The Four Texas Probate Choices When Someone Dies Without A Will

Since more than half of all Americans never create a Will or estate plan, there is a strong chance you may one day have to help manage this type of estate. Fortunately, Texas provides four viable approaches for handling such matters — each with its own separate requirements and possible disadvantages. They are described below to make it easier for you to discuss your options with your lawyer.

Two approaches to handling an estate after someone died without a Will involve simply filing affidavits. The other two options include having a probate court help determine the official heirs of the person who died – or the formal filing (or request) for either a dependent or independent administration of the estate.

The four ways you can probate a Texas estate when there was no Will or estate plan

I. You might be able to file a Small Estate Affidavit.

   Requirements for taking this approach – if the estate qualifies for it

  • The estate’s assets, minus the homestead and exempt property, must have a total value of $75,000 or less.
  • This affidavit can only be used to transfer title to a house that qualifies as a homestead. If other pieces of real estate are involved that require transfer, then this type of probate affidavit cannot be used.

Potential disadvantages of filing a small estate affidavit

  • At least two witnesses and all distributees of the estate must sign this affidavit. Since each person who signs the affidavit can later be held financially liable for all future transfers or payments made relying upon it, potential witnesses (and other signatories) are often unwilling to assume such a large degree of financial responsibility.
  • This approach cannot be used if the estate has any debts requiring payment. Since a court does not name a personal representative to handle all the estate’s assets and debts, there is no one eligible to handle the payment of debts.

II.  You might be able to file an Affidavit of Heirship    

     Requirements for taking this approach

     While it is not a strict requirement, this option is usually chosen when the only assets of the deceased that require title transfers are pieces of real estate.

     Drawbacks to using an Affidavit of Heirship?

  • Although some financial institutions will allow the transfer of title to other types of (non-real estate) assets under this type of affidavit, that final decision can only be made by that outside entity.
  • No personal representative is appointed in this type of proceeding. Therefore, if the estate involved has debts, no one is authorized to collect all the assets together and then pay the debts.
  • All title companies do not accept Affidavits of Heirship. Furthermore, some of these companies may only accept this type of affidavit after two (or more) years have passed since it was signed.

The main or “qualified” advantage of this approach is that it costs less than the following two ways of managing an estate after someone dies without a Will in Texas.

III.  You can ask a probate court to make a formal Determination of Heirship    

      This option is designed to firmly establish the distribution of assets to all proper or legal heirs, under the Texas probate code’s intestacy provisions.

      Advantages to taking this more costly approach

  • This choice greatly reduces the chances of fraud that are more likely to occur under the first two options named above since they do not involve any court hearings.
  • An attorney ad litem is appointed by the court. This person has the duty to investigate the decedent’s family history before submitting a formal report to the court (prior to its formal ruling on all the evidence presented).

      Disadvantages to this approach to handling an estate when No Will was found

  • This process is more time-consuming. However, it provides third parties with verifiable evidence that the court had legal grounds for approving the transfer of title during its probate proceedings.
  • It is more costly since at least one court hearing will be scheduled.

IV.  You can request either a Dependent or Independent Administration of the estate

       This approach is chosen when the parties involved want the probate court to appoint a formal administrator of the estate. (The only real difference between a “dependent” or “independent” administration of an estate is the degree of court involvement. The dependent type normally requires more court involvement or direction).

    

      Advantages of dependent or independent administration of an estate

  • The court will appoint a personal representative and provide that person with formal letters of administration, granting that person the right to handle all negotiations with third parties regarding the estate’s assets.
  • Third parties are more likely to quickly provide all required documentation and data requested by the appointed representative, helping to streamline the probate process.

     Two possible drawbacks to this approach

  • It is more expensive. While this is usually the most costly way to handle the estate of someone who has died without a Will, it can prove quite wise in the long run –since all matters will be carefully monitored by the court (even when handled by an “independent” administrator). This lowers the chances of a future need to return to court due to challenges based on fraud.
  • It can prove to be more time-consuming. However, many people who can afford this approach consider it a very valid trade-off compared to only using affidavits that may not be acceptable to all parties.

Please don’t hesitate to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys when you need help managing the estate of someone else. Our firm has extensive probate and estate planning experience that allows us to provide you with fully trustworthy legal advice.

CARES Act – Government Economic Relief Package for Businesses

Last week the United States Government passed what is known as the CARES Act to provide economic relief to businesses (including sole proprietorships!) impacted by COVID-19.  There are a few different avenues and programs to receive help under the CARES Act, one of which is the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).  The Paycheck Protection Program is specifically designed to help small businesses keep their workforce employed. Visit SBA.gov/Coronavirus for more information on the Paycheck Protection Program and the other available avenues and programs for assistance.

The new PPP loan program will be available retroactive from Feb. 15, 2020, so employers can rehire their recently laid-off employees through June 30, 2020. 

 Loan Terms & Conditions

  • Eligible businesses: All businesses, including non-profits, Veterans organizations, Tribal concerns, sole proprietorships, self-employed individuals, and independent contractors, with 500 or fewer employees, or no greater than the number of employees set by the SBA as the size standard for certain industries.
  • Eligible Purposes: payroll, rent, mortgage interest or utilities.
  • Maximum loan amount up to $10 million
  • Loan forgiveness if proceeds used for payroll costs and other designated business operating expenses eligible purposes in the 8 weeks following the date of loan origination (due to likely high subscription, it is anticipated that not more than 25% of the forgiven amount may be for non-payroll costs)
  • All loans under this program will have the following identical features:
    • Interest rate of 0.5%
    • Maturity of 2 years
    • First payment deferred for six months
    • 100% guarantee by SBA
    • No collateral
    • No personal guarantees
    • No borrower or lender fees payable to SBA

Murray | Lobb has contacts with multiple lending institutions who are already approved SBA lending processors and can help you navigate the process.  Give us a call at 281-488-0630 or email sgriffin@murray-lobb.com and we will be happy to provide you with these contacts.

Liquidated Damages in Texas Contracts

When a party to a contract breaches, the fundamental goal of the law is to place the non-breaching party in the same position it would have been had there been no breach.  This does not always mean the non-breaching party gets what he sought under the contract. More often, the non-breaching party is awarded money (damages) for adequate compensation.

Penalty or Damage Provisions?

In some instances, the parties to a contract might wish to insert a provision in the contract which specifies the damages the non-breaching party may be entitled to recover.  These provisions are called liquidated damage provisions.  However, liquidated damage provisions can be found to be unenforceable, when the breaching party seeks to avoid the provision on the ground that it is a penalty.  Typically, a penalty is one which greatly exceeds amount of damages actually sustained by the non-breaching party.  Court will examine whether the actual damages incurred were much less than the liquidated damages imposed, measured at the time of the breach.

A liquidated damage provision is not a penalty when it reasonably estimates the harm that would result from a breach.  But a provision not designed to be a penalty can nevertheless operate as one.  The universal rule that damages for breach of contract are limited to just compensation for the loss or damage actually sustained. Accordingly, courts carefully review liquidated damages provisions to ensure that they adhere to the principle of just compensation.  A damages provision that violates the rule of just compensation, however, and functions as a penalty, is unenforceable. Liquidated damages must not be punitive, neither in design nor operation.

Courts will enforce liquidated damage provisions when:

  1. “the harm caused by the breach is incapable or difficult of estimation,” and;
  1. “the amount of liquidated damages called for is a reasonable forecast of just compensation.”   In applying the first prong, courts examine the circumstances at the time the agreement is made. The party seeking liquidated damages bears the burden of showing that the provision, as drafted, accounts for these two considerations.

A properly designed liquidated damages provision, however, may still operate as a penalty due to unanticipated events arising during the life of a contract. Courts must also examine whether “the actual damages incurred were much less” than the liquidated damages imposed, measured at the time of the breach.  When a contract’s damages estimate proves inaccurate, and a significant difference exists between actual and liquidated damages, a court must not enforce the provision. When an “unbridgeable discrepancy” exists between “liquidated damages provisions as written and the unfortunate reality in application,” the provisions are not enforceable.

Enforcing Liquidated Damage Provisions

To be enforceable the liquidated damage provision, at the time the agreement was made, must meet a two-part test:

  1. The harm that would result from a breach must be difficult to estimate, and;
  2. The liquidated damages provision must reasonably forecast just compensation. Parties to a contract containing a liquidated damage provision are expected to negotiate a reasonable, not perfect, forecast of just compensation in the event of breach.  A forecast that is inordinate when compared with actual damages will not prevail to a challenge when there is proof of a large variance between the actual damages and those sought under the liquidated damage provision.

A recital in the contract proclaiming that a liquidated damage provision is not a penalty will not save a provision that operates as one. Careful thought must be applied in determining a reasonable forecast of damages that would be sustained in the event of a breach.  If damages, at the time of contracting are capable of calculation or can be fairly estimated, the provision cannot meet the first prong of the test.

Please feel welcome to reach out to our Murray-Lobb Attorneys if you have any further concerns or questions regarding a contract breach or liquidated damage provisions.

Properly Handling Background Record Checks of Potential Employees

All companies must proceed cautiously while trying to create safe, productive and pleasant work environments. The best approach is to develop standard procedures for running background checks and investigations for all applicants who will be handling similar tasks — without regard to any discriminatory traits or characteristics.

First and foremost, you must obtain each job applicant’s written permission to run checks on their job and educational records, criminal background history and financial credit status. Should any of the information you obtain make you no longer wish to consider a specific job applicant, you must inform that person about each report’s negative findings – since all potential employees have the right to refute and correct such data.

Always be sure to also treat all applicants with equal respect and remind them that you’re simply trying to learn all you can about your top applicants. And be sure to state in writing that providing false information can cause individuals to be immediately dropped from further consideration – or be fired in the future when such misinformation is discovered.

Here’s additional information about the types of errors that can appear in background checks, how you might allow job candidates to respond to negative findings — and tips on exercising special caution when sensitive data appears on either sex offender registries or terror watch lists.

Types of negative information & errors that may be uncovered during background checks

Hopefully, most of your searches will just reveal that your applicants have provided their correct names, full address histories, all job information for recent years, accurate Social Security numbers and other basic data. However, chances are that at least some of your potential employees will need to explain about one or more of the following findings.

  • Past arrests or conviction records. Always pay close attention to the types of behavior or crimes involved, when the events occurred and how (if true) that history might affect your work environment. If you still wish to hire a person with some type of negative arrest or conviction, remember that you have a legal duty to create a safe work environment for all your employees. Also, bear in mind that future claims of negligent hiring could prove very costly to your company.
  • Fraudulent or grossly misleading information about the applicant’s academic background or work history. As noted above, make sure that all your application forms clearly indicate that providing false information on such forms (or on a resume) can be immediate grounds for dismissing an applicant from further consideration. Should you believe that any applicant may have simply made a typographical or innocent error on the forms, always allow the person to provide corrected information. Just be sure to respond to the discovery of such false information in the same manner for every applicant;
  • Misleading or inaccurate driving record information. If you’re hiring someone to deliver packages or goods for you – or drive others around on your company’s behalf, you better make sure they have an excellent driving record.
  • A very poor credit score, a bankruptcy or other signs of major financial problems. Always be sensitive and careful when asking applicants to explain this type of information;
  • The person’s name turns up on a sex offender registry or a terrorist watch list. Given the number of people who are burdened with very common names, always reveal what you’ve learned to the individual in a calm manner, preferably with at least one other human resources staff member present. If you still want to hire a person whose name was on one of these lists, always first speak with your Houston employment law attorney.

Your lawyer can tell you how you should go about carefully determining a person’s correct identity and if it’s too risky to hire someone. It may even be necessary to contact the Department of Homeland Security if the person is listed on a terrorist watch list. (Do keep in mind that even the government knows that it can be very time-consuming to remove a name wrongfully added to a terrorist watch list);

It’s crucial to maintain a standard of fairness that applies to all applicants

Be sure your company’s hiring policies provide specific time limits on when applicants must provide you with corrected information after background checks turn up negative or disturbing information. Always apply that same standard to all applicants. If someone needs more time, you should only allow a one-time extension that applies equally to others.

How long must you keep all job application forms and background check information?

The EEOC (Equal Opportunity Commission), the Department of Labor and the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) each provide slightly different guidelines on how long certain records should be kept. Overall, it’s a good idea to keep a copy of all application materials and background information for about two years. Of course, if any job applicant or employee files a lawsuit against your company, that person’s records should be kept until all legal proceedings and appeals have come to an end.

Make sure all employee records are stored in a restricted area where only one or two senior human resource officials have access to them. Once it’s time to destroy the records, it’s wise to carefully shred, burn or pulverize the data so that the material can no longer be read.

Of course, some employers keep all resumes and job application forms in case they later have problems with an employee — or come across information that indicates that the background check failed to disclose fraudulent claims were contained in those documents. Some firms just scan all such data into secure databases.

Since credit background checks are governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), be sure you understand the terms of that legislation and how it impacts your specific workplace. Also, always keep in mind that the State of Texas also has laws and regulations that can impact how your company handles background checks and employee records. It’s always wise to periodically touch base with your lawyer to find out if any of these laws have recently changed.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can provide you with the legal guidance you may need while hiring employees or simply running your business. We can also provide you with any contracts you may need — or review the contents of your current employee handbook.

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.

Be Careful When Creating a Company Policy on Moonlighting

When addressing employee management issues like moonlighting, it’s often best to seek out a middle ground. If you’ll first establish clear work standards that fully protect your company’s intellectual property and ongoing research and development efforts, you should be able to accommodate those who can responsibly handle a second job outside their regular work hours.

Perhaps the best way to create a balanced moonlighting policy is to first review your main concerns about allowing employees to do any outside work. You should then try to objectively embrace your employees’ reasons for wanting to take on another job. Although you do have greater freedom to dictate when exempt workers put in their hours, that’s not always the case when interacting with at-will employees who are paid hourly.

Here’s a look at the competing interests involved when trying to design a moonlighting policy for your unique workplace. That information is followed by some general guidelines that you’ll want to review with your Houston employment law attorney. Employees do have certain privacy rights about how they conduct their lives outside of work and those must be respected.

Legitimate reasons why employers often want to limit moonlighting

  • To protect the company’s intellectual property. No employer wants to worry about employees knowingly (or accidentally) sharing confidential, proprietary information with another employer – or using such information while starting their own companies. Non-disclosure agreements are crucial to protecting these types of rights;
  • To maintain control over employee schedules for valid staffing purposes. Many companies require employee flexibility with work schedules in order to cover the ongoing, often unpredictable nature of their work volume. For example, customer “help” or call centers often experience times of peak calling. However, these fluctuations can change from week to week – or even day to day. People hired to work in these environments can be legitimately required to forfeit or greatly limit outside work – if those unique requirements were clearly stated in writing prior to their hiring;
  • A desire to have employees provide the company with their very best efforts. When employees take on “second” jobs – they’ll often be tempted to put in too many total work hours each week. It’s completely legitimate to want every worker to show up on time each day, fully rested and able to adequately focus on their assigned tasks;
  • Safety concerns. Moonlighting frequently causes many people to lose sleep. When they show up to your workplace greatly fatigued, they can pose a serious safety threat to their own health – and that of their coworkers;
  • Loyalty and commitment. While a moonlighting employee can provide you with these desirable attribues – you have every right to expect them to demonstrate respect for your company while interacting with others.

Although these aren’t the only reasons you may want to carefully limit employee moonlighting – they do touch upon common concerns. Keep in mind that it’s your right to carefully monitor the quality of work of your moonlighting employees to be sure it doesn’t start to decline.

Some of the valid reasons many workers want to do some moonlighting

  • Additional money to support themselves and other family members. Regardless of what you’re paying each worker, everyone periodically encounters unexpected medical bills and other crises that require extra income;
  • A desire to realize their own entrepreneurial dreams. Few people can afford to simply quit their “day jobs” while trying to launch new businesses. If employees pursue this type of goal while using their own resources outside of regular work hours, there may be few issues. However, if their companies will cause them to compete for clients with your business, restrictions are fully justified;
  • An interest in taking on paid union work to improve conditions for themselves and others in their industry. Employers must tread lightly when trying to restrict such activities. While company loyalty is a legitimate concern, this isn’t necessarily violated if the workers are openly addressing key safety and health issues that affect all employees.

These are just a few of the many reasons why some workers are strongly motivated to take on moonlighting jobs.

General guidelines for drafting a moonlighting policy

  • Companies should rarely try to completely forbid moonlighting. However, as your Houston employment law attorney will tell you, it’s best to inform all “new hires” if their jobs may require sudden changes in their weekly schedules or limited overtime hours on short notice. Whenever possible, try to remain flexible with workers – or your best and brightest ones may leave so they can pursue moonlighting and other privileges elsewhere;
  • Decide if you need to specifically address this topic in your employee handbook. If you don’t wish to create a “moonlighting” policy, you can ask your attorney to provide you with hiring contracts (and/or) non-disclosure agreements. These will clearly explain to all employees that they’re legally forbidden to share any company trade secrets, research and development data – or other proprietary information – with outside parties without first obtaining express, written permission from your company. It’s also wise to have all employees sign non-compete contracts with your company before they start to work;
  • Consider requiring employees to obtain your permission before taking on “second” jobs.  Should you decide that you want to expressly forbid an employee from taking on a specific “moonlighting” job, always immediately speak with your attorney – to be sure you’re within your legal rights to do so. You’ll need to carefully document all your reasons to protect yourself from any future litigation;
  • Try to be accommodating when an employee indicates that s/he will not be competing with your company in any way. After all, it’s entirely possible that you may one day become a client of your employee’s fledgling new company. Of course, you should still periodically touch base with all moonlighting employees to be sure no conflicts of interest have developed since they started their second jobs;
  • Use periodic job evaluations to your advantage. During these, be sure supervisors ask questions that can help determine if the employee’s outside job is starting to compromise his/her ability to provide you with top-quality work.

Please feel free to schedule an appointment with one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can help you draft the various contracts you need to protect your company’s proprietary interests. We can also help guide you as you create (or update) your current employee handbook on this and other topics.

10 Ways to Minimize Liability When Providing Employee References

Although it was far simpler twenty years ago to provide references for most departing and former employees, it now requires careful planning. Employers must take deliberate steps to protect themselves against possible lawsuits brought by disgruntled former employees who may claim that they’ve been harmed by defamatory or negative job references.

All companies should now consider requesting (as a hiring condition) that each new employee sign a release form granting permission for the company to provide future job references without threat of liability. As noted below, that paperwork can then be supplemented by new, signed and dated authorization forms for each future reference requested.

Before sharing ten ways your company can reduce its potential liability when providing job references, this article will first briefly review common legal arguments advanced by former employees when they sometimes sue claiming a reference harmed their future job prospects.

Types of arguments past employees advance when alleging harm due to a job reference

Keep in mind that defamation does not have to produce actual harm – it’s enough that the negative reference was published or communicated to a third party and might reflect poorly on a past employee’s good name or overall reputation. Courts will normally review all the surrounding circumstances to determine whether a reference was truly damaging.

  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress. An angry former employee may claim that the person who issued the reference used unjustified and inflammatory language. While this isn’t asserted often, it’s a reminder to create a clear and distinct policy for how all references should be handled – free of unsubstantiated opinions or undocumented gossip. For example, it’s always wise to avoid alleging that a former employee demonstrated clear signs of struggling with some form of substance abuse on the job;
  • Invasion of privacy. Your company must avoid publicizing private information about an employee. For example, if you investigated why an employee was late to work on several occasions, you should never publicly disclose that the person was repeatedly jailed overnight due to arrests for drunk driving;
  • Interference with contract. A business should never knowingly provide false or misleading information about a former employee that could reasonably bias a prospective employer against hiring the person. Be as honest as possible and rely on neutral, documented information in the employee’s personnel file whenever possible;
  • Title VII discrimination. You must never provide a negative reference because a past employee was a member of a protected class. So, do not claim you fired someone because of their disability or alleged problems due to their gender. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids this type of discriminatory behavior.

Ten practices that can help you provide safe and proper references

  1. Always obtain employee consent. You should require a written request from all past employees asking you to provide a reference to a specifically named individual. This is very important since references should only be provided to proper parties;
  2. Designate only one or two company officials to handle all employee references. Centralizing this operation can help your company avoid releasing poorly drafted forms or letters of reference. It’s usually best to forbid all supervisors and other employees from providing their own references. You may want to create your own simple form for providing all references;
  3. Maintain accurate personnel files for all employees. Furthermore, be sure to conduct regular employee evaluations – and have employees sign the bottom of all written evaluations. This information should provide the basis for future letters of reference. It must be free of any biased or highly negative comments whenever possible;
  4. Avoid providing references over the phone. This is important since phone requests can be placed by nearly anyone. You must always be sure you’re only providing information to legitimate parties. Secure, written communications are always best. And never provide a reference until after you’ve received a new, written authorization form signed and dated by the former employee. (It should state that your company will not be held liable for providing the requested reference.) You can email or fax this form to the past employee when you receive a new request;
  5. Only provide information to proper parties. Be aware that private investigators and others may contact you and just pretend to be potential employers. Your company could be sued if you release a reference to someone who is not a prospective employer;
  6. Try to stick to the scope of the requested information. Don’t volunteer opinions or offer unsubstantiated data. Depending on your firm’s established policy for providing references – just stick to basic facts. (However, be sure to review the last paragraph of this article about providing references for past employees who exhibited violent workplace behavior – made serious threats – or sexually harassed other employees);
  7. Keep detailed records regarding all reference requests. If you fail to keep all written data involved with these requests and copies of the information your company provided, you may have a very difficult time mounting an effective defense if you’re sued for defamation – or on the other grounds named above – by a former employee;
  8. Be careful and provide about the same amount of information about all employees. While it may be tempting to provide lengthy praise for some former employees, it’s best to only comment on factors that may apply to all employees. If you’re going to provide negative information, be sure to first check with your Houston employment law attorney to be certain you’re not being too harsh – or revealing too much;
  9. Try to avoid requiring or compelling self-publication. If you fired someone because they were recently convicted of a serious crime or are no longer qualified to maintain a certain level of a security clearance, be careful what reason you give for firing that person. Otherwise, you may be forcing that person to later “self-publish” negative facts about themselves. Ask your lawyer if there are other valid legal grounds you can state as the basis for the firing of an employee when controversial issues were also involved. This can cause complex problems — yet honesty is always crucial; and
  10. Only share objective information. Never tell a prospective employer about any workplace gossip tied to the past employee’s personal problems. You should only be sharing data that can be easily verified by reviewing the employee’s personnel file.

While all these tips should help you reduce your chances of being sued based on a claim of defamation (or the other grounds stated at the beginning of this article), you must remain aware that providing too little information about a past employee can potentially render you liable in a lawsuit brought by the new employer. More facts about that problem are provided below.

Can you be sued for negligent referral, fraud or misrepresentation due to your reference?

Those types of lawsuits are becoming more common. If you had knowledge that a past employee behaved violently in your workplace, made serious verbal or physical threats against others – or sexually harassed one or more workers, you might need to disclose some of that information. This is a topic you must discuss in much greater detail with your Houston employment law attorney since Texas law may or may not provide you with adequate protection from liability.

If you’re uncertain how to provide a reference for a past or departing employee, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can provide you with sound legal advice regarding such topics. Our firm can also help you create employee release and authorization forms. Should you be sued by a former employee, we’ll be available to defend you through every stage of any proceeding.

You Might Need a Revocable or Irrevocable Trust

Depending on the nature of the property you own and how it’s titled, you may want to ask your lawyer to create a trust that will help you meet all your estate planning needs. To prepare for such an appointment, be sure to take along two lists – one noting all the properties you own and the other indicating the beneficiaries you want to help by naming them in the trust.

Your attorney will need to ask some general questions to help you decide which one of these trusts is best suited to your current financial situation.

Before describing some of the precise differences between revocable and irrevocable trusts, this article will note some of the general reasons why they’re often desirable.

What general benefits do trusts often confer on estate planning clients?

  • They can help maximize family privacy. Most property that passes to beneficiaries under trusts is never publicly disclosed — except to the extent that certain taxes may be owed on gifts given or received. Obviously, when property passes through probate, members of the public can learn about your estate by reviewing court records. Therefore, trusts offer greater privacy;
  • Trusts can help protect your assets from outside creditors. While this goal can be achieved if you’re not attempting to defraud others when you have the trust created, you must be prepared to answer questions if creditors sue you. If you want to put assets in a trust in hopes of getting around specific Medicaid rules and regulations, you must let your lawyer explain how the government prevents fraud in this legal area;
  • They can provide specific tax advantages. For example, since property or assets placed in an irrevocable trust account are considered owned by the trust and not by the grantor who had it created, those assets will not be treated as part of your estate (for tax purposes) at the time you pass away. (However, any assets in a revocable trust when you die will be taxed as part of your overall estate);
  • Trusts can provide added financial security to a dependent disabled person. In order to qualify for some Social Security benefits, recipients must meet certain financial criteria. If they own too much property or are too wealthy, they won’t be qualified to obtain key benefits. One legal way to get around this problem is to place assets in an irrevocable trust and name the disabled person as a beneficiary. Your Houston estate planning attorney can explain this process in greater detail. Aging parents and others often set up trust accounts like this to be sure seriously disabled family members will have enough to live on in the future – long after others have passed on;
  • At the time of a divorce, most trust funds should remain protected. However, you cannot place funds in a trust prior to a divorce to try and defeat your spouse’s community property rights;
  • Properly created trusts have long helped grantors provide for the basic needs of their loved ones.

It’s important to note that all trusts are categorized as either “testamentary” or “living” (inter vivos) trusts. The latter type become viable during the grantor’s lifetime – while testamentary trusts – which are directly linked to your Will — don’t go into effect until you’ve passed away.

What are some specific benefits of revocable trusts?

  • They can provide ongoing control over all trust assets. If you create a revocable trust, you can decide if you want to serve as the trustee and move certain assets in and out of the trust when you choose, depending on the terms you created for the trust;
  • You can change the terms of the trust when you choose. This might mean picking a new trustee or altering the list of beneficiaries;
  • They are relatively easy to handle at tax time. As the grantor (or creator) of this trust, you can simply declare your earnings from the trust in your personal tax return.

What are some specific benefits of irrevocable trusts?

  • The trust assets are usually considered safe from the reach of outside creditors. This will prove true if you didn’t have the trust created to defraud others. Courts will review all aspects of the trust’s initial drafting when checking to be sure it wasn’t set it up to defeat known debts;
  • As noted above, disabled people needing to receive special Social Security benefits can often receive critical added funds from properly drafted irrevocable trusts;
  • For tax purposes, the IRS and others don’t usually view these trust assets as being owned by the grantor at the time of his/her death. Therefore, any assets in the trust at the time the grantor dies will not be added to assets outside the trust when calculating any estate taxes that may be due.

Always keep in mind that the laws controlling the creation of trusts change periodically. Be sure to always confer with your Houston estate planning lawyer who keeps up with such changes before ever trying to create or modify a trust. Attorneys also stay abreast of all new state probate laws that may affect clients’ estate plans.

Should you need any help with creating or updating a trust account, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We’re ready to provide the legal advice you’ll need to fully protect your assets in the future. Our firm can also help you revise your estate plan as your family continues to grow and new investments are added to your portfolio.

Basic Requirements for Creating a Trust in Texas

Before meeting with your lawyer to create a trust, it should prove helpful to first review the following general legal terms and requirements that govern this effort. Once you understand your duties and the different parties you’ll need to name in the trust, you’ll be better prepared to begin listing the property you wish to transfer through your trust.

Key terms such as grantor, trustee, beneficiary and trust agreement

If you’re the party seeking to create a trust, you may be referenced in the trust document as the grantor, settlor or trustor. In order to create a valid trust in Texas, you must have the present intent or goal to create this type of document that allows you to protect property in a trust during your lifetime. Depending on the exact type of trust you create, you may also retain the right to fully control the property during your lifetime – which may include moving specific bits of property it in and out of the trust according to your needs.

Among your various duties as the grantor, you’ll need to decide who you want to name as the trustee – or controlling party – of your trust. If you choose to create the type of trust that must be managed and controlled by another party, you’ll have to decide if this should be your lawyer, a family member or another party with strong financial management skills.

As the creator of the trust, it will also be up to you to carefully describe all the duties you want your trustee to handle and how you prefer that those duties be carried out. And if you’ve chosen to act as the trustee, you should also name a potential “successor trustee” who can step in and take over if (or when) you become incapacitated — or pass away.

Additional requirements that must be met when creating your trust

You’ll need to be of sound mind, fully capable of understanding all that you’re trying to do with your property and have a proper legal purpose for the trust. In other words, you’ll just need your lawyer to state the specific type of lawful trust that you’re creating – such as a revocable, irrevocable or spendthrift trust – and which parties will receive the benefit of the properties held within the trust.

Texas law also mandates that your trust fully complies with all the requirements of the Statute of Frauds. This basically means that the trust is set forth in writing and is properly executed in full keeping with that statute so that it’s legally enforceable in a court of law. Your Houston estate planning attorney can also explain to you why certain gifts must become vested within set time periods so that they’re not in violation of the Rule Against Perpetuities.

Why you may need more than one trust

In addition to creating a trust that provides all your property with certain tax advantages during your lifetime, you may also wish to create an educational trust that will benefit your grandchildren or even one to cover the needs of a beloved pet after you pass away.

A simultaneous review of your entire estate plan will also benefit you

Whether you’re married or single, it’s always wise to carefully review all your assets with your attorney when creating a trust. In some cases, you may even want to go ahead and change how certain property is currently titled and change some investment accounts so that they’ll pay out directly to specific beneficiaries at the time you pass away – thereby lessening the duties of any party you’ve named as your trustee.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can create the type of trust you currently need. We’ll also help you review your overall estate plan and provide you with legal advice about the right way to properly manage any property or business interests not currently covered by a trust.

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.