Countdown for Annual Tax Assessment Appeal Filing

The deadline for challenging your 2014-2015 Lancaster County property assessment is August 1, 2014.  Appeals filed after August 1, 2014 won’t be heard until 2015 and won’t take effect until 2016.  And if you are relying upon an appraisal to support your appeal, the written appraisal report must be filed with the Lancaster County Assessment Office by August 15, 2014.  This means the time to act is now.

How do you know whether an assessment appeal is warranted?  We look at the current assessment, the common level ratio, the current total tax millage rate and evidence of current fair market value.  Current assessments and property account numbers are posted online. (The property account number, and in some cases, the assessment, is listed on recently issued school district real estate tax notices.)  The common level ratio (CLR) is the factor applied to the assessment that converts the assessed value into fair market value. As of July 1, 2014, the common level ratio increased to 1.26. Total tax millage rates now include 2014-2015 school district taxes.     

Property owners should multiply their assessment by the CLR (1.26) to see if the fair market value is accurate. For example, an assessment of $100,000 implies a fair market value of $126,000 [$100,000 times 1.26]. 

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The Impact of Adoption

The other night I found myself sitting with my children watching America’s Got Talent. While America’s Got Talent is clearly a popular show, it is not one which I have seen before. That being said, my children and I became engrossed in the wonder of this all-American talent show where some acts were silly, others dangerous and some downright amazing. What struck me most of all however, was a young man named Jacob, who at just eighteen years old sang a moving rendition of John Mayer’s “Waiting”. It wasn’t so much that he was young, handsome and extremely talented, but it was his back story that touched my heart. You see, Jacob shared with the world that he had been the child of neglectful parents who are addicted to drugs and ultimately, their inability to care for him and his sister caused them to be placed in foster care.  At the time, Jacob was only five years old and spent several years bouncing from foster home to foster home. He described this experience as being like someone’s luggage, never knowing where you would end up. Clearly what he wanted most was a family that loved him and the stability of knowing where he would end up.

Fortunately for Jacob, he and his sister were adopted, and before he took the stage that night his adoptive mother shared words of encouragement and gave him a big hug. Jacob walked confidently out on to the stage and delivered an extraordinary performance. But again, even then, it was not the performance that struck me, but instead, the words of his mother after hearing Jacob’s backstory as portrayed by NBC.  She said without hesitation, “That is my son, and I am his mother.” Those simple but impactful words are the epitome of what adoption means to me and my law practice. The thousands of children that are adopted every day are impacted by the generosity and compassion of the families that add them to their home. That addition is not done for fame or fortune, it is not to gloat or to be perceived as a good person.  Instead, it is a simple, yet profound relationship just as Jacob’s mom suggested, “That is my son, and I am his mother”.

For families who open their homes and their hearts to children awaiting adoption, the impact of the decision to include a child as part of a family will change that child’s life forever. Jacob is a perfect example of that. At five years old he was trapped in a neglectful home and then removed to the instability and uncertainty of the foster care system. Jacob’s parents’ decision to adopt him, changed his life forever and allowed him to be a strong confident eighteen year old, standing on a stage in New York City, singing a song for hundreds of thousands of people in that theater and watching across the country.  How could anyone ever question the impact of adoption?

Holly Filius is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Widener University School of Law and practices in a variety of areas, including Adoption

You've Got Your Marriage License - Is That All You Need?

In 1996, I was a legislative research analyst in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives when the General Assembly enacted the statute specifically prohibiting the recognition of same sex marriages.  That statute provides as follows: 

It is hereby declared to the strong and longstanding public policy of this Commonwealth that marriage shall be between one man and one woman. A marriage between persons of the same sex which was entered into in another state or foreign jurisdiction, even if valid where entered into, shall be void in this Commonwealth.

I recall listening to the floor debate in my office on the day of the Bill’s final passage and discussing it with other staff members.  While I was not involved with the drafting or passage of the Bill, I very clearly recall the urgency among the elected members of the House to move the Bill quickly because there was a great fear that some judge in Hawaii could force the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to recognize a marriage between same sex couples. And so it passed, unremarkably, and moved to the Senate for final approval before enactment.

But Tuesday was a remarkable day for same sex couples in Pennsylvania who have been governed by that 1996 law.  Pursuant to Whitewood v. Wolf, 2014 WL 2058105 (U.S.M.D., May 20, 2014), the statute has been declared unconstitutional and same sex couples can now marry in Pennsylvania.  There are headlines in every newspaper and on-line media outlets and videos on the internet and the news.  There was a line at the Dauphin County courthouse yesterday morning when it opened of same sex couples wanting to apply for licenses. In Lancaster County, the first same sex couple to apply arrived at the Register of Wills office around 8:45 a.m.  It’s historical, no question, and it is now the law of the Commonwealth.  

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Can There Really be Such a Thing as "Conscious Uncoupling"

I read in a Fox News article a few weeks ago that Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband, Chris Martin, attended a party together, even though they have publicly announced their separation, which they have referred to as “conscious uncoupling”.  When the pair announced that they were “consciously uncoupling”, there seemed to be a lot of public questions (and skepticism) about what this is, and, if it exists, whether it can be accomplished successfully.  I, too, raised an eyebrow, wondering why it is headline news and why any of us care what happens between them in the privacy of their own relationship. In part, the story generated so much interest because of the use of the term uncoupling in place of divorce.

The term and idea of the “uncoupling” of married people is one that I have heard used in collaborative divorce cases.  In my experience, many people are drawn to collaborative law because they desire to end their marriage and resolve their economic issues in a process and a timeframe that they control together. Generally, they value what's left of their relationship with their spouse, namely the joint parenting of children and often, that reason is their primary factor in selecting collaboratively-trained counsel to assist with the divorce. Collaboratively-trained professionals, particularly coaches and therapists, refer to the term “uncoupling”, as a way for both spouses to envision themselves moving forward with their lives, independent of each other.  Because the collaborative process is based on the parties' development of their individual needs, concerns and interests, it necessarily requires them to think about their future and how their financial settlement and parenting plans will be structured to enable them to achieve that.

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Few Restaurants Betting on Small Games of Chance

Previously, I wrote about the change in the law that permitted restaurants, hotels and other places with a liquor license to now apply for a small games of chance license which would permit them to operate certain tavern games as part of their business.  These games were previously reserved for clubs and other private licensees and were not available to restaurants and hotels.  When the law was passed, the governor’s office estimated that the taxes and fees generated from the expansion of these licenses would generate as much as a $102 million dollars for the State of Pennsylvania.  However, a number of recent articles, such as this one from Lancaster Newspapers and this one from PennLive/Patriot News have highlighted the reluctance of many bar and restaurant owners in applying for these licenses.

The reluctance seems to stem from a great deal of uncertainty and also some confusion and complication with regard to the application process.  The first small games of chance license was highly publicized and, according to reports from the bar owner, appears to have attracted some business.  It seems though it is too early to tell as to whether or not these licenses are worth it to bar and restaurant owners given the hefty taxes and application requirements.  It remains to be seen whether the Department of Revenue, Liquor Control Board, and Gaming Control Board, all of which are involved in a small games of chance license, will relax some of their requirements or taxes when it comes to these games or these licenses in order to attract more applications.  If they do not, there may need to be some adjustments to the expectations for the taxes and fees generated by these licenses.  It is also possible that a few establishments will serve as guinea pigs and, if they continue to report success in increased revenue from these games, it could open the flood gates for other bars and restaurants that have not been so quick to bet on the value of a small games of chance license.

Aaron Zeamer is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from Widener University and practices in a variety of areas including Business Law and Liquor License matters.

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The Three Estate Planning Documents You Need

In previous posts, we have discussed various estate planning documents and how they differ, but many times there is confusion as to what takes effect and when. Or, you may wonder why you can’t just appoint an agent (power of attorney) in your Will.  I have provided a simple review of each document, its purpose, and when it takes effect in hope that I can quickly dispel the confusion.

Generally, when clients meet with me for estate planning, three documents are prepared and executed: the Financial Power of Attorney, the Durable Health Care Power of Attorney/Advanced Health Care Directive, and the Will. 

The Financial Power of Attorney allows your agent to access your financial accounts, pay bills and make transfers on your behalf immediately upon signing.  It is important to select someone you trust as they have access to all of your financial accounts.  There are ways to protect yourself and ensure that the agent you have appointed is acting in your best interests.  One way is to appoint co-agents so they act as a check on each other.  However, this can lead to disagreements between the agents and defeat the purpose of the document itself.  Another way is to request an accounting of your agent’s activity if you suspect something is amiss.  The agent is bound to follow certain fiduciary duties while acting as your agent.  If your agent fails to act in your best interest, they can be brought before the court and made to remedy their actions.  However, the best way to be proactive is to appoint someone that you trust implicitly from the beginning. 

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Follow up to Death in the Digital Age

As a follow up to Death in the Digital Age, a story about the online afterlife of a woman in Pontiac Michigan caught my attention.   Her body was discovered in her vehicle parked in her garage by an individual entering the property on behalf of the mortgage company which had foreclosed upon the property for non-payment.  The unusual thing?  It was five years after her death in 2009.

She had arranged for automatic online payment of her utilities and mortgage, and the balance in her account was large enough to last for four years.  As her body decomposed in the garage, the funds went out regularly.  It wasn’t until the account was depleted that her death was discovered.  The neighbors assumed she was traveling for business, she had quit her job so was not missed at work, or apparently anywhere else.

My favorite comment to this online story was:  “What ‘lived on’ was the money.  When that ran out, the culture pronounced her dead.”

Christina Hausner is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, PA. She received her law degree from Duquesne University School of Law.

 

Accessing Email After Death

Recently we posted an article about Death in the Digital Age.  But, what happens if a loved one fails to make these arrangements and you must have access to their digital accounts? 

Google has recently developed a method that allows people to gain access to a deceased person’s accounts.  Google has taken steps to ensure its users' privacies are protected while understanding that the need for someone to access a decedent’s account post mortem may occasionally arise. 

In order to gain access, you must first be an authorized representative of the deceased user and complete the two-stage process.  Part I includes providing Google with personal information about yourself, information about the account, and the decedent’s death certificate.  The second part occurs only after you have passed the minimal threshold of the first stage.  Google will then communicate directly with the authorized representative to give them further instructions.  For complete information on this, you can view Google’s instructions here. It is likely that more and more websites and social media sites will take Google's lead and develop similar policies to address the importance of our digital assets.

Lindsay Schoeneberger is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Widener University School of Law and practices in a variety of areas, including Estate Planning.

Death in the Digital Age

As you update your Facebook page, have you ever wondered how your beneficiaries could obtain access to your “digital assets” upon your death?  Indeed, could they access your digital assets if you were incapacitated during your lifetime?  Prudent people plan through financial powers of attorney for incapacity during lifetime, or for the disposition of their financial assets and real estate upon their deaths under their wills.  Not enough attention has been paid to digital assets.  “So attention must be paid,” as Willy Loman said.

Does the persons (or institution) that would act as your agent during life, or as your executor upon death, know the location of your passwords and usernames?  Do they know whether you have an Amazon account or are active with social media sites?  As part of your estate planning, you should prepare an inventory of such information.  You may even consider expressly providing for access by your agent during life or by your executor upon death.

Google, for example, has available an “inactive account” option that allows notices to be sent to specified persons if there is no activity on your account for a predetermined period of time.  For example, if your Gmail/Google account were to be dormant for several months, 30 days prior to your predetermined deadline, you would receive a warning email or text alert.  After the deadline has passed, the action you set for your account will occur. This action could include deletion of the account.

You may consider giving some attention to the disposition of these “assets”.  After all, your digital assets may be every bit as valuable as the china, silver or fishing rods used to be, and may provide access to financial assets.

Jon Gruber is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from the University of Virginia and practices in a variety of areas, including Estate Planning and Estate and Trust Administration.  

Think Before You Post - Employment Discrimination and Confidentiality

Settlements are the grease that makes the wheels of justice run. Without plea bargains, the criminal court system would grind to a halt.  The civil justice system depends on reliable monetary settlements as well.  Lawyers are used to working within this framework, but every so often, some sand gets thrown in the machinery, and it grinds to a halt. 

With most civil settlements, particularly those involving employment law, confidentiality is key.  Employers don’t want others knowing the payout made to buy peace.  Exceptions may be specified for counsel and tax advisors, but generally litigants cannot discuss the facts or terms of a settlement even with a spouse unless the spouse agrees to maintain confidentiality as well. 

In the old days when oral rumors were the rule, it might be tough to prove a breach of confidentiality.  But in the 21st century, we have social media to establish beyond a reasonable doubt who spilled the beans.

In the age discrimination claim of Patrick Snay v. Gulliver Preparatory School, it was the daughter of the plaintiff who posted to her 1,200 Facebook friends:  “Mama and Papa Snay won the case against Gulliver. . . . Gulliver is now officially paying for my vacation to Europe this summer.  SUCK IT.”  The daughter was a student at the school her father had sued, so her post broadcast to current and former students that Gulliver had lost its case with its former headmaster.

Four days after signing an $80,000 settlement agreement, the school cried foul and refused to pay.  Now over two years later and after two court appeals, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal sided with the school and refused to enforce the settlement agreement.  “Snay violated the agreement by doing exactly what he promised not to do. . . . His daughter then did precisely what the confidentiality agreement was designed to prevent,” said Judge Linda Ann Wells in her ruling on February 26, 2014.

Maybe this case will go back to court, and how much impetus will there be for the school to offer a voluntary settlement?  Lots of work for everyone involved just because of a slip of the mouse. 

Always take a confidentiality clause seriously and never document any breach on social media.

Christina Hausner is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, PA. She received her law degree from Duquesne University School of Law and has practiced in the area of employment law for over 25 years