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Virginia Tax Relief Refund

By Amanda L. Richter, CPA

Check your mailbox because you might have a check waiting for you from the State of Virginia. Now through October 15, 2019, tax relief refunds are being sent out to eligible taxpayers. This Virginia refund is the state legislation’s response to the Federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that was passed in December 2017. (See our previous publication on the TCJA for more information pertaining to significant individual income tax law changes.) Eligible taxpayers can receive refunds up to $110 for a single taxpayer and $220 for married couples filing joint.

To determine if you are eligible for the refund you must have filed a 2018 Virginia income tax return by July 1, 2019 and had a Virginia tax liability. If you filed a resident Virginia income tax return, Form 760, the tax liability is reported on line 19 Net Amount of Tax. The amount of your refund may be reduced by any credits that you received. Credits can include the Virginia Earned Income Credit, or credits for tax paid to other states.

If you did not receive your refund by October 15th and you believe that you are eligible for it, contact the Virginia Department of Taxation at 804-367-8031 for more information pertaining to your account. Please keep in mind that any tax refund, including this one, can be withheld to payback your outstanding tax liability including debts to the IRS, local governments, courts, or state agencies.

Ask Kit Kat: Rescued Tiger

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about a tiger rescued in Texas from an abusive situation?

Kit Kat: Well, this is a sad tale, which has a happy ending. Loki, as he is now known, was found in Houston, Texas in February 2019 in an unlocked cage in an abandoned house. Someone looking for a quiet place to smoke marijuana just happened to stumble upon him. Fortunately, the person was not hurt, but the situation could have ended badly had it been a tiger, other than Loki, who is very gentle. Statistics show that, since 1990, 24 people have been killed and almost 300 injured, by exotic pets which were not properly housed. According to Debbie Leahy, Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) captive wildlife manager, “These are incredibly dangerous animals, and when people keep them in flimsy backyard cages—or in the case of the Houston tiger, in a flimsy cage inside an abandoned home—it poses a significant danger to the community.”

Exotic pets, unfortunately, are so cute when small, and many are bred for photo shoots and traveling zoos. Once they grow beyond the cute stage, they are then likely to end up in inappropriate situations such as Loki did. Also, those taken from their mothers too early, can have problems in socialization. If the tigers do not have proper living quarters, problems can develop with their foot pads from standing on concrete for long periods. Improper diet can cause bone disease, and even limb deformities.

Loki has found himself to be in quite a nice situation now, however. He will live out the rest of his life at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, run by a HSUS-affiliate in Murchison, Texas. He has a large pen and has access to trees, pools of water, and other natural vegetation. His former owner has been charged with animal cruelty, and he lost his rights to Loki. Efforts are underway to protect future abuse of large animals via the proposed federal Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R.1380). It was reintroduced in February and would prohibit individuals and unqualified exhibitors from breeding and possessing big cat species. Thank goodness there are organizations like HSUS which work to protect animals who cannot protect themselves. (“The tiger next door,” All Animals, Sept/Oct 2019, p. 8-9)

Posted on Monday, September 30th, 2019. Filed under Senior Law News.

Administration of Small or Insolvent Estates

By Shannon Laymon-Pecoraro, CELA

Many people do not understand the complexities involved in administering a decedent’s estate. Estate administration can be even more problematic when the estate is relatively small. As a result, one of the first things we assess when meeting with a new client is the size and solvency of the estate.

An estate valued below $50,000 is, by statute, a small estate in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Although the probate of a will is still required, qualification of a personal representative is not necessary. Instead, the successors to the property of the estate may claim property via an affidavit that attests to a certain set of facts, including the value of the property.  The important thing to note is that, although the small estate affidavit should make the administration simpler, the claiming successor(s) of any property has a duty to safeguard and promptly pay or deliver the small asset as required by the laws of the Commonwealth.

The problem associated with the small estate affidavit resolves around the payment of estate assets as required by law. The Virginia Code outlines an order for which debts are to be paid, and a failure to abide by that order could result in personal responsibility for the debt. When an estate, whether small or large, has assets that are insufficient to cover the full extent of the liabilities, then each liability must be properly assessed and if one level of priority cannot be fully paid, then the liability of that priority must be paid pro rata.

A number of clients in recent years have promptly qualified on insolvent estates and started to negotiate payments with vendors, often paying creditors out of the order of priority. Although there were no ill intentions, the personal representative, as a result of the incorrect payments, was held personally responsible for the errors.

Before rushing to the court to qualify as Executor or Administrator, you should meet with someone who can discuss the particular circumstances of the estate. This will not only provide for efficient administration, but can limit your personal liability.

Ask Kit Kat: Squirrels & Bird Cues

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about squirrels and how they listen to bird chatter?

Kit Kat: This is such an interesting subject! Squirrels regularly perch outside my kitchen window, and I see them all the time, with their tails in constant, irregular motion. It’s almost as if they are being shocked by some invisible source. Anyway, scientists at Oberlin College in Ohio took an interest in them, and wanted to examine whether or not their behavior could be influenced by certain sounds. Keith A. Tarvin, a biologist at Oberlin, and his students decided to find out in a formal study. Dr. Tarvin says, “I’ve been interested in alarm calls for a while. Even some lizards that don’t make their own vocal sounds eavesdrop on some other animals like birds.”

Their experiment led to classifying squirrels’ behavior as having 6 types foraging, preening, resting, standing, freezing, and fleeing. The latter 3 types—standing, freezing, and fleeing– were subcategorized as vigilance states. By using devices they had designed for the experiment, they played a menu of different recordings at one bird feeder over different times of day. One selection was of a screeching hawk followed by bird chatter, another of a hawk screeching with no bird chatter afterward, one with just bird chatter, and one with background noise but having no bird chatter. The experiment took place in winter when leaves could not obscure the observer’s view over the course of a couple of years.

Results of the data collected reveal some fascinating insights into how squirrels respond to sounds around them. They definitely are more relaxed when not hearing the sound of a screeching hawk, but they relax the most when birds are doing their normal chatter. There is a calming effect to the bird chatter. Other background noises just can’t compete with that of birds. Dr. Tarvin and his assistants conclude that this lends support to the idea that squirrels are smart and clever, but also that bird chatter may be one type of the “public information networks that exist in ecological communities.” How man-made sounds may affect this communication highway is not yet understood. Further study will be needed to shed light on that topic. (James Gorman, “Squirrels Relax When They Hear Birds Relaxing,” (the New York Times (Trilobites), Sept. 4, 2019)

Posted on Wednesday, September 18th, 2019. Filed under Senior Law News.

When to Update Estate Planning Documents

By Emily Martin, Esq.

When you execute an estate plan, chances are you’re enthusiastic about how well your plan is going to work for you and relieved to have what is often an unpleasant task out of the way.  Once you get home, you may place the estate planning portfolio in your safe or a safe deposit box at the bank, so that the documents are accessible and won’t be inadvertently destroyed.  Unfortunately, that is often the last time that most people give serious thought to their estate plan.  While most people may not need to update their estate plan every year or even every two or three years, it is important that you review your plan on a regular basis to make sure that it does not need to be changed or updated.

There are many factors that can cause someone to need to update their estate planning documents.  For example, if you have children, you will need to change your will to appoint a guardian who would care for your child if you and your spouse were to pass away. If you go through a divorce or separation, you will obviously need to change your estate plan to protect your assets from your ex-spouse. If you are older and have grandchildren, you may want to update your plan to include your grandchildren (or even great-grandchildren).

Surprisingly, many of our older clients come to us with estate plans that they executed twenty or more years ago when their children were little.  When they come to us, often their children are not only grown, but have children of their own.  If these clients have a will appointing guardians for their children, their estate plan is not only out-of-date but includes unnecessary provisions.  This framework will no longer work to accomplish the goals and serve the needs of our clients.

Aside from inheritance issues, which can usually be fixed with a simple change to an already established estate plan, some estate plans may need to be reworked entirely.  If you made your estate plan when you were younger, chances are you were not concerned about qualifying for Medicaid or veterans’ benefits.  However, if you are retired or approaching the age of retirement, you may want to consider an irrevocable trust in order to protect your assets from a Medicaid spend-down.  This type of estate plan is much more complex than having a simple will, which is the most common type of estate plan, and requires a reworking of the way your assets are titled as well as a change to almost all of your estate planning documents. 

Additionally, if you signed your estate planning documents in the 1990s, you may have a trust that was drafted with the goal of allowing your estate to avoid estate tax. In the 1990s, the estate tax exemption was $600,000. That means that anyone with an estate worth $600,000 or more would have an estate subject to estate taxes. Many attorneys crafted unique estate plans and complex trusts to allow their clients’ estates to avoid having to pay estate taxes. However, in 2019, the estate tax exclusion is $11.4 million per individual and $22.8 million per married couple. This means that a great number of people currently do not have to plan for the avoidance of estate tax, because they do not have what is called a taxable estate. For people who had complex trusts drafted to avoid estate taxes, their estate plan is likely much too complicated for what they currently need. These documents should be updated to reflect the current law.

The final reason that an estate plan would need to be updated is if there is a major change in the law that would change the way certain documents operate.   For example, in 2010, Virginia passed the Uniform Power of Attorney Act. This act created a new format for durable powers of attorney that was designed to make these documents more readily acceptable by financial institutions.  If it has been a few years since you executed your estate plan, it is important to verify that there have been no changes in the law that would warrant a change to your estate plan.

While some changes, such as death and divorce, make it obvious that your estate plan needs to be updated, there are other issues, such as changes in the law, of which you might not be aware. Having an estate plan that is outdated or no longer accomplishes your goals can be almost as bad as not having an estate plan at all. For these reasons, it is important to contact your estate planning attorney on an annual basis to make sure that your plan is still working the way you wanted it to and that no changes need to be made.

Ask Kit Kat: Bahamas’ Heroine

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about the woman from the Bahamas who rescued 97 dogs during Hurricane Dorian?

Kit Kat: Well, this truly is a remarkable story. While it was not an unusually large house, she managed to cram 79 of them in her master bedroom. The rest were in other areas of her house. She had a few dog crates donated by neighbors for those who were really scared or sick and needed to be left alone. Her name is Chella Phillips. She had help from her brother. He slept only an hour during the worst of the storm, and Chella didn’t sleep at all.

During the initial parts of the storm while she still had electricity, she played music, had the TV on, as well as air conditioning. Eventually, she, too, lost power. Her house, which was already a refuge for stray dogs before the hurricane, started to flood. Attempting to keep the house and the dogs dry was quite an effort! While she still had power, she communicated with people through Facebook. Her concern was always for the dogs, “I pray for the other islands who have unimaginable damages and I don’t see how any dogs or any living being could have survived outside. My heart goes out to them.”

Ms. Phillips operates a shelter in Nassau, Bahamas called “The Voiceless Dogs of Nassau, Bahamas.” In August, long before there was any knowledge of Dorian, she had raised $63,000 for her shelter. This surpassed her original goal of $20,000. She has taken in close to 1,000 dogs since its opening. She is truly a heroine in every sense of the word! (Hannah Natanson, “This woman took 97 rescue dogs into her Bahamas home to protect them from Hurricane Dorian,” The Washington Post, Sep.3, 2019)

Posted on Wednesday, September 11th, 2019. Filed under Senior Law News.

Crisis of Care and Larger Crisis in the Workforce

By Letha Sgritta McDowell, CELA

Much has been written and contemplated about the care that an individual needs to age successfully, and even more has been written on how to pay for the care for chronic illness which is often needed as one ages. However, not much thought has been given about who will provide care. Our country is aging at a rapid rate. 10,000 baby boomers reach the age of 65 each day and, by the year 2035, it is projected that the number of individuals over the age of 65 will outnumber the number of individuals under the age of 18. In the year 2020, there will be 3.5 working adults for every person over the age of 65 but, by the year 2060, that number falls to 2.5 working adults for every person over the age of 65.

The result of this is that it is likely going to be difficult, if not impossible, to find enough elder care workers. Many who are tasked with finding appropriate care for loved ones find it difficult to find, and keep, good care providers. The job of aiding an older adult with their care needs can be both physically challenging as well as mentally exhausting. Care activities include tasks from shopping and meal preparation to medication monitoring to housekeeping to aiding with physical activities such as bathing. Not only can the job of caregiving be taxing, it is often low-paying.

Low-paying difficult jobs result in caregivers who begin the job and then leave to find other work, or caregivers who will leave agencies for small increases in pay or benefits. For individuals who choose to hire caregivers privately, the same issues apply without a backup. This means that, when a caregiver calls in sick, there isn’t an agency who can send a replacement for the day.

The challenges with locating and managing care providers can, in turn, become burdensome on family members and friends who have chosen to accept the responsibility to organize care. Much in the same way parents are often left in a lurch when a child is sick and cannot attend school or daycare, loved ones coordinating care cannot simply leave an aging person with chronic illness at home alone. However, unlike a small child with an illness, an older adult with a chronic illness is not portable and cannot easily be passed from one family or friend’s home to another. 

The challenges with caregiving and coordinating care exist today and result in lost work time, lost vacation time, lost contributions to retirement plans, and in some cases, lost promotions and lower pay. With the trend of reduction in the number of able bodied care providers as well as the increase in the number of individuals needing care, the effect on a working adult coordinating care of a loved one will be significantly greater.

In years (and generations) past, many individuals did not live into old age as we do now. Or, for those lucky enough to reach old age, they did not suffer the same chronic illnesses we live with today. In cases where care for chronic illness was needed, often a family member was not working and was able to be a care provider. Today, life expectancies are greater than ever. In addition, household demographics (and thus cost of living) have changed drastically. In 1960, less than 50% of households had both spouses working, yet in 2010, more than 65% of households had dual incomes. Therefore, the cost of living has increased along with household income. This means that the loss of income which may result from providing care could be disastrous financially.

How exactly the care crisis will play out in terms of finding available paid caregivers remains to be seen. Even more challenging will be determining how the potential inability to find paid caregivers will affect the economy and the workforce. What does seem clear is that finding caregivers for an aging population may be just as challenging as finding a method to pay.

Ask Kit Kat: Donkey on an Island

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about a donkey that was stranded on an island in California for 2 years before being rescued?

Kit Kat: Well, this is an interesting tale. The donkey’s name is Hillary, and she has a lovely grey coat. She is considered wild, and she got stuck on some high ground in Mariposa County, CA about 2 years ago. At that time, there was severe drought, and the lake bed was completely dry. Near the middle of the lake was some high ground. When heavy rains filled up the lake bed, Hillary was left stranded in the area which now appeared to be an island. Somehow others in her herd got to higher ground before this happened. She stayed there for 2 entire years! People in the area brought her hay and other food on a regular basis, but they were stumped on how to rescue her. Being wild, she was not exactly cooperative.

Finally, the Department of Fish and Wildlife decided to intervene. At first, they tried using a large cage with watermelon as an enticement. Hillary didn’t even go near the cage, and geese finished off the watermelon. They finally decided that she’d have to be tranquilized by darts in order to transport her. This was successful. She was not reunited with her herd, because they discovered that she had a leg injury. Because they feared her herd would reject her after such a long absence, she has been sent to a wildlife sanctuary. She is quarantined for now, as they begin to evaluate and treat her. Eventually, she will be introduced to a herd at the sanctuary who have special needs. It likely that she will stay there for the rest of her life.

Hillary is one lucky lady, and we wish her the best! (Hilary Hanson, “Hillary The Donkey Finally Rescued After 2 Years Stranded Alone On Island,” The Huffington Post, August 26, 2019)

Posted on Thursday, September 5th, 2019. Filed under Senior Law News.
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