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.

What Kinds of Property Can Be Placed in a Revocable Living Trust?

A revocable living trust is an estate planning document that allows its trustee to actively control many properties and possessions during an entire lifetime. Both new and older possessions can be freely moved in and out of this trust and left to various beneficiaries. Once the trustee passes away, all the property still held by the trust can immediately pass to the beneficiaries and avoid incurring unnecessary probate fees.

Since real estate, business interests and personal possessions can be quite varied, it’s wise to discuss their individual characteristics with your lawyer before placing them in this type of trust. This especially holds true if you plan on buying and selling some of your possessions on a regular basis. In some cases, it may be easiest to allow a few less expensive properties to pass through probate when their value will help minimize any fees.

Here’s an overview of the type of personal possessions, real estate, business accounts and other items that you may want to place in your revocable living trust (RLT).

Types of property often placed in a revocable living trust

  • Real estate and houses. You can place these in a revocable trust, even if they’re encumbered by mortgages. Of course, any debt still owing on the property will pass to the beneficiary;
  • Legal interests you own in most small businesses. You’ll need to give this very careful thought since you’ll want to be sure your beneficiaries can capably run the business and handle other required tasks. Also, you and your Houston estate planning attorney need to carefully read all the small print in your business contracts to be sure they don’t specifically forbid the transfer of your ownership interests into a trust. Other formalities may also become pertinent. For example, if you’re a partner in a group governed by a partnership ownership certificate, that document may have to be changed to indicate your trust is the legal owner of your share in the business. Somewhat similar issues may arise if you own shares in certain types of corporations;
  • Stocks, bonds, bank and security accounts. While it can prove useful (if allowed by the terms of each account) to place all of these in your revocable living trust, it may be simpler to just a name a TOD (transfer on death) beneficiary for one or more of these accounts. Ownership can then pass directly to your beneficiaries as soon as they produce legal proof of your death;
  • Copyrights, trademarks, royalties and patents. These can all be placed in your LRT (living revocable trust). After you pass away, the rights – and limitations – that governed these interests will pass on to your beneficiaries;
  • Gold, silver and other precious metals. Before deciding whether it’s wise to place these in your trust, be sure to get them accurately appraised;
  • Prized pieces of artwork, antiques (and less expensive) furniture. Be sure that all these unique items are properly insured before placing them in your trust;
  • Your collectibles. These often include coins, stamps and other unique items you may have spent a lifetime collecting. (Be sure all these items are also properly appraised and insured).

Should you place your life insurance policy into your revocable trust?

If you’re considering this move because you’re trying to protect the policy proceeds from having to go through probate, be aware that such proceeds automatically bypass probate and go straight to your named beneficiaries. However, if the only beneficiary of your policy may still be a child should you suddenly pass away, you may want to put the life insurance policy into your trust and name the living trust as the beneficiary. Your lawyer can then make sure that the trust names an adult to manage the proceeds of the life insurance policy for the specifically named child until s/he reaches adulthood.

How should 401(k), 403(b), IRA and qualified annuity accounts be handled?

You can create various tax problems for yourself by trying to transfer these into your LRT. Ask your lawyer if it would be better to just change the beneficiaries named for these accounts.

Should you place ownership of any vehicles in your trust?

If you use them regularly, this is often not practical. However, if you own one or more antique autos, you may want to talk with your attorney about whether it’s fully beneficial to hold title to them in your trust – or if there’s a better way to keep them out of the probate process.

Can oil and gas mineral rights be placed in a revocable living trust?

What you can do with these depends on the precise nature of the rights you hold. Ask your Houston business law attorney if you should create an assignment to these rights or try to formally obtain a new deed before transferring them into your revocable living trust.

Please contact us and allow one of our Murray Lobb attorneys to help you draw up any living revocable trusts you may need to help protect your personal property and possessions.

How Texas Estates Are Often Handled When Wills Cannot Be Found

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to Create a Business Succession Plan NOW

Why You Need to Create a Business Succession Plan Now

Even when all owners of a company plan to work until the very end of their lives, there’s still a need for a viable business succession plan. After all, anyone can become totally or partially disabled as a result of a serious car accident or die of a deadly disease on almost any day.

When business owners hide from this reality, they often create havoc for all surviving partners or family members. Instead, it’s better to move forward at a calmer time to carefully address these types of possible future events.

Your Houston business law and estate planning attorney can help you decide on the best way to either pass your business on to others — or liquidate all the assets to meet your own needs and those of your survivors.

General questions you must answer yourself about any succession plan

  • What is the current market value of this business and all its assets?
  • Who is the best possible buyer? Do I prefer to sell the business to a co-owner, family member, employee or a third party?
  • Am I more likely to sell the business sooner rather than later? Am I interested in selling the company now due to health, retirement or other reasons?
  • Is this business tied to its current location? If not, would it be reasonably simple for the business to be moved elsewhere and successfully run by someone there?
  • What preferences do I have about how the sale should be financed? Am I willing to personally finance the loan? If so, what type of collateral should I require?
  • Which business advisors should I consult with while securing all the required contracts and other paperwork? Besides business and tax lawyers, do the specific assets of my company require me to consult with real estate agents, insurance and business brokers, bankers and financial advisors?

It’s often wise to start this process by locating and reviewing all your current business contracts and deeds. Next, give some thought to your company’s most productive and respected employees. Then, carefully determine the current market value of every business asset. Finally, schedule confidential, preliminary talks with any co-owners, family members who work for you, other key employees and perhaps one or two other potential buyers of your company.

Once these initial tasks have been handled – or while you’re completing them – it’s wise to meet with your Houston business law attorney.

Advantages and disadvantages of selling to different parties

Unless you’re the sole owner of the company and simply want to liquidate all the business assets and not sell (or transfer) the company to others, you must carefully evaluate each potential buyer and decide which one is best qualified to run the company in your absence.

  1. One or more family members. In most instances, it’s usually best to sell to only one family member, preferably one who is already involved in the business and respected by your employees. Ask your attorney about the best ways to prevent future challenges to any decision you make. One approach might involve drafting a buy-sell agreement that clearly states who is going to be running the company — and asks all others who currently work there (or own shares) — to sell their shares to the person you’ve named as your successor. This approach often helps minimize future family disagreements.

When selling a business to a family member, you may want to execute a self-canceling installment note (SCIN). Your attorney can explain why that may be useful;

  1. A key employee who is highly knowledgeable and well liked by other workers. The most common drawback to selling to a key employee is that the person may not be able to give you a large down payment in cash. Be prepared to execute a buy-sell agreement that clearly lists all the valuable collateral for any loan you may be willing to finance. You can also suggest that this employee try to obtain an SBA (Small Business Administration) or bank acquisition loan that will provide you with up to 70% or more of the purchase price upfront;
  2. You can sell your shares to your co-owners. Be sure to clearly indicate the sale’s price and all purchase terms;
  3. An outside third-party or competitor. Be very careful when selling to this type of buyer if you’re financially depending on the person to keep running the company. Due diligence is critical when evaluating every potential buyer.

Since this article only provides a broad overview of the types of issues involved when drafting a business succession plan, you’ll need to obtain competent legal help to handle this entire process. Should you already have some type of succession plan, we can help you decide if it’s time to update it.

All our Murray Lobb attorneys have the necessary experience to help you create a business succession plan that’s specifically tailored to your company’s unique needs. We look forward to helping you draft all the contracts and other documents you’ll need while selling your business.

 

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.

Steps Required to Dissolve a General Partnership in Texas

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

Do You Need a Written Partnership Agreement in Texas?

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

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

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

First Steps to Take When Preparing to Dissolve Your Partnership

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

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

Handling Debt Payments and Winding Up All Remaining Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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