Estate Planning: Becoming a Texas Organ and Tissue Donor

If you’ve ever known someone waiting to receive an organ, you know how stressful the process can be. Most of those requesting help are either fighting to save their lives or to greatly improve their health. Fortunately, there’s a national transplant waiting list that’s been set up to match donors and recipients in Texas and all other states.

Since many people want to help with this critical need, they often ask their lawyers how they can become donors. This article will describe what you should do — besides simply indicating this desire on your Texas driver’s license.

A few statistics are set forth below to help those trying to decide if they’re ready to help others in this way, followed a description of the other steps you should take to be sure your decision to become a donor is faithfully honored in the future.

How many people’s lives are at stake annually due to the need for organ donation?

  • About 20 Americans die each day due to the lack of available organs
  • Since 1988, about 700,000 transplants have been performed in this country
  • Nearly every 10 minutes, a new name is added to the donor recipient list
  • It only takes one donor to save as many as eight lives. In fact, one donor can improve the quality of life for over 100 individuals – just by making extensive tissue donations
  • The most commonly transplanted tissue is the cornea of the eye
  • Roughly 6,000 living donations are made each year. And one-fourth of the donors are not family members or biologically related to the person in need.
  • About 1 in every 26 Americans has a kidney disease without knowing it – that equals about twenty-six million people who might one day require a transplant.

Living donors are also needed. Healthy people can donate part (or all) of a kidney, liver, intestine or lung. Sick patients are also in need of bone marrow and blood from healthy donors.

How do most Texans handle this decision to donate tissue or organs?

States like Texas have tried to simplify this process by allowing those wishing to donate their organs or tissues (in the future) to indicate that on their Texas driver licenses. Residents of the state can also have their Houston estate planning attorney directly state this commitment in their Medical Power of Attorney or Advance Directive. This latter approach can help remove the anxiety from the shoulders of family members once this information has been legally documented in this manner.

The third way people can indicate their desire to be organ donors is to directly sign up with DonateLifeTexas.org . You can learn more about this process by watching the following video created by DonateLifeTexas.org .

Please feel free to contact any of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can meet all your business and estate planning needs. We look forward to sharing our legal skills and advice with you.

Important Legal Tips for Communicating with Disabled Employees

Since everyone deserves to be treated with respect, employers must make sure that they’re communicating professionally and politely with all their disabled workers. Careless employers who speak callously with their disabled workers not only set a poor example for everyone else in the workplace – they also increase their chances of being sued for unlawful discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Here are some other important tips that can help you create a more pleasant work environment for everyone – that’s also fully compliant with the ADA.

Examples of workplace situations that may require special communication skills

  • When someone present in a meeting has a hearing disability. Should there be an employee present with a known hearing impairment, always remind everyone to speak one at a time – and never “over” one another. That will help everyone more easily follow the conversation and possibly take notes. Of course, never refer to the person by name who may need this simple accommodation.
  • Always speak directly to the disabled person. Even when someone has a sign language interpreter, always turn and speak to the disabled person – and not their helper or other companion – whenever possible.
  • Be honest with the disabled during regular workplace evaluations. This is important so they’ll have the chance to improve their performance – and request any new accommodations they may need. They deserve an honest appraisal like everyone else. This will also limit the chances of painful misunderstandings in the future. Be willing to give them concrete ideas for how they can improve the quality of their work.
  • Be prepared to shake the hand of a disabled person – even if this means shaking their left hand and not their right one. This is a simple gesture that communicates respect and equality. You don’t need to shake the person’s hand for an extended time period.
  • Always introduce yourself when speaking with someone who is sight impaired. Be sure to also identify everyone else who is present during the conversation.
  • Never pat anyone who is very short (or in a wheelchair) on the head or shoulder. This makes all adults – and even older teens – feel a bit demeaned. We all have a right to have our “personal body space” fully respected by others.
  • Should you decide to offer a disabled person your assistance – wait briefly to find out if they would like to accept it. For example, it’s possible you may want to help someone transfer from a wheelchair or walker to a nearby chair. However, be aware that many disabled people want to move about on their own as much as possible, to maintain their sense of independence.
  • Be sure you’re addressing the disabled person in the same manner as everyone else present. Far too often, well-meaning bosses or employers may refer to the new department head who’s disabled as “Johnny” – while calling everyone else in the room by his or her last name. Be consistent with how you refer to all who are present.
  • Don’t lean on, move, or play with a disabled person’s crutches, wheelchair or walker. You may think you’re just being lighthearted – but when you do this, you’re calling attention to the person’s disability when that person may simply want to blend in with everyone else. However, if you believe it’s a safety hazard to leave a wheelchair or other assistive device where the disabled person left it, always politely ask that person if you can move it to a different location to make it easier for everyone to walk in that area. Also, be sure to tell the disabled person that you’ll personally retrieve the device when the meeting or seminar is about to end. Finally, never lean on someone’s wheelchair for support – that often makes disabled people feel like you’re violating their personal body space – and that can make them feel very uncomfortable.
  • Be very respectful when listening to a disabled person talk who has a speech impediment. Never assume you’re helping them by suddenly announcing a “translation” or “clarification” of what was just said. Instead, if you think you and others were left a bit confused by what was stated, calmly wait until the person finishes talking and say something like, “So, if I understood you correctly, you’re asking or suggesting that we start handling this account differently in this manner” – repeating what you think you heard. If you misunderstood what was said, then give the person a chance to repeat what they said earlier – or allow them to present it to you in a different way.
  • If someone you need to speak with is in a wheelchair, respectfully pull up a chair so you can speak with that individual at eye level. This conveys both respect and equality.
  • Never assume that all hearing-impaired people can read lips. Should you need to gain the attention of a hearing-impaired person who is looking off in a different direction, very lightly tap the person on his/her shoulder to gain their attention (assuming you’re not interrupting another conversation). If you’re certain someone can lip read – stop eating, drinking or smoking – so it will be easier for that person to follow what you’re saying.
  • Try to interact naturally with the disabled. Should you accidentally say something like “Did you hear that there’s an extra meeting next week?” – only to realize you said that to someone who is hearing impaired, forgive yourself. You can then point to a flyer about the meeting or write the information down on a piece of paper and hand it to the disabled person.

Always remember to stay calm and polite, even if you’re finding it hard to communicate with the disabled worker – and realize that the situation may be far more frustrating for that individual. If you’ll be speaking with one or more disabled people during a meeting, try to let them know, in advance (through a medium they can easily access like email), that you’ll be supplying everyone with a complete summary of the meeting’s highlights in a follow-up email.

If one or more workers are sight-impaired and read Braille, let them know that you’ll get a copy of the meeting notes to them in that format (if you have that capability) within one to two business days. Also, tell them that you’ll be happy to answer any questions they may have prior to their receiving their copy of that summary. Finally, whenever possible, use such terms as “hearing impaired” instead of deaf – and “sight impaired” in the place of blind.

Please feel free to get in touch with one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can provide you with any guidance you may need when relating to your disabled employees. We’re also available to provide you with legal advice concerning many other general business, estate planning or employment law topics. And we can draft a wide variety of legal documents on your behalf or help you revise an outdated employee handbook.

Determining Fault After an Employee’s Accident in a Company Car

One of the most awkward moments for any worker is getting into a vehicle accident while driving a company car. Since every employee wants to be viewed as highly responsible, this type of event requires sincere humility while explaining the circumstances of the accident.

If the employee was clearly at fault and using the company car for personal reasons at the time the collision occurred – liability issues can quickly multiply – especially if a third party was injured.

Before noting some of the key factors that must be evaluated when this type of event occurs, here’s a quick review of some insurance policy definitions.

Insurance policies that may be involved when an employee has a vehicle accident

  • Commercial auto policy. The coverage or protection this type of policy offers to a company can be crucial following an accident. It’s designed to protect the business from having to cover all the personal injury expenses and property damage. Brokers often speak of this as a business auto or commercial auto policy;
  • A general liability policy. Most employers carry one of these because it offers protection against all kinds of third-party legal claims, including those that might be filed after a third party falls down and is injured on company property – or hurt during an auto accident caused by an employee driving a company car;
  • Worker’s compensation insurance. All employers of a certain size should carry this type of insurance that normally provides benefits to workers injured on the job – including those who were handling official business in a company car when a vehicle accident occurred;
  • A policy rider. An amendment to an insurance policy. Some employees who choose to use their personal cars for business add a special rider to their personal auto insurance policies to provide coverage if they get into an accident while handling company business. Depending on the employee’s relationship with the company, some employers will reimburse the employee for the added expense this type of rider adds to the employee’s basic auto insurance policy.

Once liability for the accident is determined, one or more of the policies referenced above will have to be used to cover all the injury expenses and property damage repairs.

The legal doctrine of respondeat superior and employer liability

When an employee is driving a company car at the time of an accident (while actively handling assigned business tasks) – that s/he did not personally cause – the employer will normally be responsible for paying for all the damages.  However, since various jurisdictions apply aspects of the respondeat superior doctrine differently, it’s important to check with your Houston business lawyer to find out exactly how this doctrine is applied in Texas.

Stated in general terms, respondeat superior usually indicates that the principal (employer) is normally responsible for most activities handled by the employee (agent).

One or more of the employer’s insurance policies (in addition to worker’s compensation), will normally cover medical expenses and the costs incurred due to property damage. However, insurance companies often quarrel over whether the employee was clearly handling business tasks at the time of the accident — and if s/he had current authorization to use the company vehicle.

Liability can shift when an employee was totally or partially responsible for the accident

The circumstances surrounding each accident will normally determine the exact percentage of damages that an employee must pay under his/her own policy. Whether any type of indemnity is offered to the employee usually depends on whether the third party involved caused the accident.

In most cases, an employee who caused a collision will be held fully responsible for all damages under his/her own personal auto accident policy.

However, when a third party caused the accident, there are still specific circumstances that will allow an employer to deny all liability. Several of these exceptions are set forth below.

  • The “frolic or detour” exception. If the employee was running a personal errand at the time the accident in the company car occurred, she must normally cover all the damages under her own personal auto accident policy;
  • The employee was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the accident. Once this has been conclusively established, the employer may be able to deny all liability;
  • The accident did not take place during normal business hours. However, there can be exceptions – like when a salesperson is traveling to his/her next sales destination on behalf of the company;
  • The employee was an independent contractor using his/her own vehicle. Potential liability for all types of vehicle accidents should be clearly spelled out in each employee’s company paperwork – before that individual can handle company business in any vehicle.

It’s always wise for an employee who was just in a company vehicle accident to request a timely meeting with company officials as soon as that person’s health allows. Everyone may benefit if a

compromise regarding liability can be reached – unless the employee’s behavior was clearly unacceptable.

If you have any questions about how your business or insurance provider should handle a specific type of accident involving a company car, please feel free to call one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can provide you with our legal opinion and possibly suggest legal paperwork you might want to have every employee sign before ever issuing any of them a company car for their use.

Ways to Avoid Defamation When Disciplining Employees

Every employer has the right to create a pleasant and productive workplace. Yet this goal can be elusive when a worker acts unethically or behaves poorly toward others. If the behavior was grossly unethical or offensive and the person was an “at-will” employee, you can usually fire him on the spot. However, some misconduct claims must be thoroughly investigated.

General principles to bear in mind when disciplining employees

If immediate firing isn’t appropriate, you must handle all investigatory matters in a private manner. You should also only inform those with a formal “need to know” regarding specific information you are learning. Always make sure to act in a non-discriminatory manner. You can never let anyone go in a way that violates their civil rights or unjustly defames them.

Here are some suggested steps your business should take while resolving problems with difficult employees.

Responsible ways to discipline workers

  1. Create a written policy that states how your office will interact with employees who are accused of wrongful behavior. While you should be consistent in taking certain steps, you must clearly state that your office always reserves the right to immediately fire at-will employees when circumstances justify such actions. When an exempt employee is involved, try to provide warnings and always listen to their side of the story. It’s a good idea to place this policy in an employee handbook and to reference it upon first hiring all employees – and during all periodic work evaluations;
  2. Investigate all accusations, especially when immediate firing isn’t necessary. Be sure to handle all interviews in a private setting, stressing the confidential nature of the process. If there is written or documented proof of wrongdoing, obtain copies of the materials;
  3. Create a separate investigation file for the accused employee. You should also create notes in the person’s regular personnel file – making sure only a small number of employees can review either folder. In very rare circumstances, it may be necessary to hire an outside group to handle the investigation for you. Your Houston employment law attorney can fully explain when hiring outside investigators may be necessary;
  4. Create a clear plan for each employee’s disciplinary investigation. Avoid making accusations or labeling someone as a “thief.” Let the person know that you are investigating the claims. When meeting with the individual, always take notes and have at least one other staff member present as a witness. You may want to ask the employee to sign a statement, indicating awareness of the investigation.  In order to get an employee to sign a form, you may need to note in it that his/her signature does not constitute any admission regarding wrongful behavior – only that the person knows certain claims are being investigated. Be sure to listen carefully to any defense claims the employee may offer – but do not let any meeting become confrontational. If tempers flare, note that you will reschedule the appointment for a later time;
  5. Do not publicize the investigation. Only share limited information about it with those who have a “need to know” regarding it;
  6. Once a decision is reached regarding discipline, advise the employee. Make sure your decision is based on fully objective and reasonable grounds – and note them in your files. Document what you’ve decided to do in the regular personnel file – and reference the separate investigative file where all detailed notes are kept. Do not allow anyone access to the main investigative file who doesn’t have a right to see it. Be sure to keep all investigative files for a lengthy time period in case future lawsuits are brought against your company;
  7. If you decide to terminate an employee, do so in an orderly fashion. Allow the person to gather together all personal possessions before leaving the building in a private fashion. If the fired employee was fired due to dishonesty – or any violent or inappropriate behavior – you may want security to escort the person off the premises. To protect the fired employee’s privacy concerns (and to avoid defamatory actions), you may want the exit to occur when few other employees are present;
  8. Do not share details about any firing with other employees. Unless there was documented criminal activity that all personnel may need to know about, you have a duty to maintain privacy regarding the exact reasons why you chose to fire an employee.

Always remember that you cannot discipline an employee for taking lawful advantage of any state or federal right. This can include taking time off under the Family Medical Leave Act after you’ve approved the temporary departure – or taking a military or pregnancy disability leave.

Additional behaviors to avoid when disciplining employees

  • Never jump to conclusions about any claim. Don’t allow yourself to be greatly swayed by reports made by one or two individuals. Be sure to speak with all key witnesses and interview the employee concerned – to hear his/her perspective on what happened;
  • Always be/remain reasonable and flexible. Don’t ever over-penalize an employee for a minor infraction. Also, if you’re having to fire a more senior, exempt employee, make sure you have fully documented all proven reasons (or “just cause”) as to why the employee must leave;
  • Seriously consider documenting verbal warnings. While this may not be necessary, it’s usually a wise move. One way you can document them is to send yourself an email, noting in general terms (using a computer at work) why you had to verbally discipline an employee on a specific date;
  • During regular employee evaluations, be sure to note any disciplinary actions taken and how they’ve been resolved. Always have the employee sign the evaluation, noting that the person recalls all that’s happened and how all situations have been resolved;
  • Avoid telling an employee after being disciplined that you’re sure the person is likely to have a bright, long future with the company. A court might later view this type of language as reasonable proof that you were creating a new employment contract, one providing some type of guaranteed or continuing employment – as opposed to the at-will status the employee once had; and
  • Don’t punish workers for trying to improve working conditions or wages during breaks or at other times when “off the clock.” Rights like these are normally protected under the federal National Labor Relations Act.

If you’re concerned about how to handle any employee discipline or firing issue, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can provide legal advice based on the specific circumstances that you relate to us — and help you decide when you may need to hire outside investigators to handle a specific claim. We can also draft professional language for describing your employee discipline policy in your employment handbook.

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.

Steps Required to Dissolve a General Partnership in Texas

Even when business partners get along well with each other and succeed, a time may come when they may develop new interests, decide to retire or move elsewhere for business or pleasure reasons. While the Internet and modern communications make it possible to still run businesses with partners scattered around the globe, it’s still quite common for partnerships to break apart or take on new members when others leave.

Do You Need a Written Partnership Agreement in Texas?

Normally, Texas law doesn’t require general (or “at-will”) partnerships to create a written partnership agreement. However, it’s always best to draft one so that when the entity breaks apart (or any partner leaves), you’ll know exactly how to pay off all partnership debts and distribute the remaining assets among everyone.

When general partnerships don’t have an agreement, then Texas law expects the partners to govern their “wind-up” activities in keeping with our state’s default partnership laws.

Here’s a broad overview of the tasks that you and your partners must handle as you dissolve your partnership. Should you have any questions at this early stage, it’s always wise to schedule an appointment with your Houston business law attorney.

First Steps to Take When Preparing to Dissolve Your Partnership

Schedule a meeting so everyone can discuss how your written partnership agreement requires you to dissolve the partnership. During this meeting, you must take a vote to determine if all parties still holding majority rights (or financial interests equal to or greater than 50% of the partnership assets) favor dissolving it. Next, ask this same majority to vote whether they’re ready to draft and sign a written resolution stating that the partnership will now wind up all its affairs and be dissolved.

At this point, all partners who want to keep working together under a new partnership agreement can indicate this desire to everyone else – and offer to buy-out the partnership shares of those who are leaving.

Handling Debt Payments and Winding Up All Remaining Matters

Every current partner should expressly agree to complete certain tasks approved by all those winding down the partnership’s affairs – and to refrain from negotiating any new business that could potentially obligate all partners after the dissolution.

As referenced above, those leaving the partnership are free to sell their shares in it to others, in keeping with their original partnership agreement (or the state’s laws governing such transactions when there is no written agreement). To help the partnership pay off existing debts, all partners can vote on which current partnership assets (if any) may be sold for cash.

The laws governing the pay-off of all partnership debts are set forth in our state’s Uniform Partnership Act. It basically states that you must pay off all your creditors first – before paying back each partner for all past capital contributions to the partnership.

Are There Any Remaining Wind-Up Steps You Must Address?

  • Paperwork filing with the state. In Texas, there’s no need to file anything when dissolving an at-will (general) partnership;
  • Providing notice to all creditors, customers and other parties. It’s customary to send out notices through the mail to all your business contacts so they’ll know that your partnership is being dissolved as of a certain date. However, there’s no law which requires this to be done. You can also just simply publish a notice about the dissolution in your local newspaper;
  • Updating all out-of-state registrations. To prevent your partnership from owing any more fees to other states where you’ve registered for the right to do business, you need to formally notify the correct offices via certified mail that you’re dissolving your partnership;
  • Paying all taxes that are owed. Although Texas doesn’t require you to obtain a tax clearance before winding-up your partnership, you must make sure all taxes owed have been paid before dissolving it. This step includes filing a final federal tax return for your partnership in keeping with Texas law.

Should you have any specific questions about dissolving your partnership – or making sure that you’re handling all tax matters properly – please contact our law firm so we can provide you with all pertinent legal advice.