Legal Documents Often Needed by Caregivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pursuing Federal Government “Set-Aside” Contracts

If you’re looking for new ways to “grow” your small business, you may want to learn more about qualifying to bid on federal government “set-aside” contracts. The Small Business Administration (SBA) says there are two basic types of these set-aside contracts. Both can result in highly lucrative contracts that might otherwise have been awarded to far larger companies

The difference between “sole-source” and general competitive bidding set-aside contracts

This “sole-source” type of set-aside contract is often awarded through a non-competitive bidding process when the government believes that only one single business can meet the contract’s requirements. Companies seeking to bid on these types of contracts must first register with SAM (the System for Award Management). Occasionally, these types of sole-source contracts may be managed so that competitive bids will be accepted.

However, most small businesses try to submit bids after qualifying for one of four main federal government set-aside contract programs that always consider competitive bids. Here’s a closer look at each of them.

The four main types of federal government set-aside contracting programs

  1. Women-owned companies. Each year, the federal government tries to award at least five percent of all federal contracting dollars to Women-Owned Small Businesses (WOSBs).

The goal is to try and help women gain access to more business contracts now since male-run companies were often favored during past decades.

  1. Companies owned chiefly by a disabled military veteran. At present, the SBA states that the federal government seeks to award about three percent of all federal government set-aside contracts to disabled-veteran owned businesses;
  2. 8 (a) business development program entities. These businesses are usually run by socially or economically disadvantaged owners. In some cases, they’re helped by forming joint ventures with more established companies. An SBA specialist may be assigned to help the owners gain a better understanding of how the federal government contracting process is designed to work. Each year, at least five percent of all federal contracting dollars are awarded to owners of these types of businesses;
  3. HubZone certified small businesses. For your company to qualify to bid on this type of set-aside federal government contract, it must be at least 51% owned and controlled by a U.S. citizen, an agricultural cooperative, a Community Development Program, an Indian tribe or a Native Hawaiian organization. The principal place of business for a HubZone company must be located in a qualified HubZone area. In general, these businesses are viewed as “distressed” and are often found in underrepresented rural or urban populations.

If you’d like to find out if your company can be certified to bid on federal government contracts under one of these four competitive set-aside programs, plan on meeting with your Houston business law attorney. You can then discuss the various challenges you may encounter while trying to become a small business contractor with the federal government. You can also ask how you might submit bids to any state government contracting programs.

After speaking with your lawyer, you may also want to pursue a special SBA training program. Even if your business cannot currently qualify for certification under one of the set-aside programs described above, you can still try to obtain specialized training that can help you better manage your employees while expanding your customer base without doing business with any government programs.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys about your current interest in bidding on specific types of government or private enterprise business contracts. In addition to providing you with our best legal advice, we can also help you create the formal paperwork that you may need.

Basic Facts: Special Needs and Pooled Trusts

If you want to give money to a disabled family member receiving government benefits like SSI (Supplemental Security Income) and Medicaid, consider setting up a special needs trust and naming that person in your Will. Careful planning is required since disabled people can lose their eligibility to receive certain benefits if their net worth and assets increase.

Once you’ve created the proper type of trust account, your disabled family member will be in a better position to: (1) start receiving an added monthly stipend or inheritance from a family member; (2) accept a large sum of money after surviving a serious vehicle accident caused by another person’s negligence; or (3) receive funds from another unusual source.

Here’s additional information about creating SNTs – special needs trusts. You may want to set up a third-party or first-party SNT – and possibly even a pooled trust.

Here are some of the unique features offered by third-party SNTs (special needs trusts)

The American Bar Association says that this type of SNT, also referred to as a supplemental needs trust, can be used to help a disabled beneficiary receive a gift or inheritance from a third party such as a relative. However, it should never to be used for any assets or money that already belong to the beneficiary.

Based on the general terms you set forth in the trust, your trustee will then determine the exact way all funds will be used to help your beneficiary (or loved one). While many of these types of trusts are considered testamentary (part of someone’s estate), they can also be used for inter vivos transfers of gifts (those made while the person making the gift is still alive).

Like the third-party SNT described below, this first-party type should be set up so that the recipient’s government benefits remain their primary source of income — and these types of added funds are simply a supplemental source.

What are some of the unique attributes of a first-party SNT (special needs trust)?

While sometimes referred to as self-settled special needs trusts, these are mainly created to receive assets that are the beneficiary’s legal possessions. As is true of most SNTs, you’ll need the help of a highly experienced Houston business law attorney to help you create one since the multiple state and federal laws governing them can periodically change.

What’s most unique about this type of trust is that it must include a provision stating that when the beneficiary dies – depending on the exact amount of assets still contained in the SNT — Medicaid must be repaid for all funds that were ever spent on the beneficiary.

Those who most often benefit most from these types of first-party, special needs trusts usually fall into one of the two following categories.

  • They are under age 65 and want to receive funds worth more than $2000 (or more than the net worth amount currently allowed by law) – while remaining eligible for government benefits — or
  • They have received (or will receive) an unexpected financial windfall – possibly as the result of a personal injury lawsuit following a car accident.

Keep in mind that first-party SNTs can only be established by a parent, grandparent, legal guardian or court for a special needs person.

If you can’t afford a trust administered by a paid trustee – ask about “pooled” trusts

When funds are limited, you can ask your attorney to create what’s often referred to as a “pooled trust.” This type of account containing a disabled person’s money can be added to funds that have been deposited for other special needs individuals.

All of these accounts are then monitored and administered together by a non-profit board or agency. Among other tasks, your attorney may need to create a joinder agreement (or review one offered to you) as you start applying to various types of appropriate pooled trust groups.

Many disabled adults prefer this approach since they can personally help establish their own “pooled trust” with an organization set up to administer such accounts – without the help of other family members.

Whatever else you do, try to avoid simply giving extra funds to a family member so that person can later provide for all the disabled person’s needs. Given human nature, that money may never wind up being spent to benefit the person with special needs.

Please contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can use our lengthy experience creating special needs and other trusts to protect your disabled loved one’s financial interests — both now and in the future.

General Steps to Take While Preparing to Sell Your Business

Selling your company at the proper time can provide you with greater freedom and added income as you pursue other business or personal goals. Whether you’re a sole proprietor who can move forward alone — or someone who must confer with business partners or a corporate board of directors, there are basic steps you can follow that can help streamline the process.

As you further contemplate this move, give serious thought to timing and be ready to explain why you’re making specific choices to prospective buyers; They’re sure to ask why you’re selling your company now. Also think about whether you should hire a professional business broker, especially if you don’t want to manage the sale on your own and are concerned about locating the best potential buyers.

Each of these key topics are discussed further below.

Are you prepared to tell qualified buyers why you want to sell your business now?

If sales are dropping or you’re currently losing a sizable portion of your customer base, you may want to postpone the sale for six months or a year. During that time, you may be able to rebuild the company and make it more viable.

Of course, business owners often want to sell their companies for many other reasons, including the following ones.

  • They’re eager to retire and simplify their lives – letting go of business activities.
  • They have current disputes with partners, co-owners or corporate board members, so they would just like to move on. Obviously, you’ll need to reference these issues in a very tactful yet honest manner if you have no other reasons for selling.
  • The sole owner (or another party) is facing a serious illness or impending death.
  • You want to keep working — but in a less stressful capacity. Be ready to share this in as upbeat a manner as possible – while being open and honest about the pressures of running the business.
  • You’ve developed a keen interest in a different business field and are eager to get your new venture up and running.

These are just a few of the reasons why people often choose to sell a business. Whatever you decide to tell prospective buyers – be as honest as possible since a failure to disclose current problems is unethical and could damage your reputation in the community.

If your business is losing value, be prepared to tell potential buyers (after carefully qualifying them) how they might reverse that trend. You can also explain why they may still want to simply purchase all your valuable vehicles and equipment.

Decide whether you should sell the business yourself – or hire other professionals

  • Legal advice can prove crucial. You’ll also need help drafting the various legal contracts and documents required to support a sale.
  • You’ll want to work closely with your accountant. All your business and tax records must be fully updated.
  • A business appraiser can prove very helpful. This individual can help you determine a fair asking price for your company.
  • Even a brief consultation with a business broker can benefit you. This person knows how to locate a healthy pool of potential buyers. This process can prove extra challenging if you do not want to run any public advertisements.

Be prepared to locate or create various documents while trying to complete a viable sale

You must be prepared to share all your basic financial statements and records for the past three or four years. It’s also crucial to create a comprehensive list of all your company equipment and fixed assets tied to your business accounts. (Be prepared to spend the necessary fees to repair all valuable vehicles, equipment and other goods involved with the final sale).

It’s also important to create a detailed list of your ongoing sales transactions and the names of the companies that currently provide all your company’s most critical supplies. Copies of all current contracts and leases should also be made available so qualified buyers can review them.

Be prepared to carefully decide which buyers may be the most dependable ones

Many business owners prefer to sell their companies to close family members, trustworthy employees, friends or current customers. You’ll need to choose wisely, especially since this type of sale often takes from six months to two years. 

Of course, never disclose private information about your business to potential buyers until after they’ve each agreed to sign non-disclosure agreements and qualified for financing plans that meet your requirements.  Be prepared to negotiate carefully – or ask your attorney to handle the negotiations on your behalf.

If you’re ready to sell a business – or just want to learn more about all the various legal and practical steps referenced above, please contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We look forward to answering all your questions.

Most Common Hiring Discrimination Complaints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Federal laws and related regulations designed to protect workers against discrimination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Planning for Your Senior Years Should Begin Now

Creative Planning for Your Senior Years Should Begin Now

Just as most younger people make detailed plans before entering college or starting their careers, older Americans must also carefully plan how they want to live out the last decades of their lives. If you’ll start this process early, you’re much more likely to have many positive options and choices available.

Yet before older Americans or “seniors” start thinking about vacations and other pleasure pursuits – it’s crucial to first address such basic needs as finances, housing and medical care. A good way to start this process is by asking yourself each of the following questions.

  • What family, financial and legal resources do I currently have?
  • When – and in what order — should I begin drawing upon those resources in the most efficient manner?
  • If I’m short on all or most resources – how can I immediately begin creating a supportive community of friends, relatives and others to help me?

Your financial and legal resources require immediate planning and regular oversight

You’ll always need to know more than just how much money you have and how quickly you can liquidate it in case of an emergency. Although it’s important to be able to access large amounts of money should you or your spouse require immediate medical care that isn’t readily covered by insurance, there are other more critical issues you should address first.

Stated simply, everyone needs to secure Medical Power of Attorney documents, a Will and other supporting documents. You can easily acquire this paperwork by meeting with your Houston estate planning lawyer long before you reach your senior years. This will help you obtain the best medical care available – in keeping with your preferences.  You can also inquire about other documents that can grant trusted individuals the right to handle your finances (especially if you’re single without adult children) if you become temporarily incapacitated.

Given how many older Americans now live alone, these matters should never be postponed. As of 2010, about 12% of women between the ages of 80 and 84 were unmarried and childless. By 2018, some experts predict that about 16% of women in that age group will fit that description.

Of course, many men may also have similar needs since the average woman only outlives the average male by a few years.

Once you and your attorney have created all this legal paperwork, be sure to give copies to trusted relatives or friends so that they can make sure you obtain the care you need right when you need it the most.

If you’re age sixty and single (or even if married) – start proactively deciding where you’ll live Afraid to face the reality of eventual death, too many people refuse to move into proper housing before their health seriously deteriorates. When this happens, helpful family members or friends are often greatly inconvenienced by your avoidable tardiness.

Give serious thought to moving into a place now that offers different levels of care. Otherwise, if a sudden emergency develops, you might not wind up where you want to be. Try looking for unique living arrangements where seniors can blend in with others of all ages. Places like Hope Meadows are often a blessing to many.

Think positive if you have little money – consider part-time work – and keep socializing

Stay active pursuing activities that are meaningful, useful and fun. As you get to know others better, you may want to suggest becoming part of each other’s support network. Friendships with others of all ages can prove very beneficial to everyone involved.

If you currently have a tech-savvy friend or family member — and want to live at home as long as possible — be sure to check out the newest “apps” that can help keep you and your financial world safe.

Always be kind to yourself. If current media articles make you feel that you made poor choices in the past regarding marriage and children, keep in mind that married couples (and older singles) with children don’t always “have it made” regarding help while growing older. Many of these people have adult children who: (1) live far away, (2) are estranged from them, (3) are coping with serious addictions – or are (4) barely staying afloat in their own busy family and work lives.

Finally, since so many entrepreneurs are now rushing into the “longevity market,” you must make sure you’re interacting with reputable people and not scam artists. Just because someone is financially “bonded” to do their work, doesn’t mean they’ll do what’s best for you. Stay in touch with your lawyer and always have at least one trusted friend help you make critical decisions.

Please feel free to schedule an appointment with one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can help you prepare all the estate planning legal paperwork that you need. We can also review any contracts you’re being asked to sign regarding a continuing care retirement community (CCRC). We look forward to being of service to you.

IRS Clarifies “Employee” Versus “Independent Contractor” Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Rule on Overtime Released by Department of Labor

May 18, 2016 – The U.S. Department of Labor has released its final rule on overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Administration estimates that the new rule will extend overtime protections to 4.2 million Americans who are not currently eligible under federal law. Once effective, the rule will raise the salary level from its previous amount of $455 per week (the equivalent of $23,660 a year) to $913 per week (the equivalent of $47,476 per year) in 2016. The rule will also raise the compensation level for highly compensated employees from its previous amount of $100,000 to $134,004 annually. The final rule also establishes a mechanism for automatically updating the salary level every three years, with the first update to take place in 2020. These changes take effect on December 1, 2016. The final rule may be viewed here:  https://s3.amazonaws.com/public-inspection.federalregister.gov/2016-11754.pdf.

The final rule does not make any changes to the duties test for executive, administrative and professional employees, which affects the determination of who is exempt from overtime. Administrative employees who do not meet the special provision for administrative employees will be eligible for overtime if they earn below the salary level set in the final rule and they work more than 40 hours in a week. 

In response to the new overtime rule, employers have the option of:

A. Paying time-and-a-half for overtime work;

B. Raising the workers’ salaries above the new threshold;

C. Limiting worker’s hours to 40 per week; or

D. Some combination of the above.

Starting a New Business: Avoid These common Mistakes

Starting a New Business: Avoid These Common Mistakes

Few activities in life are more challenging and exciting than starting a new business. So, if you’re determined to succeed, always accept advice from those who’ve been where you are now and know what often works best. Careful early planning can pay you back many times over later when your properly marketed goods and services motivate satisfied customers to tell others about your unique offerings.

By making the hard choices described below during your start-up phase, you can avoid many errors that often prevent hard-working people with great ideas from carving out a highly profitable niche in today’s marketplace.

The Key Early Decisions New Business Owners Must Make

  • Choose your co-owners wisely. Always look beyond each person’s academic degrees and decide if their experience is strong enough to withstand the challenges of running a business. Clearly define each owner’s responsibilities and how you’ll regularly monitor each other’s performance. Consider requiring every major stakeholder to undergo professional personality testing so you’ll know if you can each offset the specific strengths and weaknesses of one another that high-stress situations often reveal.
  • Fully track all money being spent and coming in. Be sure to hire a competent, in-house accountant. Agree in writing how all funding will be spent.
  • Have your lawyers draft one or more standard form contracts that fully protect your company’s rights. They should be thorough, but not so burdensome or one-sided that customers will refuse to sign them.
  • Meet early on with your trustworthy Houston business law attorneys. Carefully listen as they describe the various business structures that might best suit your company and the different tax consequences that accompany each one. Learn all you can about the state and federal employment laws and regulations you must follow. Ask for help drawing up your first employee handbook (spelling out all employee benefits) and decide if your employees should all sign “at-will” employment offer letters. Obtain advice on choosing the best available name for your company. Inquire about having everyone sign NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) protecting company secrets. And learn all you can about properly handling sexual harassment issues and claims of discrimination;
  • Create a flexible business plan with reasonable goals. This should normally be drawn up after you’ve decided on your business structure (such as a “C” corporation or “LLC”) and created a written operating agreement that clearly defines all key partners’ general duties and responsibilities, financial contributions, and liabilities. Be sure everyone knows that added responsibilities may be added to each person’s assigned tasks as unexpected needs arise. You should also agree in writing whether you must obtain help through arbitration or mediation services when internal problems cannot be readily resolved;
  • Hire the best employees you can afford. Just as you need to choose co-founders with proven records of making ethical business decisions, you also need highly flexible employees who are told up front that they may need to “wear many hats” as new duties must be assigned.
  • Check out your competition ahead of time and properly fund adequate marketing of your goods and services. Never assume all your company’s offerings are completely unique. Fully handle all due diligence tasks in a timely manner so you can hopefully determine how your competitors have been successfully reaching the very customers you hope to win over. Be sure the market (or location) you’re targeting can handle all the current competition – and make adequate plans to distinguish your brand from all the others.

While the suggestions shared above should help you, always be ready to consult with others as you broaden your web of industry experts and colleagues. If you need to raise more capital for your business, keep in mind that it’s often wise to befriend employees at companies currently funded by the specific venture capitalists you hope to meet with in the future.

Always Place a High Value on Customer Feedback – Readily Making Changes as Needed

No matter how good your in-house experts may be, your customers can often offer you invaluable information about how you may need to periodically change specific products or services. You should also ask them for their ideas on how you might improve your marketing efforts. Consider offering fee discounts to current customers if they’ll undergo brief interviews about your company. You might also simply ask customers to complete brief online surveys about your products and services.

If you’ll meet regularly with your co-founders and openly discuss problems as soon as they arise, chances are your new business will succeed.

Making the Critical Distinction Between Employee and Independent Contractor

Among the thorniest concerns facing Texas business owners, large and small, is the issue of whether they are properly classifying certain types of workers as employees or independent contractors. As there are clear advantages to designating individuals as independent contractors, some businesses are deliberately making incorrect classifications, whereas others are making these errors inadvertently and subjecting themselves to onerous penalties and fines. The attorneys of Murray-Lobb regularly advise business clients on properly classifying workers in order to remain in full compliance with the U.S. Department of Labor, the IRS and the Texas Workforce Commission, and we offer the following guidance to help illustrate the potential pitfalls.

Common Reasons for Misclassification

The benefits of designating a worker as an independent contractor as opposed to an employee are many. An employee will potentially be eligible for federal and state minimum wage, overtime, unemployment insurance and worker’s compensation benefits. They will also require necessary equipment, training and supervision, all things thatcan prove costly to employers. In contrast, independent contractors will be entitled to none of those expensive benefits and will require little to no additional training. Therefore, it is easy to see why many employers frequently select this classification, even if it is arguably inaccurate when applied to the facts at hand.

There can be serious consequences when a business fails to correctly classify workers as employees or independent contractors. Those with true employees are required by the IRS to withhold income taxes, social security taxes and medicare taxes, and neglecting to make those deposits can leave companies vulnerable to additional liabilities in the form of interest, penalties and other unwanted scrutiny. Further, the Department of Labor has recently signaled its intention to enhance audit efforts with regard to companies it believes are out of compliance in this regard and to utilize its powers to impose burdensome penalties.

Determining Proper Worker Classification

Muddying the waters further for companies wishing to remain in compliance with all relevant governmental agencies is the fact that each one uses its own set of criteria for determining which workers are properly considered employees and which ones are truly independent contractors. The Department of Labor focuses on a so-called “economic realities” test that uses six factors to aid businesses as they attempt to choose the correct classification for workers, including:

  • Whether the work being performed is integral to the employer’s business;
  • Whether the worker’s managerial skills impact his or her opportunity to realize profit or loss;
  • How a worker’s relative investment stacks up against the company’s investment;
  • Whether the work being done requires specialized skills and initiative;
  • Whether the relationship between the parties is permanent or of an indefinite nature;
  • The degree and nature of the company’s control over the worker’s activities, including where, how and when work is performed.

The IRS utilizes a test involving 11 distinct factors, focused heavily on similar criteria to those used by the Department of Labor. The employers financial and behavioral control of the worker are again pivotal to determining correct classification. The Texas Workforce Commission has promulgated a 20-factor test to assess worker status, which a company can use when facing an audit to overcome the presumption present under Texas law that all workers are employees. Under the Texas law presumption test, some specific hallmarks of a genuine independent contractor relationship include:

  • Absence of company-provided training for the worker;
  • Payment upon completion of projects, not by hourly wage;
  • Worker does not use company e-mail accounts;
  • No benefits are provided to the worker;
  • No tax withholdings are made and a 1099 is issued at year’s end;
  • The worker submits invoices for work performed;
  • The worker has a roster of other clients.

Though none of these factors are determinative in and of themselves, taken together they can help create the total picture from which an accurate classification can be made.

Remaining Mindful of Common Pitfalls

Many businesses that find themselves out of compliance when it comes to their classification of workers have not intentionally sidestepped the law, but have simply fallen victim to certain common misconceptions. For instance, some believe that execution of a simple contract declaring the worker to be an independent contract will provide the necessary clarity. However, while Texas will generally defer to the right of parties to contractually define an employment arrangement in this way, the Department of Labor will still use its own test to determine proper status. Further, allowing a worker to work flexible hours in a location of their choosing does not automatically confer independent contractor status. Depending on the work being done, the Labor Department may still find that such individuals are in fact true employees. Ultimately, it is necessary to undertake a global analysis of a wide range of factors in order to make correct classifications and remain on the right side of the law.

Mitigating the Risks of Misclassifying Workers

As stated earlier, many businesses that are out of compliance when it comes to classifying workers have not knowingly made such errors, but have simply misunderstood or misapplied the traditional tests used by key governmental agencies. Fortunately, in addition to seeking guidance from a skilled Texas business lawyer, there are other steps that can be taken to mitigate the risk of improper classification of workers. Some may choose to restructure or re-document their existing independent contractor relationships with greater precision and with an eye toward explicit legal compliance. Others may simply choose to reclassify their independent contractors altogether, and certain businesses may opt to redistribute such workers to workforce management enterprises or dedicated staffing firms.

Essential Guidance for Texas Businesses

Depending on the size and type of business involved, getting worker classifications right can be a very high stakes proposition. The potential sanctions for making improper categorizations can be substantial, and remaining in full compliance with governing agencies must be a priority for all business owners. Bringing decades of business law experience to bear, the attorneys of Murray-Lobb stand ready to provide clients with a comprehensive review of their worker classification practices as well as invaluable guidance on how best to structure the relationships so vital to the success of every enterprise, big or small.