June 2020

3 Reasons Why Adding Your Children as Co-Owners on Your Financial Accounts Is an Awful Idea

It has become common practice in Virginia for a surviving parent, after their spouse has passed away, to name one of their children as a co-owner of some or all of their financial accounts. There are a few reasons parents do this, but oftentimes it is to make sure that the child can access the parent’s account for the parent’s benefit if the parent becomes mentally or physically incapacitated. It is sometimes perceived as a shortcut to creating a proper estate plan with a portfolio of legal documents drafted by an attorney.

However, adding a child as a joint owner of your financial accounts is fraught with peril. Here are three of the main reasons:

  1. By adding your child as a joint owner, you are exposing your financial accounts to your child’s creditors. If your child ever goes through financial hardship (perhaps even due to a tragic accident), their creditors may try to collect by garnishing your child’s financial accounts, including ones where you established your child as a joint owner.
  2. Second, you are exposing your finances to your child’s control before you need to cede control. You hope that your child will continue to act in your best interests once you add them as a joint owner to your accounts. Most children will. But some do not, sometimes due to pressure from a spouse. And when they do not, you cannot simply remove the child from your accounts. You must have the child’s written permission to have them removed as a co-owner. Or you can close the account and withdraw all of the funds; of course, you have given your wayward child the ability to do the same thing.
  3. Finally, you may unintentionally disinherit your other children. For example, you have three children, two of whom live in another state, and one lives locally. It is not rare in such a case for a parent to add the child who lives locally as the joint owner on the financial accounts. However, if that is done, joint accounts usually have a survivorship clause in the contract. Which means when the one co-owner dies, the account is now solely the property of the surviving co-owner. Which means the local child inherits all of your financial assets at your death while your other children receive nothing.

There are more problems, of course, but no need to pile on.

So, what do you do? How do you properly allow a child to help you with your finances without adding the child as a co-owner on your accounts? One method is to make your child an “authorized signer” on your financial accounts. That way, the child can sign checks and engage in transactions on your behalf while exposing your finances to only some, but not all, of the perils of co-ownership.

A far stronger solution is that you can, as part of your estate plan, name a child your financial agent in a General Durable Power of Attorney document. Under such a document, your child has the power to engage in financial transactions of your behalf, but they are not considered a co-owner of the accounts. The child has obligations to meet under the law to act in your best interests as your agent and you can revoke the Power of Attorney documents at any time, unless you lack mental capacity.

There are additional aspects of an estate plan that can even make it easier on your child to help you, while simultaneously protect you and your family even more. If you would like more information, please call our team at PJI law at (703) 865-6100, or email us at poa@pjilaw.com.


Should I Consent to Judgment in Court?

Sit in the courtroom during any lengthy Virginia General District Court civil return docket, in Fairfax or elsewhere in Virginia, and you will likely see the following scenario play out: a pro se (meaning “unrepresented”) defendant will approach the front of the courtroom, whether in response to a lawsuit filed by a credit card company, homeowners association, medical provider, or any other type creditor, and the judge will ask the nature of the Plaintiff’s claim and the amount of damages alleged—sometimes thousands of dollars and sometimes hundreds. The judge will then ask the defendant whether or not he or she agrees with the claim, and the individual either responds affirmatively or acknowledges owing the money but attempts to explain that they have unsuccessfully tried to resolve the matter outside of court, or that the debt constitutes a hardship.

Occasionally a judge will ask or prompt the creditor’s attorney to speak with the defendant in the hallway to see if the matter can be resolved, but most of the time the court will proceed to enter “judgment by consent” and then encourage or instruct the defendant to follow up with the attorney to make arrangements to pay off the judgment. The entry of the judgment alone will almost always end up on a defendant’s credit report, and many judgments are taken when both sides would have benefited from making arrangements to satisfy the debt and thereby avoiding the entry of judgment.

Many creditors might assume that getting the quickest and easiest judgment always leads to the optimal recovery of the debt, but often times the threat of judgment is a more effective tool than the judgment itself in causing a debtor to pay the debt or entering into a satisfactory settlement or payment agreement. Collection and enforcement of a judgment can be frustrating and time consuming, and a voluntarily agreement or resolution is almost always the most effective path towards recovery of the debt. When judgments are obtained quickly either by default or by consent, it frequently signals that the debtor might not have many assets or revenue sources to protect.

Any defendant can answer the judge’s questions at the return date in a manner that will effectively constitute a sufficient denial of the claim that will result in a trial being set. This trial date is usually months down the road, and if nothing else, this provides the defendant with time to make payments or time to try and work out a settlement agreement or payment plan to resolve the debt. For creditors and their counsel, the pending trial date and continuing threat of judgment provides great incentive for the defendant to resolve the debt, if possible.

We at PJI Law can provide advice and assistance to both creditors and debtors, both prior to litigation, during litigation and during the post-judgment collection period. Contact our office today at (703) 865-6100 to schedule an in-person or remote appointment.

What Can Virginia Landlords Do About Tenants Who Are Behind on Rent in the Age of COVID-19?

Whereas commercial landlords can often utilize “self-help” and evict a non-paying tenant by changing the locks or, in some instances, shutting off utilities, landlords with residential tenants must use the court system by filing a Summons for Unlawful Detainer in order to evict a tenant.

Beginning March 16, 2020, all judicial evictions were frozen due to the judicial state of emergency declared by the Supreme Court of Virginia. Since then, there have been all kinds of changes that can be immensely confusing for those who, unlike landlord-tenant attorneys, don’t have it as part of their job descriptions to keep tabs on legislative and judicial updates.

A freeze on evictions would inconvenience and frustrate landlords during ordinary times, but a freeze on evictions during a period when many tenants are suffering financially and missing rent payments can cripple a landlord still facing monthly mortgage bills. Certainly both landlords and tenants are facing and dealing with unique hardships during the pandemic. If possible, both parties should explore and consider every possible way to resolve difficulties and avoid evictions. However, a resolution is not always possible; so what remedies do landlords during the eviction freeze?

If negotiations fail, the best thing a landlord can do is to have their unlawful detainer proceeding filed with the court now and scheduled on the soonest date permitted by the court. General District Courts have been accepting unlawful detainer filings since March 16th, and these matters have been piling up in the clerk’s office. For example, in one standard-sized General District Court in Virginia, nearly 200 unlawful detainer lawsuits were filed in the seven weeks following March 16th.

Many of the landlords with pending matters have had their initial return dates continued by the court, or have had to select new dates, due to extensions of the judicial emergency. A law firm familiar with the peculiarities of your local court would be well positioned to strategize with you about how to improve chances of getting to the “front of the line”.

PJI law has represented landlords in Fairfax County, Loudoun County, Prince William County, Arlington County, the City of Alexandria and other Northern Virginia jurisdictions in matters ranging from unpaid rent, to evictions, to property damage, to fraudulent representation. If you need advice on the best course of action or need assistance in getting your matter through court efficiently in light of the long queue that has built up, please schedule a consultation either in person, on the phone, or by video to discuss your matter. You can reach us at (703) 865-6100 or at landlords@pjilaw.com.