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.

Key Drafting Points for a Texas Employment Contract

Although Texas employers hire many workers on an “at-will” basis to make it easier to dismiss them (for reasons that doesn’t violate governing statutes), they also still provide employment contracts to others. After all, a well-drafted employment contract helps employers clearly establish what’s expected of their employees and makes it easier to protect proprietary information when workers leave.

If your company prefers to negotiate employment contracts with highly skilled employees, try to first meet with a Houston employment law attorney so that all of your most important needs and interests can be protected during the hiring process. And always be sure to communicate carefully with prospective employees since it’s easy to accidentally convey contract terms you may not have intended.

Before reviewing some of the important terms that should be included in most Texas employment contracts, it’s wise to note how some employment contract terms can become binding when set forth outside of contracts.

Ways employers may convey certain employment terms to job applicants or new hires 

Always carefully review the following ways that your company may be granting certain rights you didn’t intend to include in your formal employment contacts.

  • Through verbal agreements. Only allow a limited number of interviewers and other hiring staff to discuss key employment terms that may or may not be set forth in writing;
  • Statements made in offer letters. Always reread these before sending them out to make sure they do not contradict what’s in your written employment contract;
  • Provisions set forth in your employee handbook. (You should periodically ask your attorneys to review this material – to be sure it’s still current regarding new laws and recent court decisions);
  • All emails and faxes sent to prospective employees or new hires;
  • Statements made on workplace job notice boards.

While this list isn’t intended to be comprehensive, it should remind you that all written materials and formal conversations with applicants and new hires must be conducted carefully.

Here’s a look at some the terms you must properly address in your contracts.

Written employment contracts should always address these key terms and conditions

  • All core duties and responsibilities of the employee. It’s often wise to also note when the employee’s performance will be evaluated. For example, after the first 30 to 60 days – and then at other stated intervals;
  • Pay rate. This should be carefully discussed while making the initial offer and then documented in the employment contract;
  • All employee benefits, such as healthcare and stock options, should be listed and at least briefly explained;
  • Work locations and hours. If rotating shifts are required or if you strictly forbid working from home – you should set forth all these relevant restrictions;
  • Clear information indicating how employee disciplinary actions will normally be handled;
  • Reimbursement of approved expenses. If you do not cover any major expenses, you must state this very clearly;
  • How employee terminations are handled under different circumstances. This is a good place to possibly offer some type of severance pay if provided with two weeks’ notice (or some other time period you may prefer). You can then state that no general severance packages will be offered to those who fail to provide advance notice of their departure;
  • Dispute resolution terms. If you and the employee later have a dispute regarding the employment terms set forth in the contract, state whether you require the use of a specific form of dispute resolution — before any litigation can be pursued;
  • A reasonable covenant not to compete when employees are leaving. You should also include some type of clear statement that the departing employee must not disclose any trade secrets to others upon leaving.
  • A confidentially agreement. All employees who have any access to any company trade secrets, proprietary information or information the company deems to be of a sensitive or confidential nature must sign a confidentiality agreement.

If any of these terms are especially important to your company, give serious thought to asking all employees to not only sign their employment contracts – but to also initial certain paragraphs – clearly indicating that they were asked if they had special concerns or questions about those topics.

Please get in touch with one of our Murray Lobb attorneys once you’re ready to draft any employment contracts for new employees. We are also available to help you modify any of these contracts when various employment conditions change.

Brief Overview of Texas and Federal Whistleblower Laws

All employers must respectfully interact with employees who report alleged wrongdoings in the workplace. Often referred to as “whistleblowers,” these individuals are trying to correct illegal practices or behaviors they believe are harmful to many. Although some whistleblowers may have improper motives, you always ignore them at your own peril – especially since there are Texas and federal laws designed to protect them under certain circumstances.

The following information about whistleblower laws and related activities can help you better understand why an employer must obtain timely legal advice from a Houston business law attorney once any employee threatens to file this type of complaint.

The Texas Whistleblower Act

This statute is found in Sections 554.001 (and following) of the Texas Government Code. It only provides protection against employer retaliation for public employees – not private ones. The law expressly forbids public employers from suspending, terminating or otherwise imposing adverse personnel actions employees who report alleged legal violations by the employer or co-workers.

However, the complaining party – who must report the alleged wrongdoings to the appropriate law enforcement authority – must undergo (exhaust) all employer grievance or appeals processes before being allowed to sue the employer. Under the Texas statute, all whistleblower lawsuits must be filed within 90 days of the reported wrongdoing.

Damages may include obtaining a legal injunction against the employer – as well as receipt of all back pay owed if the employee was terminated (or demoted) in a retaliatory move. Successful whistleblowers (who meet all statutory requirements), are also entitled to receive full reinstatement, all fringe benefits owed, full seniority rights, actual damages, reasonable attorney fees, court costs and a set maximum of possible other compensatory damages.

Furthermore, a supervisor found to have violated the complaining employee’s rights under this Texas statute (Section 554.008) can be forced to pay up to a $15,000 civil fine.

While the burden of proof is on the whistleblower, the possible penalties can be formidable.

Federal laws often relied upon by various whistleblowers

  • The Sarbanes-Oxley Act (passed shortly after all the illegal Enron activities). It mainly addresses the penalties available in the wake of fraudulent accounting practices.
  • The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
  • OSHA violations. Many construction workers and other employees file “whistleblower” complaints based on these Occupational Safety and Health Administration statutes and regulations.
  • Various Department of Energy laws and statutes.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) laws and regulations.
  • Federal airline regulations.
  • The False Claims Act (as recently updated).
  • The Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009.
  • Hazardous waste regulations.
  • The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — and other government statutes related to the provision and receipt of proper medical care.

While this list isn’t intended to be comprehensive, it provides a general overview of the types of statutes and regulations often referenced in many whistleblower complaints.

The following information reviews the most common types of illegal retaliation some employers take upon learning that a whistleblower complaint has been filed.

Forbidden, retaliatory actions taken by some employers

  • Job termination. Far too many employers look for “clever” ways to fire complaining employees once they learn a whistleblower complaint may be filed.
  • Demotion. An aggrieved employee may be called in and told that there have been long-standing complaints about his/her performance – requiring demotion to a lower position with considerably lower pay.
  • Thinly disguised harassment on the job.
  • Retaliatory discipline. This may include the placement of highly negative performance reviews in an employee’s file – making it much harder for the workers to receive any future promotions or favorable recommendations upon leaving the job.
  • Blacklisting. Some employers will “discreetly” contact their peers throughout the same industry, purposefully designating the specific, complaining employee in hopes of preventing that person from every landing another job in that same field.

Two high-profile whistleblower events help explain how such actions often unfold

One of the best ways to gain a stronger understanding of whistleblower activities is to read all you can about how former Enron employee Sherron Watkins reported her concerns about her employer. You may also want to learn more about all the late FBI agent W. Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”) did to expose President Richard Nixon’s illegal activities tied to the Watergate scandal.

As one Texas Monthly article puts it, the Enron scandal involved highly questionable financial practices that included the creation of financial entities to help Enron conceal the company’s growing debt from Wall Street, regulators and the general public. The book Power Failure provides an in-depth look at how all of Enron’s troubles began and how its illegal activities ruined the lives of so many.

Conclusion

Always make sure your company (or government office) provides all supervisory personnel with comprehensive training on the proper ways to respond once a whistleblower complaint has been filed (or is referenced by an employee). And remember that retaliatory acts must be avoided since they’re illegal and often very costly.

If you believe an employee is preparing to file a “whistleblower” complaint against you, please contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys right away. We can explain your legal rights to you and help you take the proper steps to respond appropriately. Timely intervention can prevent critical misunderstandings and unnecessary litigation.

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.

Small Businesses Often Make Crucial Legal Mistakes

Even highly competent employees sometimes make serious legal errors while handling human resource, management, accounting and other business tasks. Since federal, state and local laws are constantly being updated, you must regularly speak with numerous employees to be sure they’re making timely and lawful decisions.

Should the feedback you receive concern you, it’s always best to consult with your Houston business law attorney to be sure you know how to promptly correct any possible errors. Lawsuits are often filed over very basic legal mistakes.

What are some of the most common legal errors that businesses keep making?

Most mistakes are made when employers try to be flexible with their rules. While compassion can go a long way toward helping you get along better with your employees, clarity and consistency are crucial. Always exercise caution when addressing the following issues.

  1. Each employee must be properly classified. You need to look at each position separately, based on all pertinent state and federal laws. If you simply decide to treat everyone as an “exempt” employee, you might be sued if you fail to provide proper overtime pay or adequate rest periods.
  2. Lunch breaks must be provided when required by law. Some employees may be entitled to a meal break after completing a specific number of hours during a shift.
  3. Make sure you’re properly labeling workers as either employees or independent contractors. You may hear from the IRS if you make this type of mistake. Take the time to speak with your lawyer about how you should carefully interact and communicate with independent contractors. Once a worker has strong legal grounds for believing that “employee” status has been conferred, you can be sued for specific benefits.
  4. You must be sure all employees understand what constitutes “sexual harassment.” If you’re sued in this field, one of your strongest defenses will be that you promptly trained all new managers and employees to help create a healthy work atmosphere. You must also develop a secure way for employees to submit complaints before problems escalate.
  5. You cannot punish or fire an employee for simply taking a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). To protect yourself, keep accurate records of all employee evaluations being conducted at routine intervals. If you’re particularly concerned about the behavior of someone taking FMLA leave, ask your attorney when you should sit down with that employee to discuss why you’re carefully monitoring their work performance – before letting them go.
  6. Be sure to issue final paychecks on a timely basis to all employees who are leaving. Find out if you’re required to provide this type of check even before an employee has returned all employer-provided equipment, vehicles or other materials.
  7. You must handle making loans to employees in a very careful manner. While this is often a kind gesture, you must set up a formal repayment schedule. Never simply deduct a portion of what’s owed from each future paycheck.
  8. Be sure to properly handle all employer obligations under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). You may need to make appropriate work accommodations and should always treat such workers fairly. Most disabled workers take great pride in being highly dependable and productive workers.
  9. COBRA healthcare coverage must be offered and administered properly. Give serious thought to creating a comprehensive package of this medical insurance paperwork so that it’s immediately ready to be given to qualified employees when they leave. Timing is critical so potential coverage won’t lapse.
  10. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) must be explained and handled appropriately. Employees have a right to privacy regarding their medical data and information – be sure you’re adequately protecting it while processing claims.
  11. Pension concerns must be addressed in a timely and proper manner. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) is a complicated law that requires extreme attention to detail. Always request legal advice when uncertain how to administer it.
  12. You must carefully handle all responsibilities under the Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA). You may need expert help calculating all your employees’ paycheck deductions for lawful wage garnishments – including those for child support and student loans. Look for highly respected software that may help your most experienced workers.
  13. Equal Pay Act. This law must be carefully followed since too many businesses keep failing to pay men and women fairly when handling similar work.
  14. Title VII concerns. Your company must avoid discriminatory practices when hiring, laying off and firing employees. Many businesses are learning to use multiple interviewers with highly diverse backgrounds so that fairness can be readily achieved.
  15. OSHA laws. You must make sure to keep adequate records covering all workplace accidents and injuries for an appropriate number of years — if you employ ten or more workers.

Should you have any questions about these topics, please contact your Murray Lobb lawyer to discuss your concerns. We have extensive experience providing legal advice to our clients so they can can readily comply with all federal, state and local laws.

Administering the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Prior to the passage of the FMLA in 1993, American workers had few options when they needed extra time off from work due to their own serious medical conditions and accidents – or those of immediate family members. In fact, workers often had to use up all their vacation and sick leave benefits, if entitled to any, and then worry about their job security if they needed more time off. (However, eligible women could seek the special help offered by the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act). 

Fortunately, the Family Medical Leave Act is still helping many 21st century workers address critical family caregiving duties and remains one of the signature pieces of legislation from the Clinton era.

Here’s a brief overview of specific provisions of the act that can help your qualified workers.

What basic opportunities does the FMLA offer qualified employees?

If a worker meets the minimum qualifications referenced below, it’s possible to take up to twelve (12) weeks of unpaid leave during a calendar year to take care of seriously ill family members, new children or the individual’s own major medical condition.

In 2008, the Family Medical Leave Act was updated so that qualified workers could also take time off work to take care of immediate family members who became very ill (or were seriously injured) while serving in the military.

The FMLA guarantees that qualified workers can take the extended time off work without having to worry about losing their jobs, their seniority or their employer-provided health care insurance.

Which types of employees are qualified to use the FMLA?

  • Those who have employers with 50 or more workers on the payroll for at least 20 workweeks during the preceding or current calendar year. A worker may still qualify even if all the 50 workers aren’t working at the same site – if they work within a 75-mile radius of one another;
  • Those who have worked for their employer for a minimum of 12 months, for a total of at least 1,250 hours. This means that many part-time workers may not qualify for FMLA leave. However, there are special rules that may apply to workers who are teachers, are highly paid – or are flight crew members of airlines;
  • Employees taking time off from jobs to handle their own “serious health conditions” – or those of covered family members. This time may also be used to take care of a new child or a servicemember in the immediate family who has been wounded.

Note:  Now that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) individuals can also qualify like other workers to take care of their family members.

General questions often raised about the FMLA by employers and employees

Question 1:   Can the leave time requested be intermittent during a calendar year?

Answer 1:     Yes, if all the time that’s taken is counted toward the maximum amount of time off

                     allowed (12 weeks).

Question 2:  What government agency oversees and administers the FMLA for all federal

                     employees – as well as all state and local government workers and private

                     employees?

Answer 2:   The U. S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. This is noted in Fact

                   Sheet #77B entitled, “Protection for Individuals Under the FMLA.”

Question 3: Are all workers qualified to take time off from their jobs under the FMLA entitled

                     to receive pay while away from work?

Answer 3:    No. The FMLA doesn’t require employers to pay qualified employees while they’re

                    taking this type of leave. However, it’s up to your employer to let you make a claim

                    for regular vacation time, sick leave or annual time off.

Question 4: Can a qualified worker ever be granted more than 12 weeks of paid or unpaid

                     FMLA leave in one year?

Answer 4:   An exception only exists for qualified family caregivers of wounded

                    servicemembers. They’re allowed to take up to 26 weeks off from their jobs in a

                    given calendar year.

Question 5: Can a qualified worker request more than 12 weeks off under the FMLA to take care

                    of a newborn – or a newly adopted child?

Answer 5:   In general, the answer is “No.” However, individual states can pass their own

                   versions of the FMLA and provide somewhat different benefits. To date, the Texas

                   Workforce Commission says that Texas has not passed such legislation.

Although the Family Medical Leave Act is a straightforward piece of legislation, it’s been updated with new rules and regulations and interpreted by the courts. Therefore, it’s usually wise for employers to ask their Houston employment lawyer for help if they have any specific questions about properly handling FMLA issues.

Please feel free to contact Murray Lobb so we can help explain any specific aspects of the FMLA to you as you provide its benefits to your employees. We’re always available to research any questions you may have.

Most Common Hiring Discrimination Complaints

In a work world where the average tenure with any given employer is declining, many companies must routinely advertise and fill both new and established jobs. Yet as common as this process has become, every employer must periodically stop and re-evaluate how all job applications are being reviewed, skills tests are being administered and interviews are being granted and conducted.

After all, implicit bias (discriminatory hiring) remains a constant threat to maintaining an even playing field for all job applicants. And though most Texas employees are hired on an “at-will” basis, (allowing them to leave when they choose – and be fired without notice or cause), certain federal, state and local laws forbidding hiring discrimination must still be obeyed.

The most critical laws protecting employees against discrimination are set forth below, followed by examples of the types of hiring questions employers should avoid. Finally, the roles played by the TWC (Texas Workforce Commission) and the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) regarding employee complaints are also briefly noted.

Federal, state and local laws provide many anti-discrimination protections to Texas workers

Both federal laws and Texas statutes have been passed providing job applicants and employees with protections against discrimination on the following grounds.

  • Race
  • National origin
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex (including various medical conditions directly related to pregnancy)
  • Age (40 and older)
  • Genetic testing information
  • Disability

Federal law also provides specific employment discrimination protection to applicants who may not be actual U. S. citizens.

Federal laws and related regulations designed to protect workers against discrimination

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). This law was later amended to include The Pregnancy Discrimination Act
  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA)
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967
  • Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
  • Sections 102 and 103 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991
  • Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  • GINA – The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008

Many of the legal rights guaranteed to Texas workers under the federal laws referenced above are also protected (and set forth) in Chapter 21 of the Texas Labor Code. Various Texas cities, including both Houston and Austin, have passed additional anti-discrimination laws to protect their residents with unique sexual orientation and gender identity issues. (Additional information about protecting employee rights is set forth on our Texas Governor’s website.)

Here’s some additional, pragmatic information for handling the job application process.

Company interviewers must carefully avoid asking job applicants these types of questions

While the following list is not intended to be comprehensive, it should heighten your awareness of how careful you must be when trying to learn more about applicants who may have certain special needs or limitations that are not directly related to legitimate job requirements.

  • Do you have any disability? (However, if the applicant has a visually obvious disability — or has voluntarily disclosed one – you can normally ask if any special job accommodations are necessary or required);
  • Are you currently taking any medications that might impair your ability to perform the assigned tasks as described?
  • Have you needed to file any workers compensation claims in the past?
  • Are you pregnant – or planning to have a child during the coming year?
  • Have you obtained the results from any genetic tests during the past 10 years that indicate your likelihood of developing cancer (or another debilitating condition)?
  • Have you ever suffered a heart attack or stroke? Do you have any close blood relatives who have suffered from either of these medical problems?
  • Do you currently suffer from depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia – or do any immediate family members have these medical conditions?

Under some circumstances, once you’ve hired a new employee, you may be able to inquire about certain disability-related medical conditions. However, you should discuss all the specific conditions that must exist before asking these questions with your employment law attorneys to avoid violating any of the employee’s legal rights.

The TWC and EEOC help current (and prospective) employees with discrimination concerns

When individuals believe that they’ve endured discrimination while applying for work with your company – or while employed by you, they usually contact the Texas Workforce Commission and the EEOC while deciding whether to file a formal complaint.

Should you learn that such a complaint has been filed, be sure to immediately contact our law firm so we can help you prepare a thorough response, detailing all that your company did to fully respect all employee (or job applicant) rights. We can also discuss with you various proactive steps your company can take to try and decrease the chances of having any further complaints filed against you.

The Key Stages of Buying a Home in Texas

Even if you’ve bought a home in the past, it’s always wise to hire an experienced lawyer and real estate agent to help you buy a house in Texas. Contract clauses often change and you’re likely to need special provisions added to your formal offer and purchase agreement to fully protect your interests.

After contacting your Houston real estate lawyer, you’ll need to select a qualified real estate agent. When searching for one, ask close friends for recommendations if they’ve recently bought a home in one of your target areas. You can also search for an agent by visiting the Texas Real Estate Commission website —  and Trulia.com and realtor.com.

What follows is a general overview of the key stages of finding and purchasing a home in Texas when you’ve hired qualified professionals to help you.

Determining if it’s the right time to buy – what your needs are — and what you can afford

Always take time to decide if it’s really the right moment for you to purchase a home. You must be able to afford a monthly mortgage, homeowner’s (and title) insurance and the other expenses that go with buying a home and making repairs. Once you’re sure you want to buy now and know what you can afford to pay, contact several highly recommended real estate agents (who have brokered properties in your preferred area) and interview them over the phone or in person.

After checking each candidate’s references and hiring the most knowledgeable and pleasant one, you’ll be ready to start conducting your search for the right home.

You’ll first need to discuss your preferred price range and the preferred parts of town where you would like to buy a home. Be sure to note the property features that are “must haves” or “deal breakers” for you. Of course, remaining flexible is important so you can avoid missing the chance to buy one of the best homes available.

Where will you and your agent find the listings that you’ll want to see?

In addition to visiting publicly advertised “open house” events in your target areas, you and your agent can also view many available properties online. Savvy sellers often offer online visual tours of their homes to help attract prospective buyers — who can then request showings.

You can also visit the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) online and then discuss the properties that you like most with your agent. If your agent is well established in the area, you may even become privy to some private listings before others learn about them. Websites like trulia.com and realtor.com should also provide lists of many homes still on the market.

What other initial tasks can a realtor help you handle?

After you’ve met with a mortgage broker and located several properties that meet your needs, your realtor can prepare a written offer for the seller. Prior to making an offer, be sure to ask your agent if the seller has any recent home inspection reports to share with you. If none are available and you still want to make an offer on a house, your agent can make obtaining an acceptable home inspection report one of the contingencies in the home purchase agreement that must be met before you’ll purchase the house.

You’re now ready to go over the legally required disclosures that Texas requires property owners to make to parties offering to buy a home. Repairs currently needed must be detailed – along with notes about all recently completed ones. If you haven’t already received a thorough (recent) home inspection report, you really should obtain one now — so you won’t be suddenly surprised by major plumbing or other serious home repairs in the future.

Should certain repairs be needed – and you’re still willing to buy the house – your real estate agent can negotiate these matters with the buyer on your behalf. Also, you must have a title search run on the house. You don’t want to buy property with any troubling liens, easements or other encumbrances that can greatly limit your ability to fully enjoy the use of your new home.

At this point (if not already done), you should purchase title insurance so that if any future claims are made against the property by third parties, you’ll be able to properly protect all your legal interests.

Once all these matters have been fully negotiated between your agent and the seller, you’re ready to move forward into escrow.

What basic, final tasks should be handled right before — or during — escrow?

Your lawyer will make sure that the home purchase agreement contains all the necessary clauses required to protect your interests before escrow closes. If it hasn’t already been done, you should also have the home appraised to make sure your offered purchase price is reasonable and fair.

Next, all new home inspection reports should be carefully analyzed, and all financial arrangements finalized. On closing day, you’ll go to the title agent’s office to sign all the documents and pick up the keys to your new home. As the buyer, you’re not responsible for paying your real estate agent’s fees – they are covered by the seller.

After closing day, your Houston real estate attorney can check to be sure that the title to your new home has been properly recorded in the correct local government offices – and then provide you with official copies of the newly recorded title deed for your records.

Please contact Murray Lobb so we can provide you with the clear advice you’ll need while buying your new home. Since we have the necessary experience to address any problems that may arise, we should be able to minimize any stress for you. Your lawyer will remain available to answer all your questions as you prepare to move into your new home.

IRS Clarifies “Employee” Versus “Independent Contractor” Test

The IRS recently issued clarifying guidelines to help employers determine which workers should be treated as independent contractors or employees. The government naturally wants accurate decisions to be made since they determine when it’s paid certain taxes on each worker’s wages.

The main deductions that should be subtracted from all employees’ paychecks include those for Social Security, Medicare, unemployment and income taxes. When a business has work done by an independent contractor, that person must pay all those taxes in the form of self-employment tax.

What remains the general standard for deciding if a worker is an independent contractor?

If an employer reserves the right to only direct control over the result of the work – and cannot tell a worker exactly what to do and how to handle the assignment – then that worker will usually be legally viewed as an independent contractor.

However, deciding what constitutes specific directions for completing a given task can still fall into a gray area.

Fortunately, there are three basic analytic categories that can help employers accurately determine when workers are properly classified as “employees” or “independent contractors.”

What are the three main categories of analysis for deciding a worker’s correct status?

The IRS indicates that employers should carefully examine the following three aspects of how they relate to workers to determine their proper work status.

  1. Behavior control. An employer may have behavior control over a worker even when it does not exercise it. For example, when such control is involved, it may include telling a worker which specific tools to use and where those supplies should be purchased. Under those circumstances, the worker should be considered an employee. Conversely, the less control over a worker’s behavior, the greater the chance that the person is working as an independent contractor.

If there are strict guidelines for determining the quality of the work provided, there’s a strong chance that the worker is an employee. When the worker is provided a bit more leeway in terms of quality control – there’s a stronger chance that the person is an independent contractor.

Of course, the two parties will usually need to agree to some basic quality standards, regardless of whether the worker is an employee or independent contractor. Finally, if periodic training or ongoing training is required of a worker – that increases the chances that the worker should be treated as an employee.

  1. Financial control. Does the worker have to personally cover the majority (or all) of the expenses tied to completing the work? These might include the purchase and maintenance of proper computers, printers, fax machines, scanners and other required equipment. If the worker is covering all those expenses, he or she should probably be classified as an independent contractor.

Stated differently, when a worker has many unreimbursed expenses, that person is usually an independent contractor — not an employee. Independent contractors are also those who retain the right to continue obtaining additional work from other parties. As for the payment for services, independent contractors are usually paid a flat fee – although that arrangement can vary in some cases.

  1. How the employer and worker each perceive the nature of their relationship. When the parties have not negotiated any employee benefits like vacation pay, sick pay, a pension plan and stock options – the worker is usually an independent contractor. While a written contract signed by the two parties can indicate how they view their interactions, it’s not always the only evidence the IRS and the courts will review when classifying the work relationship. All relevant documents and communications may need to be examined.

The main consequence for an employer who misclassifies a worker is that the employer may be required to pay all employment taxes currently owing for that worker – as opposed to requiring the worker to cover them.

What unique emphasis is placed on these three categories in the updated guidelines?

As for behavior control, employers really shouldn’t be telling the independent contractor the exact sequence of events for all tasks to be performed or exactly how they should be handled.

Regarding financial control, only independent contractors can experience a profit or loss while handling assigned tasks. Employees whose expenses are generally covered will usually not experience any profit or loss while completing assigned tasks on a given schedule.

As for how the parties view their work relationship, a fully executed contract can be controlling when other conclusive details aren’t available. However, as briefly noted above, the parties’ communications can usually provide clear indications of whether they’re interacting as employer-employee or employer and independent contractor.

The key bottom line for employers who don’t want to only work with employees – is to allow their independent contractors considerable flexibility while completing tasks – while respecting professional standards acceptable to both parties.

Please give our law firm a call if you need any help determining which workers are employees or independent contractors. We can also help you better understand the many different types of classifications that govern a wide range of employees you may want to hire – and the tax consequences for hiring those who fit in each group.

Our firm always remains available to help you draft many different types of contracts that can serve all your business needs.

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.