Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Engage With Grace: End of Life Decisions

Today marks the launching of a "blog rally" spurred on by Engage With Grace, an organization designed to encourage discussion and decision regarding end of life issues. As stated on their website ( , "we make choices throughout our lives – where we want to live, what types of activities will fill our days, with whom we spend our time. These choices are often a balance between our desires and our means, but at the end of the day, they are decisions made with intent. Somehow when we get close to death, however, we stop making decisions. We get frozen in our tracks and can't talk about our preferences for end of life care. According to studies, 75% of Americans would prefer to die at home, but anywhere between 20-50% of Americans die in hospital settings." Many surveyed confirm that the important, detailed discussions regarding end of life care have not taken place with loved ones. Engage with Grace has designed the "One Slide Project" with the simple goal of getting the conversation about end of life experience started. They hope that this one slide, with just five questions designed to help get us talking with each other and with our loved ones about our preferences, will be widely disseminated in order to educate people to communicate their preferences so that we can all end our lives in the same purposeful way we live them.

I commend Engage With Grace for their efforts in this area. As an estate planner, I regularly have this discussion with clients and encourage all to execute a Health Care Proxy setting out preferences for end of life care and treatment. I also encourage clients to have a detailed and frank discussion with the appointed holder of the Proxy, and other loved ones, about the choices expressed in the document so that fully informed decisions regarding care may be made by loved ones at the appropriate moment, based on a clear understanding of the wishes of the principal. Regardless of your particular wishes or philosophies regarding end of life care, a clear and well considered expression of intent is a gift to your loved ones and a most empowering way to influence the end of your life in the same way you have lived it. So here is the "one slide"- I encourage everyone to consider these issues, have the discussion with loved ones, and most of all, confirm them in a legal document that will be binding when the time arrives.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Annual Gift Tax Exclusion to Increase in 2009

The IRS has announced that the annual gift tax exclusion will increase from $12,000 to $13,000 effective January 1, 2009. The gift tax exclusion is the amount the IRS allows a taxpayer to gift to another individual without reporting the gift or incurring any gift tax liability. The number of different individuals to whom gifts may be given is unlimited.

Lifetime gifting can be an effective tool for estate planning purposes. Individuals may elect to make gifts of the annual exclusion amount to one or more individuals per year as a way of reducing the value of their total taxable estate. For example, a married couple with three children could give away up to $78,000 to their children each year ($13,000 per child is 6x$13,000=$78,000), thereby substantially reducing their potential estate tax liability over a period of years.

Lifetime gifting should be considered in concert with other estate planning techniques in establishing the most advantageous plan for you and your heirs and beneficiaries.

Estate Planning 101

No matter what your age, financial wealth, marital status or family structure, a well-considered estate plan is an essential tool to the orderly management and distribution of your estate upon death or incapacity. Estate planning may help you (a) protect your assets from unnecessary administrative and tax costs; (b) appoint particular individuals to act on your behalf in the event you are unable to act yourself; and (c) manage and distribute assets after death. A sound estate plan can ease the orderly administration and distribution of your estate in many ways, among them:
  • Distribution of assets to beneficiaries of your choosing, rather than according to a statutory scheme;
  • Designation of guardians for minor children by your directive, rather than by court proceeding;
  • Appointment of executors and trustees according to your wishes who will have the power to manage all of your business affairs;
  • Management and protection of assets for the benefit of your children until they attain the age you determine is appropriate for outright distribution to them;
  • Avoidance of conflicts among family members;
  • Reduction or elimination of estate taxes;
  • Streamlined distribution of assets to avoid the costs and delays associated with probate; and
  • Establishment of instructions regarding health care treatments in the event of incapacity.
In future posts I will discuss the various individual components of a comprehensive estate plan.

Estate planning for many people is a task they intend in good faith to attend to but lose track of doing in the hustle and bustle of every day life. I urge everyone to take the time to put your affairs in order. None of us likes to think of the possibility of accident or serious illness, but as we all know, life is very uncertain, and having an orderly estate plan in place is a gift to the loved ones you leave behind.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tip for Real Estate Practitioners in Middlesex County

If you are a practitioner in Greater Boston handling transactions in cities and towns whose land records are maintained at the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds in Lowell (Billerica, Carlisle, Chelmsford, Dracut, Dunstable, Lowell, Tewksbury, Tyngsborough, Westford and Wilmington), you will be happy to know that you no longer have to travel up to Lowell to record your closing documents for recorded land. Effective November 3, 2008, the recording counter at the Middlesex South Registry of Deeds in Cambridge will accept in-person land recordings for the North Middlesex District. This does not pertain to registered land documents or plans, but this new convenience is likely to save you at least a few trips north each year.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

HUD Announces Mortgage Reforms

For those of you in the real estate industry, whether as a mortgage lender, broker, attorney or consumer, this news is big. For the first time in more than 30 years, HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) has announced mortgage reforms designed to help consumers better understand the mortgage process, allow them to compare a variety of different products, and protect against increases in closing costs once disclosed. HUD has revised the long-used “Good Faith Estimate of Settlement Charges” (GFE) and the form settlement statement (HUD-1) used at closings to provide clearer and more easily understandable information to consumers. The new forms and regulations go into effect on January 1, 2010.

The new rules include the following:
1. The GFE will be easier to read and provide simpler disclosures regarding loan term, interest rate information and prepayment penalties.
2. The GFE will set out closing costs in detail, display all prominently and group them into major categories to prevent “junk fees” and allow consumers more easily to compare different loan offers.
3. Changes to closing costs between the GFE and settlement statement are limited as set out on the GFE. The final settlement statement form has been revised so that each line on the final statement will make reference to the relevant line from the GFE.
4. Payments from lenders to mortgage brokers must be disclosed in clearer detail.
5. Lenders must provide the GFE to borrowers three days after receipt of all necessary information.

For more information, or to see the revised forms, visit

I think these are welcome changes. Admittedly this puts a greater burden on those in the industry to get the information right the first time, but the new forms are far easier to understand and will remove much of the mystery in the mortgage loan process. I am all for anything that helps the clients to be informed participants in their own transactions.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why I do what I do

There are many reasons why I enjoy my practice of law, but no more so than the reason I was reminded of this afternoon as I conducted a real estate closing for a young, recently married couple buying their first home together. It was late in the afternoon and the air was palpable with excitement. It was clear that the sellers and the buyers have gotten along wonderfully from the outset, and the atmosphere was friendly and collegial. There was much chatter and laughter throughout the closing. When we finished signing the papers and the ceremonial transfer of keys occurred, they broke out a bottle of champagne and disposable glasses that they had brought along, poured a glass for everyone in the room, and toasted the celebration of this new milestone in their lives. We sat in the conference room enjoying our champagne, trading stories and laughing for close to another half hour. Everyone hugged one other as they departed, and my clients left agog with the excitement of going to spend their first night together in their new house. Watching this process unfold over the course of the afternoon, and witnessing the excitement in my clients' faces, I was reminded again why I do what I do-- while I certainly enjoy the intellectual and technical challenges that practicing law provides, it's the relationships I build with the people whose paths I cross, the ways in which I am able to help them achieve their goals, and the joy and satisfaction I get from knowing that I can make a positive difference that really mean the most. So here's a toast to the new homeowners-- may you build a happy home together, and thank you for allowing me to help you start on your way.

A good scam

A client contacted me recently about a solicitation she received in the mail from a company offering to provide her with a copy of the deed to her recently purchased home for a mere $60! She wondered if it was important for her to do this. Don't be fooled by this-- it's a huge scam and money waste for any homeowner. Know that a copy of any document relating to your real estate and recorded at the registry of deeds may be obtained from the registry for the cost of the photocopy (about $1 per page). Additionally, records of all Massachusetts registries of deeds are now available online and most provide access to all documents and free downloadable copies (there are a few exceptions which require a subscription in order to print out copies). So don't be fooled by this solicitation-- your $60 can be better spent in countless other ways.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"Happy Law"

I limit my practice to transactional and collaborative areas. I don't litigate, I don't do divorce work, and I try very hard to stay out of any courtroom. Why is this? The answer is because I don't like to fight. Now don't misunderstand, I am a very effective negotiator and can be as forceful and tenacious as I need to be in a difficult transaction, but philosophically I so far prefer to spend my time working with parties in situations where everyone gets what they want at the end. In litigation, and family law, there is necessarily a winner and a loser. At the end of a real estate closing, most of the time all parties go home happy, having achieved what they set out to do. The execution of a set of estate planning documents by the client at the end of a collaborative process is a wonderful moment of achievement and satisfaction. The formation and start-up of a new business entity or the resolution of an operational challenge is cause for celebration. My husband calls it "happy law". I like the sound of that.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Why a solo practice?

People have asked me why I ended up as a solo practitioner rather than part of a law firm. There are so many reasons! Some tease me that I don't "play well with others", but that's really not true-- it's just that I am a major control freak! All kidding aside, though, what I love most about being a solo practitioner is that I have the opportunity to work closely with clients on a one-on-one basis and to develop wonderful and lasting relationships as we work together. Clients become friends; friends become clients. Strong connections are forged and the collaboration between me and my clients allows for a multi-dimensional experience. When you engage my services, you know you are getting me, not a team of fungible young associates or paralegals in the back room. As a solo, I really get to know my clients well, and I can see up close and personal the ways in which my services can make a difference. Nothing feels better than the moment when the client gives me an enthusiastic "thank you" as we finish our business together, and I come away knowing that I have had a postive impact on their lives.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Who Am I?

Since this is a new blog, I figure I ought to tell you a little bit about myself. I was born in Boston and grew up in Newton. I received a B.A., summa cum laude, from Tufts University in 1981. I went on to the University of Pennsylvania Law School and received my J.D. in 1984. Following graduation, I returned to Boston and spent two years at the Boston firm of Rackemann, Sawyer and Brewster. From there I moved to a smaller firm, McDermott & Rizzo, which in 1990 merged into the Boston office of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. While these moves were all great career opportunities, I came to realize that I really was meant to be a small or solo practitioner, so in 1993 I left big law firm life, hung my shingle in Wellesley, and jumped off the cliff, not knowing if I would land or crash. Happily, I landed on my feet and have been successfully enjoying a solo practice for the past 15 years. I have been a resident of Needham for 18 years and live with my husband, Richard Miller, my two daughters, now 16 and 13, and a menagerie of animals that includes two beagles, two cats, two hamsters and a tortoise. In my leisure time, I am a New York Times Crossword puzzle fanatic; a cutthroat player of Scrabble, Boggle and all other word games; a voracious reader of fiction; the director, singer and arranger for a women's a cappella quintet called Boston Uncommon; a pianist; a knitter; a part-time student in the Jewish Music Institute of Hebrew College in Newton; and an active participant in my synagogue. So that's a taste... more to follow later.

Welcome to my blog

Greetings, all and welcome to my new blog. I must confess that I have been resisting the suggestion to start blogging for quite some time, but I am now ready to join the 21st century. I hope you will find useful information, interesting personal thoughts, and advice and assistance on relevant issues. I welcome you and hope you will enjoy and visit often.