Ask an Attorney: Adoption

What is a “step-parent adoption”?

Adoptions come in all shapes and sizes. For example, there are international and agency adoptions, private adoptions and “family adoptions.”  Family adoptions are typically adoptions by someone who is related by Blood or Marriage.  This includes adoptions by a step parent.

Adoption law is one of the more satisfying areas of practice especially if it is a friendly adoption.  Judges are happy to preside over step-parent adoptions.  It is great to bring families together rather than litigating to break them apart.  The laws are very exact and the “i’s’ must be dotted and the “t’s” crossed.  It is essential that you have an experienced lawyer who understands the process.

Obtaining consent to a step-parent adoption is often the first step.  The State will not create a new legal parent, until the prior parent’s rights are terminated (unless the biological parent is deceased).  The spouse of the step-parent seeking to adopt will join the petition for adoption, and consent of the parent who will be terminating their parental rights is required for the adoption to be uncontested.  A step-parent adoption can add new depth and meaning to your family, but like any legal proceeding, things can become complicated quickly. In addition,  there are other ramifications  that must be considered before a petition for adoption is filed for and is completed.

Our lawyers at Hillman, Brown & Darrow can help navigate the process for you.  Give us a call.

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Ask An Attorney: Should I appeal?

I was just involved in a hotly contested family law trial and I am not happy with what the judge did.  Should I appeal?

Family cases can be so difficult – they can involve what matters to us most, our families and our children in particular, plus complex financial issues.  If you were unable to resolve the issues and had a contested trial, chances are you are not happy with everything the judge did.  It is also likely you spent a lot of money on attorneys’ fees and costs!  The issue of whether to appeal a judge’s decision is also complex, however.

First there are strict time requirements therefore if you want to pursue an appeal, you should consult with your trial lawyer and/or an appellate lawyer as soon as possible.  In addition, appeals are costly so it is important to get an opinion from a lawyer who can give you an idea of whether it is worth your while or whether there could be other steps to take.  Generally, the appellate courts review whether the trial judge applied the law properly and will not retry the facts of the case. It is not easy to get an appellate court to reverse what the trial court did.  Family law cases involve so many different issues, however, that the appellate courts review the cases closely and will reverse either part or all of a case if the trial court has made a legal error.

The family law attorneys of Hillman, Brown and Darrow, P.A. not only handle all aspects of your case whether it is settled or tried, but are also experienced in appeals of family law cases, even if we were not involved in the trial.  If your lawyer does not handle appeals or you want a second opinion, feel free to contact us to review and develop a plan for addressing whether appealing your case makes sense or whether there are other post-trial steps that might be beneficial.

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Ask an Attorney: Collections

I got a judgment against someone. How do I collect it?

If you are forced to sue someone for money someone owes you, getting your judgment is just the first step in the process.  The judgment is just a piece of paper.  You then have to collect the money the judgment gives you the right to collect.  The law allows a number of different avenues to help you collect on your judgment.  First of all, you are allowed the opportunity to ask questions of the debtor, either face-to-face in court or in writing, to determine what assets they own.  In many instances, you are allowed to attach his or her bank account and force the bank to turn over funds belonging to the debtor.  In many instances, you are allowed to attach his or her wages and force the employer to withhold a portion of pay to the debtor and turn it over to you.  You are also, in some instances, allowed to seize personal or real property of the debtor and sell it to satisfy your judgment.  There are other, more complex ways to recover your money, but these are some of the most common.

All of these avenues involve the legal process and legal filings.  Further, debtors have certain rights and protections that must be honored, and certain exemptions against collection.  You can get into legal trouble for violating these rights and exemption.  All of this may seem complicated and time consuming (and it can be), but before you resort to the baseball bat, come talk to one of our Annapolis Attorneys and see what your options are.

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Boundary Lines, Encroachments and Additions

 House Location Surveys contain this Surveyor’s Legend:

I hereby certify that I have located the improvements on the property known as ___ And the improvements are located as shown. This plat is not to be used for the purpose of establishing property lines.

The reality of this legend is that you should not rely on your house location survey for establishing property lines or constructing buildings or additions or expensive fences, because the mere location of improvements on a platted lot is not a guarantee of perfection of location and property lines.

House Location Surveys are often done shortly before a settlement as a quick “drive-by” with quick measurements to make sure that the house is located on the lot and that there are no visible encroachments. A prudent homeowner should always take a tape measure and verify locations in relation to lot corners or sideline that have been marked with stakes or other boundary markers. However owners should also know that stakes often get placed by owners and are not necessarily set correctly by surveyors.

In order to be certain of your boundaries if there are any encroachment issues a property owner should pay for a field measured boundary line survey and have corners marked with a surveyor’s registered survey marker.

Maryland recognizes a 20 year statute of limitations for removing encroachments or crossing paths. Once 20 years has passed, the burden shifts to the encroached upon owner to prove that the original encroachment was permissive. If the encroachment was provably permissive then the grantor of the permission has the right to revoke permission and require removal of the encroaching structure. This of course means that 20 years ago the neighbors knew that there was an encroachment and had an agreement. These agreements are always best documented with an easement recorded in the land records spelling out the terms of the agreement and rights to revoke and remove encroachments. Oftentimes the passage of 20 years causes lack of agreement and claims of rights that may not have been agreed to 20 years earlier.

Before spending large sums of money to design an addition or expensive fence or pool a property owner should definitely hire a licensed surveyor to measure exactly the front and rear and side line setbacks, and locate wells and septic systems and other improvements. If a major addition or improvement is contemplated, a detailed surveyed site plan with all setbacks and wells and septics labeled should be done before spending architectural fees on a building that does not fit on the lot.

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Mediation: A Dispute Resolution Option Advanced by the Late Judge Howard Chasanow

Judge Howard S. Chasanow died  last month, the day before his 80th birthday.  He served as a District Court Judge (1971-77), a Circuit Court Judge (1977-1990) and on the Court of Appeals until 1999.  While he is remembered as a keen and fair jurist, he devoted the next 15 years of his life to mediating disputes.  Many legal experts credit him with creating modern mediation.

In its April 4th article on the Judge, The Washington Post quoted Judge Chasanow: “The phrase I hate most is ‘Good mediation is when both sides walk out equally unhappy,’  Judge Chasanow told the Daily Record of Baltimore in 2011. ‘A good mediation is when people walk out understanding they’ve reached a fair compromise.’”    A party may second guess a choice to settle or not settle in mediation, but the parties retain greater control over that outcome than if a judge decides the case..  Mediation can short cut the litigation process.  However, it is critical that your lawyer explains your rights, options and alternatives, and that you have all necessary information regarding your case before you mediate.  Preparing for mediation is just as important as preparing for trial.  If you and your attorney fail to prepare for mediation, then the process can not be successful FOR YOU.

Mediation is an opportunity to resolve a dispute that might otherwise consume the parties’ time, money and emotions.  Litigation and a trial can be an expensive method for resolving a dispute. While mediation is not binding (a mediator cannot rule against or for you) the goal is to create a binding and thorough contract that will finally resolve the dispute.  A mediator is an experienced neutral third party who meets with each side to explain the range of potential outcomes and encourages them to control the outcome through agreement.  A good  mediator is qualified, diligent and persuasive to both sides.

Mediation is not always the best option.  It takes two to tango.  Sometimes the parties are too far apart on issues.  Sometimes one party is being unreasonable.  Sometimes, people need their day in court to tell their story for the world to hear.  However, if your case is suitable for mediation, we recommend having a lawyer on your side  to protect each aspect of your case, your rights and correctly memorialize any agreement reached.  Thank you Judge Chasanow for a life well lived!

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Help with Home Repairs and Modifications

Hillman Brown and Darrow’s attorneys are constantly being presented with problems that people deal with when they are having any kind of home-improvement or other construction done for them. The problem always reveals itself after the work has started because the clients have failed to undertake a very simple investigation into who they are contracting with. If you are going to have anybody do any work around your house it’s very easy now to check with the official state databases to see if the corporation exists or not, if it’s in good standing or not and if it actually is licensed. Before you want to enter into a contract make sure you do these simple steps. If you have any problems give us one of our Annapolis attorneys a call. It’s a lot cheaper to address the issue in the first instance rather than have to litigate it after the fact.

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New Laws in Effect: Drinking and Driving

Did you know that as of October 1, 2016, a Maryland driver who refuses to take a breath test for alcohol will either have to use an ignition interlock for nine months or have his or her license suspended for nine months? Also, anyone who is convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol will be required to install an ignition interlock device in their vehicle for six months or be suspended for six months. These new laws are in effect now. If you have been charged by police with any sort of drinking and driving violation, you should talk to an attorney right away. One of our experienced attorneys at Hillman, Brown & Darrow can help you navigate a complicated traffic violation.

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Ask an Attorney: Wills & Estates

Do I Need a Lawyer to Make a Will?

Whenever prospective clients inquire about making a will, a chief concern of theirs, understandably, is cost.  Legal work can be expensive, even for what a prospective client might think is a “simple” matter, such as a “simple” will (if there is such a thing).  Some ask if they could create a will themselves, or, on occasion, ask about sites like LegalZoom, which provide basic form estate documents for minimal fees.

While it is advisable to use an attorney, whether someone could “get by” with a self-created will or one pulled off a website depends on the particular situation of the client.  In some limited situations, they work fine, and I have no problem telling clients that.  For most married couples, for clients with children (especially minor children), for clients that have unusual or complicated succession plans or significant wealth, self-created or form wills will almost never sufficiently address critical issues that may arise after death.

The estate attorneys at Hillman, Brown and Darrow are always here to discuss your needs and achieve the most cost-effective results for you.

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Divorce Update

Getting a divorce can be complicated and time-consuming.  For some couples, however, a recent change in the law has simplified the process.  As of October 1, 2016 couples who have no minor children and who have reached a written agreement resolving alimony and property issues are able to obtain a divorce without a waiting period.  The agreement must be submitted to the court and both parties must appear.  Couple who fall under this category no longer have to wait a year after separation to get divorced.

While the process has been streamlined, divorce laws on alimony and property can still be daunting.  To ensure that your rights are protected, feel free to contact one of our experienced family law attorneys.

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Ask An Attorney: Car Accident Concerns

I have been in a car accident – now what do I do?  What do I say to the insurance company that keeps calling?  What do I drive while my car is getting fixed?  How can I get more money for my car if it is totaled?  Who is going to pay my medical bills and lost wages?  What is PIP?

The lawyers at Hillman, Brown and Darrow, P.A. hear these concerns often and know how to help.

A car accident can be traumatic and the fallout hard to navigate, especially if you have been injured.  Hillman, Brown & Darrow, P.A. has been representing people injured in car accidents for over 35 years. Our Annapolis law firm can help you deal with the insurance companies while you focus on getting well.  We have a strong history of obtaining fair settlements for our clients or if necessary going to court to fight the insurance companies.  If you have a car accident, do not hesitate to call us – you will get personal representation from an experienced lawyer who can help you through this unexpected and often frightening occurrence.

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Expunging Your Record Part II

Most people don’t realize that you can have a criminal or traffic record expunged, which means it is wiped from the records.  This is extremely important for job applications, future legal issues including other tickets, or criminal charges, or even divorce actions. In a prior blog we elaborated on expunging certain criminal records.  We now would like to acquaint you with the expungement process through the MVA.

If you have received a moving violation, and if you are willing to be patient, the MVA will take the points off of your record automatically after 3 years.  But the conviction will still show. Under certain conditions, and if you have not been convicted of other moving violations or your license has not been suspended, on application by you, after specified time periods, the MVA can wipe your record clean.

There are certain criteria that must be met to expunge your record. Those criteria are set out in the Maryland Transportation Article and allow you to do it yourself.  But if you need some help or don’t understand the process a knowledgeable attorney at Hillman, Brown & Darrow can assist you in discerning your rights and completing the paper work for a reasonable fee. Call our Annapolis law firm at (410) 263-3131 today for more information.

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Use Versus Possession and Squatter’s Rights

Everyone has heard the term “squatter’s rights”, but what does this term really mean? There are two real estate issues at play here: “Adverse Possession” and “Prescriptive Use (Easement)”.

A “prescriptive easement” becomes a legally protected right of use when someone has used property by prescription, meaning “actual, open, notorious, hostile, under claim of right and without permission, and continuous for more than 20 years”. Adverse possession confers legal title and ownership on someone who adversely possesses property, “adversely” meaning “actual, open, notorious, exclusive, hostile, under claim of title or ownership, and continuous or uninterrupted.”

The important distinction between the two are the terms “exclusively” and “under claim of title or ownership” and “uninterruptedly”. A “squatter” who occupies property “actually, openly, notoriously, exclusively, hostilely” typically becomes that way by erecting improvements like fences or other obvious boundaries which make obvious the person’s claim of ownership. If the true owner of the property does not do anything to stop the “squatter” then the passage of 20 years bars the true owner from evicting the squatter. The squatter can then go to court to obtain a decree of title after 20 years. A prescriptive easement on the other hand does not involve exclusive possession. Prescriptive easements arise when someone uses property or crosses property for 20 years. The use or crossing does not have to occur continuously and uninterruptedly on a daily basis, but if too long a period of time lapses between the times of use then the true owner’s rights will not be lost. But the use or crossing must be “actual open and notorious” meaning that the repetitive use of the property results in tracks or paths that are visible to the owner, and the property has to be in the open and not “out in the woods” where nobody goes.

Both Adverse Possession and Prescriptive Easement are defeated if the owner of the property can prove that the possession or use were permissive. But the burden of proof on permission rests affirmatively on the owner, so property owners should never “sleep on their rights” for 20 years, and should take affirmative steps in court to terminate the possession or use long before the 20 year period runs.

Never think you know for sure the law in any area of controversy. The law is always open to interpretation based upon the particular facts and circumstances, and often involves mixed questions of law and fact that require a decision by a judge. Always consult with an attorney and do not relay on arcane terms like “squatter’s rights”.

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Your Estate Planning Checklist: The Maryland Estate Tax Exemption

There was big news in the state legislature this past session affecting many more Marylanders than some would imagine. The legislature voted to, over a five year period, increase the amount of a person’s estate that is exempt from Maryland estate taxation from its current level of $1 million dollars to the federal level of about $5.9 million. For quite a long time, Maryland “coupled” its estate tax exemption levels to the federal level, so that they remained the same. However, several years ago, when the federal exemption level began to increase from $1 million to $5 million, Maryland chose to stay where it was. This left a swath of people that were no longer subject to federal estate taxation, but who still had to deal with Maryland estate taxation.

Maryland’s estate tax rate (the highest rate is 16%) is not the whopper that the federal rate is (the highest rate is now 40%), but there are more people that are subject to the tax than one might think. If you told many people that they were a “millionaire,” they would laugh. But if you own a home that you have paid off, if you have a 401(k) and/or an IRA, if you have a life insurance policy, there is a decent chance that when you pool all of that together, more passes upon your death than you might think. Just because you do not have a million dollars sitting in a bank account for discretionary use does not mean you do not have a million dollars of assets.

For a number of reasons, the legislature has elected to give Marylanders a break. Starting in 2015, the individual state estate tax exemption will increase to $1.5 million, then $2 million, $3 million, $4 million, up to the federal level in 2019, which is projected to be at about $5.9 million. So while Marylanders are not out of the woods yet, as the first increase does not kick in until next year and does not reach the federal level for five years, the number of Marylanders that will be affected by the tax should dwindle considerably. In the meantime, and for those that are affected by the tax in any event, an estate planning attorney from our Annapolis law firm can provide you with advice on the many ways that your heirs can minimize the “sticker shock” upon your death.

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Ask An Attorney: Family Law & Your Will

If I die before my divorce is final I do not want my spouse to have custody of our children nor access to my estate. What should I do?

When children are in your life, everything changes. Until your divorce is final, and without a written agreement in the interim, under Maryland law your spouse can still be an heir. You should immediately have your will reviewed or drafted to remove your spouse as an heir and to specifically disinherit your spouse. However you should know that your spouse has an absolute right to claim a statutory forced spousal share of one third of your estate if you die before your divorce decree is signed and docketed and final.

You may appoint a guardian for your children in your will other than your spouse. However, appointment of a guardian for your children in your will is not binding on a court, and the surviving parent of the children will continue to be the parent of the children and will most likely have custody unless there has been a judicial decision that the surviving parent is not a fit and proper person to have custody. Even then your appointment of a guardian in your will is not binding on the court.

Regarding money and property, your will should protect and preserve your assets and appoint a Trustee to hold your estate for the benefit of your children. The trust in your will should be written so that your spouse can not have access to the trust funds which should be controlled by your trustee.

You should make plans for guardianship of your children and their school, medical and personal needs. You need to plan in advance and consider the worst! You will not be there to help your children- you need to protect them now and plan for their future well-being while you can. Contact our Annapolis law firm to discuss your options with one of our experienced attorneys today.

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Ask an Attorney: Expunging Your Record

One of the many services Hillman, Brown & Darrow offers is providing advice and assistance to our clients in filing for expungement of police and court records. The internet makes it easier than ever for employers or other interested parties to access your publicly-available criminal charge information; therefore, it is imperative to seek expungement in every case where you may be eligible. There are a number of variables that go into determining if and when you could be eligible for expungement. Further, it is important to know whether the expungement requires a waiver and release of all tort claims arising from the charge to be expunged. The Annapolis attorneys at Hillman, Brown & Darrow are more than capable of assisting you in discerning your rights.

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Ask an Attorney: Mediator or Attorney?

Should I hire a mediator or an attorney for my divorce?

No one should ever go through any family law issue without having met with an attorney to understand their rights. A mediator’s purpose is to settle a case. Mediators assist in many divorce cases. However, a mediator’s assistance can only be as good as the information you have. Before you walk into a mediator’s office, you should have an understanding of what your rights are, know what the assets are between the two of you, and understand the process. In addition, those who have experienced domestic violence should be reluctant to get involved in mediation, since some of the same issues develop in the mediation sessions that had been present during the marriage regarding control, bullying, and intransigence in though processes.

Always know your rights before you do anything. Talking to an attorney will allow you to understand the complete divorce process rather than just understanding what you will be receiving.

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Ask an Attorney: Prenup Preparation

Do I need a prenuptial agreement to protect me from debts my spouse incurred before our marriage?

Not necessarily, but a prenuptial agreement is useful for many reasons. You do not become legally responsible for your spouse’s debt just because you get married. However, if you take an action to assume responsibility of the debt, like adding your name to a credit card or refinancing an asset to include your name, you may have accepted liability. While a prenuptial agreement may not be required, a prenuptial agreement can address many issues including debts, but remember an agreement between you and your spouse does not bind third parties. Always seek counsel to get advice. Prenups can be beneficial to protect you and help you learn about your spouse and how someone manages their money. Contact our office today to discuss your options with one of our attorneys.

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Ask an Attorney: Child Support

My ex is making tons of money and our teenagers have part time jobs. Can I get child support modified?

You may have the right to modify if there has been a material change in financial circumstances since the last child support order. If there have been significant changes in either party’s incomes or changes in the children’s lives you can ask the court to recalculate child support under the newest guidelines. Calculating your ex’s income is not always simple. Don’t just look at tax returns, but benefits he or she might receive and how much he or she is spending. The Court will consider income paid under the table, for example, if you can prove it. Also, if you and your ex together earn more than $15,000 a month, the rules change. Get legal help from a Maryland divorce lawyer as soon as you believe a material change has occurred. Our Annapolis attorneys can assist you with the legal guidance you need to get started today.

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Ask An Attorney: Separation Advice

My spouse and I are separated with kids.  Things are amicable right now and I don’t want to rock the boat.  Do I need an attorney?

Both marriage and divorce are legal actions regulated by the State of Maryland.  The divorce process is not intended just to dissolve your marriage, but to also resolve custody, property distribution and support issues as well.

Even in the most amicable situations, you will always benefit from the guidance of a family law attorney who can advise you on preparation of a separation agreement, filing an uncontested divorce, or requesting judicial relief on issues where there is no agreement.  Without a written agreement or court order, there is nothing protecting you in the event of a future disagreement or unexpected change in circumstances.  One of our family law attorneys can advise you on the best course of action for your goals and can help prepare you should something unexpected occur.

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Ask an Attorney: Avoiding FLSA Claims

What’s an employer’s “tip credit” and am I using it correctly?

Under Maryland and Federal wage and hour laws, employers can credit tips paid directly to employees to satisfy a portion of required minimum wages. In addition to tip credits, “tip pooling” is allowed, but avoid a claim under the FAIR LABOR STANDARDS ACT (FLSA) and ensure you use these tools correctly. Correct wage and hour standards and tips accounting can be confusing and are different under Maryland Law than the Federal standards. The FLSA protects employers and employees. Don’t gamble that you’re doing everything correctly. Make sure you understand the law!

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New Maryland Divorce Grounds

It’s official!  New simplified grounds for divorce for some people go into effect this month.  Prior to October 1, 2015, a couple seeking an absolute divorce would have to prove that they had lived in separate residences, without cohabitation and without interruption for a minimum of 12 months, unless other grounds, such as adultery, applied.  As of today, couples that have no minor children together can obtain an absolute divorce by “mutual consent” provided they have a written agreement resolving alimony and distribution of their property.  Mutual consent grounds do not apply if you have minor children with your spouse or  unresolved issues regarding marital finances and property, so it is still important to talk to a lawyer about what divorce grounds may be applicable based on your specific circumstances.

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Ask An Attorney: Alimony or Spousal Support

Am I entitled to alimony or spousal support and for how long?

 You may be. There is no set formula for alimony.  Before determining whether a spouse is entitled to alimony or spousal support, the Court will consider multiple factors, such as how long you and your spouse have been married, the age of each party, what caused the break-up of your marriage and the financial needs and resources of each party.  Spousal support may be awarded for a temporary, fixed number of years, or may be awarded “indefinitely.”  Temporary or “rehabilitative” alimony gives a spouse time to get back into the job market, complete educational programs and become self-supporting.  Under very narrow circumstances, the Court does have the right to award “indefinite” alimony.

If you have questions regarding your ability to receive alimony or spousal support, please contact one of our experienced Family Law attorneys at Hillman, Brown & Darrow today for further information.

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Ask An Attorney: Workers’ Comp

If you are a business owner with employees and business is a little slow, is it ok to hold off obtaining or paying that bill for workers’ compensation insurance.  No!  Even if you are not a high risk business or have good safety practices, job related injuries to employees happen and can have devastating effects on your business and you personally.   Injured workers of uninsured employers may be eligible to have their lost wages, medical bills and other benefits paid by a state agency.  The state will seek reimbursement from the uninsured employer however, including fines and penalties. Under certain circumstances, being a corporation or an LLC will not protect you from individual liability.  Furthermore, the process often involves one or more hearings before the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission.

When you are insured, your insurance company will provide you with legal representation.  If you are an uninsured employer, however, and a claim is filed against you and/or your business, you need to hire your own legal counsel.  A workers’ compensation claim can be complex and requires an understanding of the law and how Maryland applies it. An experienced workers’ compensation lawyer is necessary to help you minimize your exposure. The lawyers at Hillman, Brown & Darrow P.A. have representing injured workers for over 30 years and have also represented uninsured employers before the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission.  Do not hesitate to contact us if you find yourself in this predicament.

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Ask An Attorney: Probate

I want to add my kids to the title of my home to avoid probate.  Is there a problem with that?

Not necessarily, and many people of advanced age are interested in doing that.  People figure, they know that they want their kids to have their property when they die, why not just add them to title now?  Doing so can avoid probate, can avoid certain creditors upon your death, and can allow a smooth transition to your intended heirs.  However, there are also some serious potential pitfalls.  Depending on how you add your children to title, there can be consequences that affect all manner of taxes, from real estate taxes, to capital gains taxes, to estate and gift taxes.  Your childrens’ credit (and creditors) could be brought into play if you need to refinance or if they have debt that could be satisfied from your home.  Further, if you change your mind, you may not be able to remove your kids without their consent.

Whether it is a good idea or not depends on your individual circumstances.  Before you make this type of decision, it is advisable to consult with an attorney that can walk you through all those circumstances and discuss the various options you have to add your children to title.

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Real Estate: Leases and Licenses

Because of “abuses in the industry” by landlords for decades, residential landlord tenant relations are strictly regulated.

LEASES for houses and residential units are controlled by the State Real Property Article Title 8 Subtitle 2 (as well as County Code and City Code). A store-bought lease form is unlikely to contain all the numerous statutorily mandated clauses. At a minimum, the Lease must include a separate page for a Receipt for the Security Deposit, and the Lease and the Receipt must contain a clear listing of all of the Tenant’s rights to inspections of the Rental Unit at the beginning and end of the Lease, as well as all of the other Tenant’s rights. The Landlord must maintain the security deposit is a separate escrow account, and must credit interest at 3% per year on the security deposit. Failure to carefully follow the Security Deposit Statute and promptly account for charges against the deposit by letter to the tenant within 30 days of the Tenant’s departure will expose landlords to a tenant lawsuit for triple the deposit plus legal fees. Make sure your Lease form complies with all requirements for residential leases in the State and County and City Codes.

LICENSES for houses and residential units are also a pitfall for Landlords. A residential unit must be licensed in order for a Landlord to file a Failure to Pay Rent Complaint (“summary ejectment”) to evict for non-payment of rent. Proof of the license is a necessary element of proof for the eviction. In the City of Annapolis all rental houses and rental units must be licensed (the only exception is for a house rented only for Commissioning Week and Boat Shows). In the County all rental units in multi-family dwellings must be licensed (the only exception is a single family home, or a legal accessory apartment in an owner occupied single family home). All of these licensing codes are highly complex, and the safest route for a landlord is to visit the City or County Permits Offices and obtain a license or a written verification that a license is not necessary. Call one of our experienced Real Estate Attorneys at Hillman, Brown & Darrow today for further information.

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Ask An Attorney: Starting a Business

I am trying to set up a business. What can a lawyer do for me?

Before investing your hard earned money and your blood, sweat, and tears into your fledgling business, a consultation with an attorney can go a long way to helping you avoid commons mistakes.  A lawyer can consult with you about the appropriate corporate form (type of Company- Inc., LLC, etc.) to limit your personal liability.  The lawyer will probably make recommendations about how to set up initial financing and properly capitalize (fund) your company.  Also key is ensuring that the owners of the business have the knowledge of and proper documents in place to follow the necessary formalities which are required to actually limit personal liability. If your business is going to hire employees, consultation with an attorney can help you set up an Employee Handbook and establish appropriate policies and procedures so that you comply with necessary wage and hour laws, understand employer’s obligations in relation to worker’s compensation and unemployment, and how to avoid common employer problems with incorrectly setting up payroll and possibly incurring employment tax penalties.  Additionally, your business will probably face licensing requirements and possibly confusing zoning restrictions.  You should also be aware of the principles of contract law and some basics of the  Uniform Commercial Code when hiring vendors, suppliers and when opening lines of credit or offering them to your customers. If you plan on offering goods or services to the general public making sure that you understand the requirements of consumer contracts and the Consumer Protection Act can easily prevent misunderstandings, unhappy customers and expensive litigation. Finally, a knowledgeable business attorney can help you understand the structure and often complex terms of commercial leases, banking and security agreements or real estate contracts, as well as advise you about market conditions and appropriate and typical brokerage agreements and fees.  While these areas may appear to be a daunting list of potential stumbling blocks, creating a relationship with an experienced and trusted business attorney will help you properly allocate your recourses, evaluate your risks and leverage and help you create an efficient and productive business.  While it may be difficult to carve out $500.00 or $1,000.00 in your start-up budgeting for attorney’s fees, money spent on even an hour of consultation and planning with an experienced business attorney will likely repay for itself many times over during the course of your entrepreneurial venture.

Please call one of our Annapolis Attorneys at HILLMAN, BROWN & DARROW, P.A. if you would like to set up a consultation to discuss what your business can achieve.

Posted in: HBD Law News

Ask an Attorney: MVA Expungement Part I

The judge found me not guilty of drinking and driving. How can the MVA still take my license?

You probably either refused to take the breath or blood test or your test result was .08 or greater. The MVA and the Court are separate agencies that have difference interests.One hearing does not relate to the other. So yes, the MVA can suspend your license even if you were found not guilty or received a PBJ in court. But, there are certain rules that must be followed before the MVA can take your license. You can request a hearing to challenge the suspension or have an ignition interlock installed, but you need to know which is better for you. Neither of these options are automatic and must be requested within a short time period after you are charged. Do not delay. Get help immediately if you find yourself in this predicament. One of our Annapolis attorneys can guide you through this process.

Posted in: HBD Law News, Uncategorized

Gift & Estate Taxes

The annual Gift Tax exclusion for 2014 and 2015 is $14,000.00 per person per year. This means that you can give $14,000.00 per year to your children and relatives and unrelated persons, and you do not have to file a Gift Tax Return.

Because the Gift Tax is tied to the Estate Tax, any gifts you give during your life above the $14,000.00 annual exclusion amount will be “charged” against your Unified Credit for Estate Taxes. So if you don’t pay the Gift Tax then the gift will be considered part of your estate for estate tax purposes.

The Unified Credit in 2014 is equal to the Estate Tax on $5,000,000.00. The Maryland Estate Tax Credit in 2014 is equivalent to $1,000,000.00, but that Credit amount is phasing up to match the Federal amount over the next 5 years

The significance of these figures in relation to specific gift amounts is as follows. When you write a gift check for $14,000.00 there is no dispute about the value of the cash. There is no gift tax and no dispute about the value of the gift. When you write a gift check for $30,000.00, $14,000.00 is excluded from gift tax, but $16,000.00 will be subject to Gift Tax during your life or “charged” against your estate tax credit if and when you die.

The difference between a check for cash and a gift of property is that gifts of property or stock or business interests are subject to audit and appraisal and can be challenged by the IRS and the Comptroller. However, if you make gifts of real estate or stock to your children and file a Gift Tax Return declaring the value of the gift, the IRS has a limited period to time to challenge the valuation in your Gift Tax Return.

And your Gift Tax Return can elect to “charge” the value of the gift against your Unified Credit for Estate Taxes.This means that if the real estate or stock increases greatly in value during your life the IRS cannot try to include the “date of death” value of that gifted property in your estate for estate tax at the 50% rate.

The gifted property’s value in the hands of your gift recipients will be subject to capital gains tax on the increase in value, but capital gains rates have been less than estate tax rates, although capital gains tax rates are creeping up from 15% to 28% depending upon the type of property sold.

So if you make gifts of property and not cash, make sure you consult with your attorney to determine the best way to value the property and file a Gift Tax Return.

Also when making gifts for tax planning purposes, be very clear and specific about transfer and delivery of the gift, and document the transfer clearly to complete the gift.

Posted in: HBD Law News

Ask An Attorney: Real Estate

I want to expand/renovate my home, where do I begin?

There are many steps necessary to prepare for an expansion. Before hiring a contractor you need to acquire an updated property survey. An experienced real estate attorney should review the plats to ensure you are in compliance with the county zoning requirements and all setback and critical area restrictions. If you violate these restrictions during your expansion, it can be very difficult and costly to correct the problem. When beginning your search for a Home Improvement Contractor, you should obtain multiple bids and have your attorney check each contractor’s MHIC licensing status. Upon hiring the contractor, ensure that a written contract is drawn up and executed, to protect all parties and help prevent surprises through the rest of the expansion. Call Hillman, Brown & Darrow to jump start your fall renovations today and schedule an appointment with one of our real estate attorneys.

Posted in: HBD Law News

Ask A Divorce Attorney: Same Sex Marriage

My Partner and I were married in a state that allowed same sex marriage before it became legal in Maryland. Can I file for divorce in Maryland?

Yes, provided you meet the legal requirements for a divorce in Maryland. Married same-sex couples are treated no differently than married heterosexual couples in divorce and custody cases. If jurisdiction is available in two states, however, you need to determine which state is more beneficial to you. One of Hillman, Brown & Darrow’s divorce lawyers can help you navigate the best course for you. We can also help with other issues affected by the new law, such as inheritance, insurance and other benefits.

Posted in: HBD Law News