy, recognizing the the Legislature has limited the freedom of a landlord and tenant to contractually allocate responsibility for repairs materially affecting health and safety.  Interestingly in footnote 4, the court acknowledged that above the signature block, the lease prominently states that the lease can be modified by agreement of the parties, but neither party requested modifications to the Reimbursement Provision. 

The Lease contained a reimbursement provision standard in the TAA lease which obligated the Tenant to pay for any damages that result from “any cause not due to Landlord’s negligence or fault”.

As we all know it is almost impossible to get a Landlord to revise any provision in a standard form lease, but if you are to avoid the tragedy that happened to Ms. White, you must negotiate a modification of the Lease.

Be aware that the TAA Lease is a legal document and forms a binding contract.  You should consult an attorney for help revising the Lease. 

We would first add a sentence to Section 10, Special Provisions.  We would write in the blanks a sentence to limit my liability.  For instance, “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary, Tenant shall never be responsible for repair, or liable for damages to Landlord’s property, including other units in the complex, unless such damage is proximately caused by the negligence of Tenant, Tenant’s guests, or invitees.”

Secondly, we would strike out certain language contained in Section 12. We would strike out “or any other cause not due to our negligence or fault”, at the end of the first sentence of Section 12.

We firmly believe that no residential Tenant should be held responsible to repair other units damaged or for property losses “resulting from any other cause not due to the landlord’s negligence or fault.”  Do not let this happen to you.

How Wage Garnishment Laws Affect Many Texans

Although wealthier Texans may build up significant savings and retirement accounts by middle age, most residents must keep working far longer to meet their individual and family needs. And if unexpected family or medical crises occur creating new financial emergencies, some people may face wage garnishments. Fortunately, Texas offers strong protection against many types of creditors.

Here’s a brief review of the most common types of wage garnishments pursued in Texas, basic terms you’ll need to know regarding this field – and references to special concerns you may need to discuss with your Houston business law attorney to fully protect your rights.

Important terminology related to attaching employee wages

  • Wage garnishments. In Texas, this term is often used interchangeably with “wage attachments” and refers to court orders directing employers to withhold certain amounts of money from employee paychecks to satisfy certain debts;
  • Administrative garnishments. These usually refer to federal government back taxes or student loans now in default – and they do not require a court order to be activated. Once debtors have student loans in default, they’ll normally be contacted by the U. S. Department of Education and told which collection agencies will be collecting their debts. (Note: Students loans can almost never be discharged by a bankruptcy filing);
  • Disposable earnings. This refers to the amount of money you have left in your paycheck after all mandatory deductions have been made for federal taxes, disability insurance, union dues, unemployment insurance, nondiscretionary retirement deductions, workers compensation and health insurance.

Types of debts often leading to wage garnishment

Texans are very fortunate compared to citizens of other states since Texas only honors a very limited number of garnishable debts.

  1. Unpaid child support and alimony (in arrears)
  2. Current court-ordered child support and alimony
  3. Government debts owed to the IRS (back taxes) — and all related fines and penalties
  4. Unpaid student loans (in arrears)

Note:  In light of Article IV of the U. S. Constitution, Section I (requiring each state to honor the “public acts . . .  and judicial proceedings of every other state,” certain other limited creditor debts referenced in judgments obtained outside of Texas may also be garnishable.

Be sure to speak with your Houston business law attorney whenever you receive any notice of an order to garnish your wages.

Fixed garnishment limitations that benefit Texas debtors

  • Total amount that can be garnished (based on all court orders). This is equal to 50% of your disposable earnings;
  • Percentage allowed for tax debt. This varies, based on your current deduction rate, the number of your dependents and other factors;
  • Student loans. The Department of Education can normally only garnish up to 15% of your disposable income from each paycheck;
  • Spousal support. The most your wages can be attached for this obligation is either $5,000 or 20% of your average monthly gross income – whichever is less.

Priority of wage garnishment orders

Although unusual factors might be able to change the list below, employers must normally prioritize their payment of garnishment orders in the following manner.

  • Unpaid child-support
  • Spousal support
  • Back taxes
  • Student loans

Texas employers are not allowed to discriminate against employees with wage garnishments

This has long been a concern of many employees since handling wage garnishments can take up a considerable amount of an employer’s time. Texas doesn’t allow those with wage attachments to be treated unfairly when it comes to hiring, promoting, demoting, reprimanding and firing (among other actions).

How creditors can still reach your money – apart from using wage garnishment

Even if your wages cannot be reached, regular creditors can still gain access to your money by obtaining court orders to freeze one or more of your financial accounts – and place liens on certain types of real property you own.

Please contact our law firm with any questions you may have about the proper handling of court orders to garnish wages — or any other types of administrate tasks regarding employees.

Choosing Reputable Charities for Your Texas Estate Plan

Many Americans now name one or more charities in their Wills or other estate planning documents to help these important cultural and humanitarian groups maintain adequate funding. However, others less familiar with charitable giving need to understand that, before arranging these types of gifts, they must carefully evaluate each charity or non-profit group to be sure their funds will be shared properly. 

Fortunately, there are several reputable organizations that will readily help consumers decide which charitable or non-profit groups are properly using all their donations while minimizing administrative costs. These same “watchdog” groups often urge all charitable groups to maintain open donation and expenditure records. In addition, our Texas Attorney General’s Office has put together some useful tips that can help all of us do a better job of deciding which charities will be the most responsible recipients of our testamentary gifts.

Here’s a list of basic tips that can help all of us better evaluate all non-profits and charities. That information is followed by a list of different websites and groups dedicated to providing consumers with current news about charitable activities. Of course, it’s always best to start your search by first visiting with your Houston estate planning attorney who may already know about the reputations of many charitable organizations.

Important Information to Obtain While Choosing Charities to Include in Your Estate Plan

  • First, be sure to obtain the full legal name of each group, its address and telephone number. Next, ask if the IRS has formally recognized it as a public charity that’s tax exempt. Then, ask if your donations will all be fully tax deductible.
  • Find out how long the non-profit or charity (hereinafter just referenced as ‘charity’) has been in existence.  While longevity doesn’t always ensure completely honest and frugal management of funds, it does mean that it should be easier to research the group’s reputation by visiting several of the online sources named below.
  • Request a recent annual report that clearly indicates how much money the group spends on administrative costs and how much of every donated dollar will directly benefit those the charity is seeking to help.
  • Find out if the charity’s main goals are related to education, medical services, scientific and medical research – or perhaps providing scholarships to those pursuing careers in specific vocational fields.
  • Do not give the group any of your private bank account or credit card information during your investigative calls – although it’s best to be honest about your intentions. Also, if you’re not ready to receive numerous emails or letters to your home address, avoid giving that type of information out right now.

Be sure to ask members of your professional or business circles if any of them have had positive experiences with the charities that interest you the most. When any charity has a publicly named board of directors, consider contacting those individuals directly by phone to ask them about their experiences with handling tasks on behalf of the charity.

When you’re ready, start visiting some of the websites set forth below to see what you can find out about each of the charities that seem to be highly reputable.

Online Websites Offering Detailed Information About Various Charities

  • Give.org. This website includes the sub-title, “BBB Wise Giving Alliance.” On its page dedicated to donors, it states that you can look up information about each charity’s effectiveness, governance, finances – and current brochures or other materials available to the public.
  • The American Institute of Philanthropy (Charity Watch). Among its various offerings, this website offers a list of charitable groups involved with some highly specific causes and issues.
  • Guidestar. This online resource offers a wide array of information about many reputable non-profit groups.
  • Charity Navigator. Like the other websites already named above, this one offers timely information about many charities. It also provides a “hot topics” link that will tell you more about charities currently in the news for one reason or another.

All four of the oversight groups listed above are noted on the Texas Attorney General website. You can also find out additional information about specific charities by visiting this Consumer Reports page.

If you haven’t already thought about giving to a charity or non-profit when you pass away, please consider doing so now.  All Texans need to do a bit more to help others so our state can become more compassionate — and improve our current ranking for charitable giving.

Please feel free to contact our firm so we can explain some of the best ways to include charities as beneficiaries in your estate plan. There are specific legal ways of handling this task so that your estate will reap the best tax advantages available.

Common Reasons for Creating a Spendthrift Trust

Nearly all of us have relatives who need extra help managing their income and assets. When we can, we try to find ways to help them. In some instances, you might have a grandson or granddaughter who’s having trouble holding down a steady part-time job during college – or trying to make ends meet after battling a lengthy addiction. Your troubled relative might also be older and starting to struggle with handling all his monthly financial affairs.

Whatever the individual’s special needs may be, you can often help by making the person a beneficiary of a spendthrift trust.

How Should You Define This Type of Trust to the Beneficiary?

You may first want to simply say that, because you greatly care for this individual, you want to remove all or most of her current money management problems from her life. You can then say that you’ve named the person as a beneficiary of a special trust account that will be managed by a trustee. You should then quickly point out that you’ll be personally choosing the exact terms governing the trust so the trustee can properly meet specific needs of the beneficiary.

Should the beneficiary ask if she can personally manage the money, you must be ready to say that you have considered that alternative and prefer to disburse the funds over time. You might also note your desire to prevent the funds from being taken by untrustworthy creditors. (Of course, there are legal exceptions that do allow some creditors to reach these funds, and they’ll be briefly addressed below).

It’s also useful to tell the beneficiary that the funds or property that you’ll be placing in the trust as its creator (grantor) are generally referred to as the trust principal.

What Basic Terms and Provisions Are Normally Included in a Spendthrift Trust?

As your Houston estate planning lawyer will tell you, specific language must be included in the trust document, making it clear that you’re creating a spendthrift trust, in keeping with Texas law. This enabling language is designed to fully protect all the property and funds that you’re placing in the trust from others who might try to illegally reach them. All of this is clearly explained in the Texas Property Code, Title 9, entitled “Trusts.”

Your spendthrift trust language will clearly state that since the beneficiary has no right to directly reach and control the funds – neither can most creditors. Most grantors also include some specific language indicating that they are trying to provide for the beneficiary’s general needs.

As the grantor/settlor you must also clearly state all the trustee’s rights, duties and obligations while administering the trust. The trustee’s job can be a very difficult one, especially if the beneficiary decides to legally challenge the trustee by demanding large sums of money for serious medical, educational or basic living expenses not expressly referenced in the trust.

When Can Creditors & Other Parties Successfully Obtain Funds from a Spendthrift Trust?

The laws in most states allow creditors that can prove that a beneficiary owes them money for basic “necessities” (like shelter or food) to win judgments and collect funds from these types of trusts. Other legal obligations that can be paid out of spendthrift trust funds (once legal action has been taken) include child support, alimony or support of a past (or current) spouse and certain government claims.

When funds are periodically released to a beneficiary, creditors can also try to obtain them based on judgments they’ve obtained. 

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys to learn more about the various types of trusts and other estate planning tools that we can draft to meet all your needs, including a spendthrift trust.