What is a Power of Attorney in Pennsylvania?

Power of Attorney is a document granting one person the ability to make decisions regarding property and possessions on behalf of another. The power of attorney document (POA) is named this because the agent can act in many ways as an attorney can. Of course, this does not mean that your agent can represent you in court or perform legal work for you, but it does mean that he or she can appear on your behalf before any private party as if you yourself were present.

The POA only lasts while you are living. After you pass, your agent will no longer have the power to make decisions on your behalf regarding property, possessions, or anything else. After death, the executor named in your will takes over and opens a probate estate.

POAs are not only for the elderly, incapacitated or infirm. A POA allows you and your spouse to have unfettered access to each other’s financial affairs, even as it relates to work-related documents such as 401K or other retirement plans. POAs also can provide for business succession or allow someone to be appointed for business purposes in the event that you are disabled temporarily or permanently. POAs also are used when a person plans to go overseas and needs someone in the United States to help children or other dependents gain access to bank accounts during that time.

Guardianship

In the event that someone seeks a guardianship over you, the POA also names the person to be your guardian. The courts are bound by statute to honor this choice in a POA unless clear grounds to set aside the named agent are demonstrated.

Duties of the Agent Under a POA

If you have been named as an agent under a POA, what are your duties to the principal? Generally, you have duties:

  • of care
  • of confidence
  • of diligence
  • of loyalty
  • to keep funds separate
  • to keep records of transactions
  • to act in the best interest of the principal

This means that you cannot take the principal’s money and run off to Vegas. It also means that you cannot take all the principal’s money and invest it in a single stock or make other risky investment decisions. The POA creates an important responsibility because it allows the agent to help the principal make sound financial decisions, but the agent is also liable for poor decisions made on the principal’s behalf.

Revoking a POA

Unfortunately, POAs are sometimes abused. In the case of abuse, you can revoke the power you have given to your agent. You can do so with or without cause and at any time, but it is important to note that every action the agent has taken on your behalf will be considered ratified by you. In other words, you cannot claim that you did not authorize a specific action taken on your behalf by your agent while the POA was in effect. The POA grants that power even if it has been abused. Of course, you can sue the agent who has acted improperly under the POA; however, third parties are entitled to rely upon the POA. This is part of what makes it so powerful. No one other than you and your agent can question the validity of the document.

So why won’t the bank let me get into a bank account?

A common question we receive concerning POAs is why a bank or other financial institution would not honor the document. In most cases, this occurs because the principal has died, and the agent is attempting to access the bank account of the deceased principal. This is a common mistake and is easily solved. The executor named in the will, or the administrator if there is no will, must open a probate estate to obtain access to bank accounts and other financial assets of the deceased principal.

Conclusion

If you are interested in learning more about POAs or need one for yourself or someone else, contact Cornerstone Law Firm. Our experienced estate planning attorneys can help you and your loved ones determine whether a POA is right for you.

Family Law Tip of the Week – Establishing Healthy Communications During a Custody Dispute

Welcome to Family Law Tip of the Week, a regular series on our blog where we offer tips on how to go through divorce and custody disputes in an amicable way. Divorce should always be a last case resort but if you are going through it, we want to provide some tips on how to survive it.

When you are in the midst of a custody fight, often the last thing you want to do is talk to your co-parent. However, the first step to good co-parenting is good communication. Today we will discuss how to establish healthy and intelligent communications with your co-parent during a custody dispute.

The court’s primary goal in overseeing and resolving custody disputes is to ensure that both parties are doing what is in the best interest of the child. High on that list is communicating with one another. This includes communication regarding practical concerns like the child’s transportation to and from school. It also includes sharing new things that one parent has learned about the child like diet changes, changing physical needs, or problems in school. If one parent discovers new information about the child, it is important for that parent to communicate the information to the other parent. This sounds simple enough, but what do you do if your communications begin to turn hostile?

Here are several things you can consider. First, you can limit your communications to a written format. Written communication takes more time to compose and send, but it also requires the writer to spend time carefully thinking through the words used and how they will affect the recipient. While communication in person can sometimes become heated, written communication allows the opportunity for one to take time, calm down, and reflect. Additionally, this written record will allow a judge to see where any breakdowns in communication have occurred. If you believe you are communicating well but the other person is not, this is a good way to build record evidence to support that belief.

While there is such a thing as over communicating, it is fairly difficult to do. In fact, the most common mistake that we see litigants make is not communicating enough with their co-parents. Even small pieces of information can be important for both parents to know, and sharing them shows a genuine good faith effort at trying to keep communication open and peaceful. Accordingly, a weekly update with all the information that you have learned or things you have seen can be effective. Of course, it is important to write this email in a tone that is not condescending or lecturing. Doing so usually will only exacerbate any conflicts between the parties.

Of course, some co-parents have no problem communicating well with one another, even in person and by phone. If that is you, keep up the good work and continue developing this necessary channel between you and your co-parent. Custody is hard, but it is hardest of all on the children involved. You owe it to your co-parent and your children to work hard to establish and maintain healthy patterns of communication during this time.

If you are in need of assistance during your custody dispute, contact the attorneys here at Cornerstone Law Firm.

 

Veterans’ Court

If you’re facing criminal charges and you are an honorably discharged veteran from any branch of the military, you may be eligible for Veterans’ Court. You may get a reduced sentence, favorable house arrest terms, and government-funded alternative programs to traditional sentences through Veterans’ Court.

Veterans’ Court is a relatively new idea that began in 2008 in New York. It has been geared toward addressing the problems unique to veterans of the military. Courts recognize that many veterans facing alcoholism, drug addiction, or other problems are facing them partially out of a response to PTSD or other combat related issues. Courts are now seeking to address these underlying issues with veterans rather than throwing them in with the rest of the defendants they face.

A first question that often has to be addressed is whether Veterans’ Court is a separate court in a different place than “normal” court. The short answer is no. Veterans’ Court is run as a program in the same county courthouse where your charges are pending. In some counties, it’s even in front of the same judge, and it’s all technically the same court.

Veteran’s Court comes with a number of advantages. If qualified, that individual who is on Veteran’s Court can face reduced jail time, lowered fines, and other reductions in penalties. Probation terms are typically easier to abide by. Where private organizations or the VA step in, there is money to fund treatment or other solutions for the defendant. Veterans’ Court of course is not open to everyone. You must be a veteran of one of the branches of the armed forces and you cannot have been dishonorably discharged.

Veterans’ Court is not a free pass, and in some cases, it would be a bad idea to accept its provisions. This is particularly true when you should fight the charges instead. Veterans’ Court still typically requires a guilty plea (outside of exceptional circumstances). It still requires compliance with the program, just like treatment court or ARD would. Furthermore, some charges are too serious for Veteran’s Court. Nonetheless, Veterans’ Court is a great opportunity, especially for veterans with underlying mental health conditions or drug addictions. It is a great way to seek resolution of charges and attempts to honor service to our country, rewarding those who have served our country.

If you have questions about Veterans’ Court, contact a criminal defense attorney in our office today.

Family Law Tip of the Week: Do We Need a Divorce Lawyer if We Don’t Have Anything?

Welcome to Family Law Tip of the Week, a regular series on our blog where we offer tips on how to go through divorce and custody disputes in an amicable way. Divorce should always be a last case resort but if you are going through it, we want to provide some tips on how to survive it.

A common question our divorce attorneys hear is: “Do we need an attorney if we don’t have anything to split?” Here are a few reasons you probably still need an attorney for your divorce matter even if there are not a lot of assets between the two of you.

First, a divorce lawyer or mediation firm will help to ensure that even meager assets are split and retitled appropriately. Unfortunately, we have become aware of situations where people tried to handle their own divorces and did not retitle all of the assets, leading to disputes many years later.

Second, it is important to have new estate planning documents drawn up, including wills and powers of attorney. This will clarify who should inherit your possessions when you pass away. Wills also dictate things like who would bring a wrongful death action if you were to pass away suddenly in a car accident or due to other injury. Redrafting your will ensures clarity about who has that right now that you are no longer married.

Third, although it may sound silly, attorneys help to ensure that the divorce is properly filed and finalized. Divorces in Pennsylvania require a number of steps, a state-required cooling off period, and more. It is important to ensure that both parties have properly complied with those steps and that the divorce is actually processed and finalized.

Fourth, if you have children between the two of you, an attorney should help you work out a written custody agreement. Even if you are going to attempt to keep custody 50/50, or if you think you have an agreement, there are still important matters upon which to decide. Attorneys can help to ensure that the custody agreement is drafted in contract form, and that the parties have considered whether or not to submit it to a judge for consideration and an appropriate order.

Feel free to reach out to our offices with any specific questions you may have in your divorce or custody action.

Business litigation in Lehigh County

When it comes to running a business, every experienced entrepreneur knows that it’s only a matter of time before a great idea well-executed will meet with conflict. Whether it’s a competitor making false claims about you, a large customer that suddenly stops paying the bill, or an ownership dispute, successful businesses often find themselves in the middle of legal controversy.

For businesses in the Allentown area, this is a real concern. Allentown and the Lehigh Valley have seen an explosion of growth in the last ten years, with industry coming back to the city and a revitalized downtown. But for many, with this growth comes the growing pain of business conflict and litigation.

So how can you prepare your Lehigh County business for dealing with litigation challenges? Here are three steps you can take now to ensure that your company is ready for the storms ahead.

Review your ownership documents and your operating agreement or bylaws.

When you’re running a business day-to-day, it can be difficult to take time and review “old news,” like the documents that govern the running of your company. But this is an important step, and taking time to review these documents every year can save you a lot of headaches down the line. In his landmark book, Built to Last, business author Jim Collins wrote about how important it is for companies large and small to take time and review their mission statements and founding documents to guard against “mission creep.” This is doubly true of legal documents. Ignoring the rules you created for your company can open you to legal challenges and personal liability on many matters—and this is particularly true if you have multiple owners.

And while we’re talking about multiple owners, it’s also important to document your decision-making process together by means of corporate resolutions, meeting minutes, or other instruments designed to demonstrate who votes which way. Keeping track of this can guard you against later legal challenges that you, as a majority shareowner, failed to take care of your co-owners’ interests.

Develop a relationship with a business attorney.

When a crisis hits, it’s important to know whom to call. When a lawsuit is served on you, you typically have only 20 days to respond. At that point, in the midst of the pressures of your regular business operations, you have to find an attorney and they need time to answer the Complaint appropriately. You may need to explain the ins and outs of your company, as well as the origins of the specific dispute, to this attorney. This is why it is helpful to have a working relationship with a litigation attorney well before this sort of dispute breaks out.

Conclusion: Call Cornerstone Law Firm today

At Cornerstone Law Firm, we pride ourselves on our client-focused approach to the law. We get to know our clients personally and professionally, and want to know about their businesses before a dispute begins. If you own a business in the Lehigh Valley, call us for a free discussion of your business needs. We’re here to protect and promote your business growth, and we’d love the chance to get to know you.

Family Law Tip of the Week: When to File for Child Support

Welcome to Family Law Tip of the Week, a regular series on our blog where we offer tips on how to go through divorce and custody disputes in an amicable way. Divorce should always be a last case resort but if you are going through it, we want to provide some tips on how to survive it.

When should I file for Child Support?

Today’s tip: when should you file for child support? Filing for child support begins the process of asking a court to set the amount that a child’s parent has to pay to support the custodial parent’s work in raising the child. The state has provided guidelines to help determine the set amount. The general range of appropriate child support can be figured out ahead of time. Parents who are splitting up begin discussions on how to do child support and the question arises: Should I file for child support anyway?

It’s always best to work things out away from the Court, but if negotiations are lagging, it is important to go ahead and file in court. You can always reach an agreement with the other parent later and inform the court that a hearing is no longer needed. But because hearings can take 45 to 60 days to have scheduled, it is important to get the clock started quickly.

Another reason that it is important to file for child support is that the date of your filing is when the obligation to pay arises. In other words, if you’re negotiating throughout February of a given year and you file on March 1st because you’re not reaching an agreement and the other party refuses to pay, the court will only award child support back to the filing date of March 1st, not for the month of February, for which you were negotiating. For this reason, there is almost no reason to not go ahead with filing for a child support claim, unless you are sure that you are going to work it out with the other person very quickly and you trust them to make payments.

Finally, once you have worked it out with the other side, it’s important to reduce it all to a written contract that can be provided to the Court later, for proof of nonpayment. Relying on text messages or oral agreements is a recipe for confusion and for a judge to say they won’t enforce a previous agreement or create a new one going forward.

All of these are just an overview of some of the things to think about with child support. If you have a question about your specific situation, call Cornerstone Law Firm to talk to one of our Family Law attorneys.

Copyright Clearance in Self-Publishing

Self-publishing is a growing industry and an incredible opportunity for authors to get their message out without the interference of a publisher or publishing house. But self-publishing also comes with a number of legal dangers, including copyright infringement. If you are using images that you yourself did not create, whether photos or drawings, then this article is for you. Here are a couple tips on how to avoid copyright issues when publishing a book.

1. Fair use does not mean what you think it means.

A common response to these copyright concerns is to say that fair use will protect you in your use of images. If your book is educational in nature, fair use is especially tempting. But there are a few things you should keep in mind. The first is that fair use does not just mean what you think is fair. It is a complex legal doctrine that relies on four factors, and the way these factors are analyzed by courts is not always the way you might expect them to be. For example, the “educational” nature of a work is more complex than simply saying it teaches something. And even if you don’t expect your book to sell many copies, its commercial nature already puts judges in a skeptical position on a fair use claim.

A second thing to keep in mind is that fair use is a defense. That means it is only implicated when you are being sued. For most individuals being sued means you have already lost. The costs and stress of a lawsuit are enough to overwhelm most people and persuade them not to move forward. Such parties often settle or pay out the demands from someone who claims they were aggrieved in the copyright process. In short, do not simply rely on your understanding of the factors that you look up online in considering fair use. It is important to have a legal opinion before you rely on it in publishing photos.

2. There are more sources than ever for photos you can use.

Just as self-publishing has lowered the barrier to entry on publishing documents, there are more places than ever to obtain legitimate free photos to use without paying royalties or without fear of a lawsuit. Please note that Google is not one of these places. Rather, it is important to go through legitimate vendors who secure the rights to photos and can provide print licenses for their use. Of course, you can also obtain photos through other sources, such as through local artists or designers who can create work for you.

Conclusion

Publishing a book is an exciting opportunity, but it can come with legal dangers. Be sure to consult an intellectual property lawyer for sound opinions on what photos you can use and what ways to avoid potential legal trouble. At Cornerstone Law Firm our copyright attorneys can view manuscripts for you and give advice on civic photos and whether you can use them. Contact us today to set up a consultation.

Giving Notice to Estate Beneficiaries

Beneficiaries of an estate are entitled to notice when the estate is being probated, and it’s the executor’s job to send the notice. Today, we’ll give a brief overview on how to fulfill this part of the estate process.

Giving notice to the beneficiaries is required by statute and should typically be done at the outset of the estate. Giving notice is usually done by mail on the standard form provided by the Register of Wills of your county. When you send this out, you should also keep a certificate of service to prove that you sent it. The executor or administrator will need to file a statement with the Register of Wills that notice was sent. Ordinarily, however, you will not file the actual statements that were sent.

Giving notice to the beneficiaries is not only required by statute. It also has several positive purposes. First, it lets the beneficiaries know who’s handling the estate and who they’ll need to communicate with as the process goes forward. Because many beneficiaries do not realize that estates can take several months to settle, they can often be antsy about when they’ll receive their money or other property after someone has passed away. Second, it ensures that none of the beneficiaries come forward trying to claim that the estate is being mismanaged or that no estate was opened, causing a conflict before the court as to who the proper executor or administrator should be. Third, the process of identifying all the beneficiaries helps the executor/administrator to keep clear in their own mind who will receive what or what percentage each is entitled to at the end of the probate process.

If you’ve been named executor/administrator of an estate, and you have questions about probate, contact Cornerstone Law Firm. Our estate attorneys can help you in reconciling your loved one’s estate, ensuring that it is handled correctly and that there are no claims against you in the process.

When a Contractor Doesn’t Finish the Job

Cornerstone Law Firm offered a legal tip to Redfin on how to handle things when a contractor doesn’t finish a home renovation project.

“If you find yourself in a situation where a contractor has not performed as agreed upon, you have legal remedies. You can first reach out to your state’s Attorney General’s office and file a complaint. The office will investigate the claim and encourage the contractor to remedy the issue if your complaint has merit. If this doesn’t work, you can file a complaint at a local District Court, which can handle judgments up to $12,000 and is designed to be accessible to the public. You can also research other options to take against licensed contractors who don’t honor their contracts. For example, Pennsylvania’s Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act provides strong statutory language against contractors who fail to abide by the requisite legal requirements in entering into and completing home improvement contracts.”

For an extensive overview of ways to deal with unfinished renovations, read the full article here on Redfin’s blog.

 

Opening an Estate in Schuylkill County

When someone you love has passed away, you’re confronted with many difficult decisions, and an estate process that can feel very complicated. If the person that you love passed away while living in Schuylkill County, here are the first three steps you’ll need to take to open an estate and probate their will.

1. Determine Whether Your Deceased Loved One Had a Will

The first question to answer is whether the person who died had a will or not. Although wills are very important, not everyone has one when they pass away. If they had a will, the process is usually easier and more straightforward. The will tells you who’s in charge of the estate (that is who the “executor” is), as well as who will inherit the possessions, money and property left behind in the will.

If your loved one did not have a will, however, you are left without this road map. Don’t be afraid: Pennsylvania law provides, by statute, who will inherit and who will be in charge of the estate. This statute is called the “Intestate Statute,” and gives detailed instructions on how such an estate will be processed. A good probate attorney can help walk you through figuring out who is in charge of the estate, and how to make sure that process goes smoothly.

2. Open an Estate in Pottsville

Once you’ve determined whether there’s a will, it’s time to open an estate in Pottsville. This is known as the “probate” process. Probating a will includes drafting something called a “Petition for Grant of Letters” and attaching the will. If there is no will, then other documents can demonstrate the proof that you are the proper person to open the estate and begin the probate process. In Schuylkill County, this petition is presented to the Schuylkill County Register of Wills. The Schuylkill County Register of Wills office is in the courthouse in Pottsville on the second floor.

3. Gather Assets and Liquidate the Estate

We’ve written in depth about this process elsewhere, but once an estate is opened through the probate process, you can begin gathering the assets, selling them as necessary to pay debts, and ultimately distributing the remainder of the estate to the beneficiaries. This process involves carefully ensuring that you are complying with the law. This includes paying taxes, paying creditors in the proper order, disputing claims filed against the estate as necessary, and occasionally seeking court orders for the transfer of real estate and other possessions.

The estate typically requires about nine months of work, though many executors are able to finish the process faster. The process ultimately culminates in filing a REV-1500 form, known as The Estate Inheritance Tax Return Form.

Conclusion

At Cornerstone Law Firm, our probate attorneys are able to help you in Schuylkill County. We will go with you to the Register of Wills in Pottsville and file documents with the Department of Revenue. We can assist­ throughout the rest of the process in providing advice, helping you to sell real estate, and properly valuing items belonging to the decedent. If someone you love has passed away in Schuylkill County and you need help processing their estate, call Cornerstone Law Firm for a free consultation today.