Trustee’s Liability for Contractor’s Work

Whether you are a Trustee of a trust that owns real property, a Personal Representative of a decedent’s estate that holds real property, or simply a homeowner, it is important for you to know your potential liability when you engage a contractor to perform work on the property if an employee of the contractor gets hurt on the job.

Many home service contractors do not carry worker’s compensation insurance coverage for their employees.  This is especially notable with tree service contractors.  The same men who climb trees with powerful chain saws to cut limbs and tree trunks while hanging from a rope around their waists in one of the most dangerous home service professions often find it prohibitively expensive to pay the premiums for worker’s compensation insurance, and therefore do not obtain such coverage.

The problem with that is, if one of the workers is injured on the job, even if that person is an employee of the contractor, then the law may treat such injured worker as your employee for liability purposes.  And, unless you, as Trustee or homeowner, have worker’s compensation insurance to cover this particular type of worker – and obtaining such coverage for the once in a blue moon tree cutter or other home service contractor likely is not possible – then the potential liability is unlimited.

Suppose, for example, that the Trustee of a trust that owns real property hires a contractor to remove a tree, and the climber who is cutting limbs halfway up the tree with a chain saw, has an accident and loses his arm, or cuts a gash into his head, or falls out of the tree and dies.  With worker’s compensation insurance, the liability would be limited by law and would be paid by the insurance company, but if there is no such coverage, and the worker or worker’s estate seeks recovery from the trust, then the resulting liability could bankrupt the trust, and the Trustee could potentially be held personally liable to the beneficiaries of the trust for failing to exercise due diligence and engage a contractor who has worker’s compensation insurance.

The homeowner who hires a contractor with no worker’s compensation insurance likewise risks financial ruin should the contractor or one of his employees become injured on the job.  The same holds true for the Personal Representative of a decedent’s estate if there is real property in the estate and the Personal Representative engages a contractor to perform work on the property, which the Personal Representative might do to improve the property in order to sell it.

Therefore, it is important to closely scrutinize the terms of the engagement when hiring a home service contractor.  With respect to insurance, including general liability insurance, vehicle insurance, and worker’s compensation insurance, the Trustee, Personal Representative, or homeowner should obtain a currently dated Certificate of Insurance, directly from the contractor’s insurer, and addressed to the Trustee, Personal Representative, or homeowner.  One should review that certificate closely to ensure that the limits of coverage are sufficient and that there are no excluded persons that include those who will be on-site performing the work.

Also closely scrutinize the service contract itself.  For example, while the contractor may have sufficient insurance, the service contract may place the burden of any liability on subcontractors, in which case, if you as Trustee, Personal Representative, or homeowner agree to this term, the contractor’s insurance coverage may be worthless to you.  If that is the case, be sure to strike that provision from the contract and have both parties sign to ensure that you are holding the contractor liable for all workers performing under the contract between you and the contractor, regardless of whether the contractor employs subcontractors to perform the work.

William M. Gatesman advises clients regarding their financial and estate planning concerns, assists and advises Trustees, Personal Representatives, and other fiduciaries, and serves as Trustee over trusts for clients and their beneficiaries.  If you have any questions concerning this article or related matters, please contact us.

Medicaid Updates Transfer Penalty Rule

If one applies for Medicaid to pay for long term care in a nursing home, the state will look to see if the applicant made any gifts in the five years preceding the Medicaid application. If so, then (with some exceptions addressed in various articles on this website) a period of Medicaid ineligibility will be imposed.

For many years before 2014, the period of ineligibility was determined by dividing the amount of the gift by $6,800, which amount was supposed to be the average monthly cost of care in a nursing home. In July, 2014, that number was changed to $7,940. Medicaid has again updated the divisor to take into account Nursing Home care cost inflation.

Effective July 1, 2016, the divisor to determine the number of months of Medicaid ineligibility for gift transfers is $8,684, which means that one would be ineligible for one month for every $8,684 in gifts made during the five years preceding the Medicaid application.

Bear in mind that the term “gift” means any transfer of resources with respect to which the transferor did not receive full value. Thus, if a person sold her house for less than it’s fair market value (Medicaid uses assessed value or an appraisal to determine fair market value), then Medicaid will treat the difference between the sales price and the deemed fair market value to be a gift transfer even if such sale was made to a third party in a bona fide arms length transaction.

We at the Gatesman Law Office endeavor to stay at the cutting edge of new developments in Medicaid law and policy.

Should you have any questions as to how this new policy might affect you or a loved one, please contact us by clicking the Contact link on this website.

Bill Gatesman

New Procedure to Obtain Estate Tax Return Closing Letter

The Internal Revenue Service will no longer routinely issue estate tax closing letters when it finishes satisfactorily processing an estate tax return. In an online Notice published -HERE-, the IRS states that “estate tax closing letters will be issued only upon request by the taxpayer.” That Notice sets forth the procedure whereby a taxpayer or tax preparer may obtain a Transcript in lieu of a closing letter to ascertain that an estate tax return has been accepted by the IRS.

Medicaid Exclusion for Joint Assets Under Attack

It is a well established principle of the Maryland Medicaid rules that certain jointly owned assets such as stocks or real property will not be counted as available resources to a nursing home resident who applies for Medicaid benefits if the other joint owner refuses to participate in a sale of the property.

For decades, such assets have been disclosed by nursing home residents on their Medicaid applications and such assets have been valued at zero for purposes of determining Medicaid eligibility.

Recently, however, a Medicaid applicant was denied Medicaid coverage for nursing home care because the applicant owned stock, in certificate form, with her son in joint ownership, even though the son had refused to participate in a sale of the stock. Ordinarily, such a denial by a Medicaid caseworker would be overturned when the case was appealed to an Administrative Law Judge, but in this case, the Administrative Law Judge ignored the specific regulation in the Maryland Medicaid Manual that explicitly states that jointly owned stock should not be a countable asset where the joint owner refuses to sell.

Such denial has implications, not only for the particular individual whose Medicaid application was denied, but for Medicaid applicants statewide. Indeed, this case has been appealed to the Circuit Court of Maryland where a senior Assistant Attorney General, representing Maryland’s Medicaid authority, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, essentially has requested the Circuit Court to issue a decision that radically revises the long standing Medicaid policy concerning such jointly owned assets.

If the Circuit Court were to uphold the decision of the Administrative Law Judge in this particular case, then it would shroud the process of dealing with jointly owned assets in a cloud of uncertainty. No longer would Medicaid applicants and their advisers be able to act with certainty regarding jointly owned assets, as there would exist the possibility that Medicaid caseworkers could arbitrarily ignore the applicable rule on the strength of judicial precedent.

This is not the proper way for the Medicaid authorities to change their policy. The proper way is to propose rule changes, either by changing the Code of Maryland Regulations, or by changing the Maryland Medicaid manual. Simply leaving a rule in place that exempts joint assets from consideration, but then attacking such an arrangement by imposing Medicaid ineligibility on a case-by-case basis on unsuspecting Medicaid applicants is bad public policy.

The State’s efforts to deny benefits in the case under discussion in this article is an example of such bad public policy.

William M. Gatesman is following the progress of this case closely and will inform the readers of this website of any new developments as they arise.

In the meantime, Mr. Gatesman stands ready to assist clients with prudent Medicaid eligibility and asset protection planning in the context of a changing landscape.

How to Prevent The Never Ending Estate

Some workers who have received judgments in their favor from their former employers for work related disease or injury, such as asbestos related injuries or coal mining related diseases, find that the judgments are paid out over time, sometimes in the form of small amounts paid now and then over a period of many years. Some of these individuals have died and their probate estates have been wrapped up and closed. Then, out of the blue, another check arrives with a payment on the injury or disease settlement.

Once such check arrives, notice must be given to the Register of Wills in the county in which the estate had been opened, a supplemental inventory and account filed, and distribution made (with the payment of an additional probate fee in some circumstances). If a lawyer assists with this process, there will be legal fees as well. This is a cumbersome and costly endeavor, sometimes for a very small amount of money.

This continuous process of reopening the estate each time a settlement check arrives can be avoided with the proper assignment of future settlement payments to the beneficiaries of the estate when the final estate administration account is filed and the estate closed. Such assignment can grant the Personal Representative of the estate continuing authority to transact checks to make the distributions to the beneficiaries.

The Gatesman Law Office assists clients with the process of simplifying life for estate beneficiaries by arranging for the distribution of such settlement awards that might be received after an estate is closed without the necessity of continually filing supplemental inventories and accounts year after year.

Paying Legal Fees from a Probate Estate

In general, a Personal Representative of a decedent’s estate may not pay legal fees out of the probate estate without first getting approval from the Orphan’s Court overseeing the estate administration.  A Personal Representative has to be careful about this rule.  For example, if the Personal Representative hires a lawyer to prepare a deed, oftentimes, the deed preparer will simply send a bill for services without notifying the Personal Representative of his or her duty to get court authorization to pay that bill.  It would be improper for the Personal Representative to simply pay that bill without obtaining court authorization to do so.

Similarly, a Personal Representative should get court authorization to pay any legal fees incurred before death.  There are two exceptions to obtaining such prior authorization.  Some might argue that such authorization would not be required if the lawyer whose fees are being paid files a claim in the estate for such fees, and the Personal Representative pays the claim, which payment is reflected on an estate administration account (the argument being that such payment is the payment of a claim and not payment of legal fees, per se); however, the conservative way to do so would still be to obtain court authorization, or to pay such amount using the method discussed in the paragraph below.

Another method for paying legal fees incurred by the decedent before death is for the Personal Representative to provide all interested persons and all unpaid creditors with a Notice of the Personal Representative’s intention to pay such legal fees.  That notice will provide the interested persons and unpaid creditors with a time period in which such persons could object to such payment, and if such objection is properly and timely made, the Orphans Court will hold a hearing to determine how much of such fee is to be paid using estate funds.   If no objections are made within the allowable time, however, then the Personal Representative may pay such legal fees incurred before death with no further court action.  There is a particular rule of court that allows legal fees to be paid in this manner.

William M. Gatesman is skilled in the various methods of paying legal fees from a probate estate and assists clients with the proper administration of estates, including the payment of legal fees using estate assets.   As stated elsewhere on this website, these article are of general interest and readers should not consider these articles to constitute legal advice.   William M. Gatesman stands ready to give legal advice to particular clients in jurisdictions where he is licensed to practice law.  Please contact Mr. Gatesman if you would like to obtain legal advice regarding the matters addressed on this website.

Legislature Tinkers With Power of Attorney Law

The Maryland legislature once again has tinkered with the law governing powers of attorney in Maryland. That law includes Power of Attorney Forms, which if used, or if one’s power of attorney is “in substantially the same form” as one of the form documents, then the law bestows certain rights on the holder of the power of attorney, namely, the right to obtain payment of one’s legal fees from the person or institution who refuses to honor the power of attorney where a legal action is taken to compel acceptance. This right to legal fees differs from the general “American rule” of jurisprudence which holds that each litigant in a legal action must pay his own legal fees.

Unfortunately, the forms in the statute are generally not sufficiently comprehensive and lack certain important provisions.

Click here to read the rest of the story…

October Brings New Laws Affecting Probate in Maryland

There are several new laws affecting probate in Maryland that became effective October 1, 2012. This article will address those statutory changes.

Click here to read the rest of the story…

May a Personal Representative Represent an Estate in Court Without a Lawyer?

Several lawyers have been pondering whether it is illegal for a Personal Representative to bring a legal action without a lawyer because doing so would be considered the unauthorized practice of law.

This office was involved in a case a few years ago in which the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that a Personal Representative (who was not also an estate beneficiary) may not pursue a legal action in Circuit Court without a lawyer. The Appellate Court ruled that doing so constitutes the unauthorized practice of law. The Court ruled also that an estate is not a person who can pursue a legal action “pro se”.

When an individual goes to court without a lawyer, such person is said to be acting “pro se”. Only individuals are allowed to pursue legal actions in court on a pro se basis. Parties who are not individuals, such as corporations, may not do this, but rather, must be represented by a lawyer.

According to the Court of Special Appeals in this unpublished opinion, an estate likewise must have a lawyer to pursue a legal action in Circuit Court.

You may click here to read the case.

Probate to Remove a Cloud on Title

William M. Gatesman and the Michael G. Day Law Office recently assisted a client in the following situation. During her husband’s lifetime, the client and her husband transferred their real estate to various trusts using deeds that identified the trust as the recipient or grantee of the property, specifically using the name of the trust without including the name of the trustee.

Deed to Trust Must Name Trustee
Under current Maryland law, such a deed would be effective to convey the property to the trust. However, at the time the deed was signed, Maryland law required that the trustee of the trust (i.e. an actual person) be listed as the grantee in order for the deed to be effective. Listing the trust itself as grantee without also listing the trustee by name was ineffectual. Consequently the client’s deeds were not effective and there was a “cloud on title”, meaning that the property could not be sold until the problem was resolved.

In this case, because the original deeds to the trusts were not effective, we needed husband and wife to sign confirmatory deeds that included the name of the trustee as grantee. However, because husband had died, he could no longer sign a confirmatory deed. And even though his wife held his power of attorney, a power of attorney is no longer effective when the principal dies.

Ancillary Probate
To complicate matters further, while the real property is located in Maryland, the couple had since moved to another state. Since all of their other property had effectively been conveyed to the trusts, no probate proceeding was necessary in such other state even though their wills were on file with the court in that state.

Typically, in cases were an individual is domiciled in another state and dies owning real property in Maryland, one first opens an estate in the state of residence and then undertakes a streamlined “ancillary administration” in the Maryland probate court.

No Clear Procedure
While our office resolved this matter some time ago, it is evident from inquiries by other probate lawyers in an email discussion forum that some lawyers wonder whether a Maryland probate can be opened to address such an issue if there is no probate in the state of domicile.

In fact, Maryland’s rules of procedure and the statutes addressing the jurisdiction of Maryland’s probate court do allow a family member to open a probate estate in Maryland in such circumstance. On that basis, we were able to have a Personal Representative appointed in Maryland for husband’s estate for the sole purpose of executing the confirmatory deed which wife also signed. In this way, we were able to remove the cloud on title that affected the marketability of the properties.

This is one example of the type of complex situation we are called upon to resolve on behalf of our clients on a day to day basis.

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