Reading Real Estate Lawyer

When you need a lawyer in the Reading area who handles real estate there are a few things that you should consider. Berks County offers investors diverse real estate options that range from large farms to townhomes in downtown Reading. Here are a few real estate problems that may require the assistance of one of our real estate lawyers.

Easement Disputes

A common property problem in Berks County, Pennsylvania are disputes over easements. This can happen in a number of situations, including where a farm or other lot of real estate has been subdivided and no one has clearly marked where the lanes of travel over one of the subdivided pieces of land will go. Sometimes owners who buy a lot of land or a house are surprised to find out that someone else has a right to use their land to travel on or for other reasons. Still others take unlawful actions to try to disrupt the right of use of an easement. Even when an easement is not written into a deed, it may still be legally enforceable. At Cornerstone Law Firm, our Real Estate Attorneys can help you to figure out your rights in regards to an easement.

Partition and Sale In Lieu of Partition

If you own a home or other property with someone else and you no longer wish to own it with them, you may need to partition the property or sell it rather than partition it. This can happen after a break-up, in the case of an unmarried couple, or even after a divorce, if the divorce was not fully and properly documented. Partitions also happen when investments go south or when a business no longer wishes to operate a property for profit. Your rights in a partition can include an equitable distribution of profits, an assessment of costs against someone’s share of a sale, and more. You’ll definitely want an experienced real estate attorney to help you through the process.

Fraud In Real Estate Deals

Unfortunately, fraud in real estate deals in Reading is not unusual. Both by virtue of malicious intent and because of misunderstandings, sellers and buyers sometimes try to take advantage of each other in ways that are unlawful. If you’ve entered into a purchase agreement, and you believe they’re no longer acting in good faith, your options may include a fraud claim, a partition action, or a constructive trust.

Although Pennsylvania’s statute of frauds generally invalidates contracts that are not in writing if they involve land, there are exceptions to this rule. These exceptions include when someone has invested money into the improvement of a property that confirms a possessory interest or where equitable doctrines bar the application the statute of frauds.

Conclusion

In all of these situations, speaking with an experienced Real Estate Attorney can be incredibly beneficial in settling the matter in a way that’s best for you. Give us a call at Cornerstone Law Firm to discuss with us how we can help.

Avoiding Probate in Estate Planning

As we have discussed in other articles, probate is the process of an opening of an estate and transferring ownership of assets from a deceased individual to that person’s beneficiaries. Probate can be an expensive and time-consuming process, and naturally, many families are eager to find ways to avoid probate in advance.

In this article we are going to talk about some of the common ways that people avoid probate by planning ahead so that their loved ones do not have to incur the time and expense of probate. Please be aware that there are specific pros and cons to each of these approaches depending on a number of factors. It is important for you to speak to an experienced estate planning attorney about your options. This article is meant to help you, but it is not formal legal advice.

Revocable Living Trusts

One common mechanism to avoid probate is to create a revocable living trust rather than a will. While a will goes to probate, a trust can continue “living” even after you have passed away. The trust document controls who takes over responsibility for the assets of the trust, and who they benefit.

There are a few steps to this approach. First, you would place all of your assets, including your house, your cars and your bank accounts into the living trust. You will essentially live your life out of the living trust. Think of it as carrying around a basket that holds all your assets. A trust document lays out who will pick up the basket when you die. Your heirs, whom you designate to “pick up the basket,” then have the option of either administering the trust and living out of it themselves, or of “decanting the trust” and taking those assets for themselves.

The advantages to a trust include that you can avoid probate, including the costs and attorneys’ fees necessary to navigate the estate administration process. Furthermore, trusts give your loved ones access to your assets faster after your death. Finally, a trust can keep your estate private so that people cannot see it as a matter of public record when you pass away. For some people, the privacy is an important consideration.

But there are drawbacks to this approach, as well. For one thing, trusts won’t avoid inheritance taxes due to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania upon your death. Second, a trust does not protect you from Medicare forcing repayment for the medical care that they paid for at the end of your life. In other words, this is not the way to avoid losing what you owe to nursing homes nor is it a way to avoid any taxes.

Furthermore, setting up and administering a living trust day to day is more expensive than simply drafting a will. You have to be sure that you carefully keep up with all the formalities of the trust and put new assets into this trust; otherwise, your beneficiaries may have to go through probate anyway because you forgot to include an asset. There are more robust trust options, including an irrevocable living trust, which can also save you some of the taxes and other costs that you might typically associate with starting a trust in the first place. To learn more about these, you should speak with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Gifting Assets

A second way to avoid probate is to begin gifting your assets early. This includes putting your cars in other peoples’ names, putting your children on bank accounts, not merely as trustees or agents, but as co-owners. It even includes deeding your house to your heirs.

The advantages to this approach are that these assets do not need to go through probate because they belong to your heirs before your passing. Better yet, depending on how long you live after the gifting event, there may be no inheritance tax or Medicare liability.

But the obvious disadvantages to this should be apparent immediately. First, after gifting these assets, they legally belong to your children or other heirs. This means that, for example, if they get into a car accident and owe someone a lot of money, that someone can usually come collect against the assets that you’ve gifted over to them. This approach also secures your assets from Medicare or Medicaid, but only if done five years before any care or costs are incurred. Otherwise, the Department of Human Services will use the five year look back period to reclaim these assets. This would defeat the purpose of the gifting in the first place. Additionally, gifting your assets can affect your eligibility for credit or other financial planning tools.

Gifting a large amount of money and property to your heirs can also have significant tax implications for them. You can give away $14,000 a year as of 2022, without incurring any taxes. You can also use your lifetime gift taxing exemption to give some of these assets away. Nonetheless, if you are not careful and if you do not properly claim these, this will result in tax liability for your heirs. Remember also that if you gift a house to your children, they will need to pay the real estate tax every year.

One approach to this sort of gifting is known as the “half a loaf approach” in which you give your children a survivor interest in the house without giving them present possessory interest. This is more complicated than we can cover in this article here, but it is one approach that allows you to gift at least some of the value out of your estate before death to avoid some of the costs of probate.

However, it is important to remember that probate is not exactly an all or nothing affair. If you forget to gift anything out of your estate, your children will have to choose between abandoning that asset or probating the estate anyway. In such a case, this gifting may not have been helpful to your heirs.

Conclusion

There are certainly advantages to avoiding probate if you can do it. But sometimes, it is more trouble than it is worth. Whether to take one of the steps outlined above depends on the size of your estate, the nature of your family relationships and more. If you’re interested in learning more, speak with one of the experienced estate planning attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm about your options so that we can help guide you through the process.

Changing your name in Pennsylvania

Under Pennsylvania law, you are free to request a change of your legal name to one of your choosing. You may petition the Court to permit a change to your first, middle or last name, or all of them. The process involves two major steps, but it doesn’t have to be confusing or complicated. In today’s blog, we’ll talk through the steps and discuss why you need a lawyer to help.

There are two basic steps to getting a name change done in Pennsylvania. First, you’ll need to file a petition explaining to the Court of Common Pleas in the county where you live why you need or want the name change. This petition is not a standard form but rather allows the drafting attorney to fill in various details about you for the judge’s understanding. You will want to include the reasons for the potential change. You should also include information about your criminal background, if any, and financial situation. These details allow the Court to assess that you are pursuing the name change for legitimate reasons, and not to hide from creditors or escape a criminal background. A good petition will go a long way toward persuading the presiding judge to grant your request.

Second, you’ll need to go through a hearing—basically a very brief trial (without a jury, just a judge) on why you want the name change and whether there is any reason you should not receive one. Courts are granted broad discretion in the name change process, and they will order a hearing so they can see you and any relevant witnesses in person. The judge in your case may want you to testify or may simply have some questions for your attorney. Some name change hearings are informal, and some end up being lengthy. Having an attorney present to answer questions from the judge and make any arguments necessary to secure your name change is important.

Because the trial court judge in your county gets broad discretion on making the decision, appeals are very difficult to bring. If your county judge doesn’t grant your request, taking it up to the Superior Court is not likely to bring about a different outcome. This is why it’s important to do the petition and hearing well in the first place.

Name changes are common after marriage (where no hearing is required), when a child wants to take a different parent’s name, and for religious reasons. Name changes don’t have to be scary, and they can provide an opportunity for a psychological fresh start. If you want to seek a change in your name, call the attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm to discuss your situation.

Three Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Try to Handle Your Criminal Charges on Your Own

When you’re facing a misdemeanor or felony charge, it’s extremely important for you to have a criminal defense attorney to handle your charges and lead you through the process. This is true whether you’re innocent or guilty. In this article, we’ll discuss three reasons why you want a criminal defense attorney on your side, regardless of the type of charge you’re facing.

  1. Criminal Charges Will Affect You for the Rest of Your Life

Depending on how your charges are resolved, the consequences of a guilty plea, a first-time offender’s program, or a trial disposition can be with you for the rest of your life. A criminal record can prevent you from getting jobs, can hurt your chances at good housing, can keep you from getting a mortgage depending on the situation, and can affect your ability to own guns, vote, or participate in a dozen other responsibilities and opportunities of citizenship. Criminal charges can affect immigration status, the way people view you, your car insurance, and more. It’s important to never underestimate the power of criminal charges and how they can affect your life.

  1. Our Attorneys Know the Law

It may seem obvious, but having someone who can help you by explaining the law to you is extremely important. It’s not just that we know about law, it’s also that we know to ask questions you may not know to ask. Our attorneys spend their time thinking about how to prove or disprove things. They’ve thought about cases similar to yours, different than yours, wilder than yours, or simpler than yours. It’s important to have someone who has had time to mentally work through situations similar to yours that can help you through your situation.

  1. You Want a Buffer Between You, the Cops, and the Judge

Finally, having a criminal defense attorney means having someone who can speak for you. This isn’t just about having someone who can “speak better” than you can. Rather, having an attorney who stands between you and the government means having someone who can give plausible explanations for things that you couldn’t offer. It means having someone who can refuse to answer questions without looking evasive, because attorneys can stand on constitutional rights or other explanations for why answering those questions shouldn’t be required. It means being able to say to a judge or a prosecutor truthfully, “I don’t know” in response to a question of where you were at a specific time without looking like you’re hiding something. A good attorney knows how to use all of the rules of evidence, the rules of criminal procedure, and the rules of the constitution to protect you from your charges.

Conclusion

Criminal charges are not a DIY project. There are plenty of things you can try to do yourself, and there are some things in life that are worth trying to find the cheapest option for. Handling criminal charges is not either of those things. When you’re faced with something as important as criminal charges that can affect the rest of your life, it’s vital that you have someone who is experienced and can help you. Call Cornerstone Law Firm and our attorneys can help you navigate your criminal charges.

What Should go in Your LLC’s Operating Agreement

Limited liability companies in Pennsylvania are organized by filing with the department of state. But the most important document that an LLC’s owners sign is the operating agreement. The operating agreement serves the same function that bylaws serve for a corporation. They are the constitution that governs the organization’s operations. The operating agreement is generally not filed with the department of state, nor with any other government agency. They are an entirely private document between the owners (called members in an LLC).

Operating Agreements are agreements between the LLC’s owners

The operating agreement is an agreement between the members and the organization itself as to how the LLC will be run. It lays out the ownership interest of the parties and provides for dispute resolution. Below are a few things that every LLC operating agreement should consider including:

  1. Ownership interest of the members.

The operating agreement is usually the first document to actually name who the owners of an LLC are. Indeed, it is often the only document to name the owners. The operating agreement should identify who the owners are and what their percentage interest is.

There’s a difference between beneficial and legal ownership in LLCs. Someone may have a non-voting interest in the LLC, meaning that they’re entitled to some of the profits of the entity without having any power to determine how the organization is run. Conversely, someone may have a high voting percentage but not necessarily a high ownership interest.

Most LLCs tend to keep it simple, however. If you have four owners, they each have 25%, or if you have two owners, they’re 50/50. But in the case of an even number of owners, what happens if there’s a tie? If the owners for whatever reason are unable to agree on how to run the organization on a very important issue, how do you break the deadlock?

  1. Dispute resolution provisions.

For this reason, a good operating agreement should include dispute resolution provisions. These provide that if the members are tied in an important vote, an outside party can be chosen as an arbiter. Sometimes this arbiter is named, but more often, a guide to how the arbiter should be chosen is laid out in case of such deadlock. In extreme cases, operating agreements that we’ve seen at our firm have dictated a coin flip to make a final determination. We certainly don’t recommend that! But even a coin flip is better than nothing in laying out ahead of time how conflict resolution will occur between the members.

Furthermore, having a plan in place sometimes helps everyone avoid such conflict. Knowing that an important vote might be left to a coin flip or an outside arbiter encourages the members to work harder to resolve things before invoking such provisions.

  1. Oppressed minority owner provisions.

In cases where there is a majority owner and minority owner, or even where there are a handful of owners, sometimes you want to write in provisions of what happens if one person or more feel like their interests are no longer represented by the whole. As a simple example, if you have six owners and two of them feel that the other four owners are “forcing them out” of major decisions, what rights do these two have?

When LLCs form, the members are usually getting along. But divorces, inter-personal fights, business or artistic disagreements and more can get in the way. If the majority is outvoting the same minority repeatedly, the minority can begin to feel as though their ownership interest is no longer valuable.

Although Pennsylvania law provides a number of avenues for minority owners to address this, its best if you spell out provisions in your operating agreement to govern these situations. Doing so also avoids fights in many cases by giving everyone ways to avoid conflict before it starts, and by spelling out how everyone loses if anyone is being pushed out.

  1. Indemnification of officers and members.

Another thing to consider in your operating agreement is having a clear statement about indemnifying officers or members for their work in the company. In the event that an individual is sued for their work with a company, the question often becomes whether the company should have to pay their legal bills. Making sure that your owner members aren’t left to fend for themselves if sued is an important step to maintaining the long-term commitment of all investors to the company.

  1. Buyout provisions.

Perhaps the most important part of an operating agreement is a statement about how a member’s interest is bought out once they’ve decided to sell. This happens both when a member sells voluntarily and involuntarily due to bankruptcy or other proceedings. Will the membership interest be appraised? Must it be sold first to other members or to the company? Or can they sell to an outside investor? These and other important questions should be resolved up front before the problem arises. Doing so can avoid costly litigation and unintended consequences of having an unexpected member buy in from the outside without warning.

Conclusion: Speak to a business lawyer about your LLC operating agreement

If you’re forming an LLC in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, there are advantages to hiring an experienced business lawyer to help you. At Cornerstone Law Firm, our attorneys help draft operating agreements that foresee the types of problems that you may run into even with a single business partner with whom you’re on good terms. A good operating agreement is not a tool to start fights with; rather it can help to prevent conflict down the road.

Call us today to discuss how we can help you in your business.

Is a cop’s word enough to convict me?

A common question posed to our Criminal Defense attorneys is whether the police need physical evidence, including fingerprints, DNA or videos, to convict a defendant for a crime. The short answer is no, the police can convict you with nothing more than their own story about what you did. In many cases, the only evidence that the police officers have is what the police officers themselves witnessed, and perhaps what a defendant told those police officers. In other words, a cop’s word is enough to convict you if it is believed.

Under Pennsylvania law, the prosecution can generally get a conviction with nothing more than a police officer’s testimony as to what they saw, smelled or heard. Of course, what they testify to must be sufficient to convict someone for the crime. In other words, if can’t simply be a police officer’s opinion. However, if they saw someone committing a crime, or if the defendant confessed to them that they’ve committed a crime, that’s generally enough, if believed, for a jury to convict and a court to uphold such a conviction.

The increasing number of videos available when crimes are alleged to have been committed have raised an assumption in many people’s minds that the lack of video evidence is significant. Here’s an example: If you come out of a store and the police officer says he saw you stealing something while inside, we generally expect that there will be surveillance footage. If there’s not, that is an argument that can be raised to the jury. Why was no footage produced if it happened in a store where surveillance cameras should be running? Similarly, once a fight breaks out in the street, there are usually at least a few bystanders who pull out cellphones to record it. If no recordings come forth, there’s a question about whether that fight really occurred.

But of course, video is not required to take a case to a jury, and a jury can believe the police officer’s story. This is why physical evidence isn’t strictly necessary.

Talking to the police is dangerous, and as we’ve discussed in other articles, it’s important not to talk to the police when you’ve been accused of a crime. Doing so can almost always hurt you and it can almost never help.

If you’ve been charged with a crime and you have questions about how best to defend yourself, contact our office today to talk to one of our experienced Criminal Defense attorneys. Our attorneys help people throughout Pennsylvania, and we’re happy to help you with your charges.

How Businesses Use Small Claims Court to Save Money

One of the best kept secrets in business law is how companies can use small claims court to save money. In Pennsylvania, Magisterial District Courts (sometimes called “MDJs” for the Magisterial District Judges that sit in them) act as our small claims’ courts. Learning to navigate them can save time and money. MDJs have concurrent jurisdiction with the county Courts of Common Pleas for claims up to twelve thousand dollars, meaning you can file your claim in “big court” or in the MDJ.

Suing Without an Attorney

When small businesses have minor claims against business associates or customers who haven’t paid bills, the MDJs are a great venue to consider. Going to court in an MDJ does not always require the services of an attorney. Technically, any corporate entity, whether an LLC, a corporation, or similarly otherwise, is required to hire an attorney. This is because a corporate entity cannot represent itself the way an individual can. A corporate entity is technically a separate person. However, in practice, most MDJs allow a business to be represented by an owner or other representative pro se. As a practical matter, this means that businesses can pursue overdue bills, deadbeat tenants, and contract-breaching business associates without the expense of hiring a lawyer.

Of course, there are many benefits to having a lawyer, but even businesses that utilize the services of a corporate attorney will seek advice from this attorney on a specific case before deciding whether to undertake filing the suit and handling it themselves.

Small Claims Court is Quick

Another reason that small businesses utilize small claims court in Pennsylvania to save money is because the process to file in the MDJ is fast and leads to a hearing usually within around sixty days. Compared to filing in the Court of Common Pleas (the court that governs a county), this is lightning speed.

The MDJ will have one day of hearings, without any “discovery” process for producing documents between the parties, and without the litigation that accompanies the months of waiting on a response. MDJs don’t require complicated pleadings, and typically make a decision the day of the hearing or within a few days thereafter.

Small Claims Court gets the attention of your adversary

A final benefit to the MDJ process is that it is typically a simple way to get someone’s attention. It shows that you’re serious about collecting an overdue bill and triggers them to pay an attorney or at least respond. If they fail to show up to court, judgment is issued against them. Although you have the right to appeal from an MDJ decision within 30 days, as a practical matter, it often ends disputes and allows the parties to settle in the courtroom.

Conclusion: Call us for advice on how to handle your MDJ hearing

Our attorneys have helped business clients with hundreds of appearances before MDJs, and we’re ready to help you.  Call us at Cornerstone Law Firm today to discuss how your business could save money by utilizing small claims court.