9 Questions Everyone Has About Revocable Living Trusts

1. What is a revocable living trust (“RLT”)?

An RLT is a powerful estate planning method that gives you complete control over your assets both during your life, and after. It is a legal entity that holds property for you and others.

2. If I die leaving only a Will, how will my estate be settled?

In Virginia, as in nearly all states, if you have a Will, without an RLT, the executor of your Will must file your Will with the probate division of the clerk’s office, file requisite forms and accountings, pay taxes on your estate, and distribute your assets to your beneficiaries. Probate costs, including attorney’s fees, court costs, appraisal costs, etc. can range between 5% to 10% of the value of the estate.

Also, the probate process is a matter of public record. This means that anyone, for any reason, can go to the clerk’s office and look at your probate records to see a list of assets, liabilities, and heirs.

3. What are the advantages of having an RLT?

An RLT allows you to have full use, enjoyment, and control over your property during your lifetime and still gives you the control to determine what happens to your estate once you pass away.

It is more difficult for your beneficiaries (or would-be beneficiaries) to challenge the decisions you make in your RLT, compared to a Will.

The RLT will also avoid probate so, the Trust can directly distribute assets to your loved ones. Your privacy is also protected by avoiding probate.

Your RLT can also help shelter your loved ones from taxes.

4. Are there disadvantages to an RLT?

As with all of your estate planning documents, you should frequently review them to ensure no changes are necessary (changes in named parties, changes in assets, etc.).

There may also be costs associated with transferring property into the name of the RLT for your existing assets (for example the cost of filing the deed with the clerk’s office). Good estate planning law firms will include such transfers in their services.

5. What property can I put into my RLT?

An RLT can hold bank accounts, life insurance proceeds, stocks, bonds, real estate, and personal property.

You may list your property in the schedule attached to your RLT. When the property’s status changes – such as when you sell your home or close out an account – it is appropriate to make a note next to the item on the schedule, include the date and what happened.

6. If I make an RLT, do I still need a Will?

Yes. The Will is important to ensure that any property you’ve left out of the RLT is “poured over” into your RLT once you pass away. If the assets outside of your Trust are less than a certain amount, your loved ones can still avoid probate when you pass away. A Will also enables you to name a guardian for your children.

7. What do I do after I set up my RLT?

When you set up your RLT, you can begin naming your assets in the Trust using the Trust schedule. If you are transferring title to the RLT, you will need to contact each institution to fill out the proper paperwork to change the title or beneficiaries of your property. You can do this for bank accounts, stocks, and insurance, for example. As for your real estates, new deeds have to be prepared and filed with appropriate local department of land records. A good estate planning law firm will do all of this for you.

You should also notify the Successor Trustee named in your RLT to advise that person of the Trust and their role in it. Also make sure you tell them where the original document is stored.

8. Where should I keep the RLT documents?

You should keep the original RLT in a fireproof file box or safe. Do NOT keep it in a safety deposit box at a bank because a safety deposit box is often inaccessible upon your death.

9. How can I create, change or revoke my RLT?

You can amend or revoke your RLT at any time, however bear in mind that changes must be done with the same level of formality (including signing process) as the draft of your original trust. Please contact PJI Law at (703) 865-6100 or trusts@pjilaw.com and we will be happy to work with you to update your Trust – or to create one, if you don’t already have one.


3 Reasons Why a Trust Protects Your Family Better than a Will Does

3 Reasons Why a Trust Protects Your Family Better than a Will Does

When most people think about estate planning, they assume their best or only option is a Last Will & Testament combined with some joint tenancy or transfer-on-death arrangements for their financial accounts. However, for a large majority of people, there is a superior method to estate planning that has existed for several hundred years and allows you to peacefully and privately transfer your wealth after you die to your loved ones. This method is an estate plan built around a Revocable Living Trust

Like a will, a trust addresses how your estate will be administered and disposed of after you die. However, there is an important difference. A will is a testamentary document signed by you that does not take effect until after you pass away. When you do die, the will must be qualified publicly before your local probate court as part of a potentially very expensive government administration.

Unlike a will, a trust is a private contract between you as creator of the trust and you as the manager of the trust assets. The trust is effective immediately upon you signing your trust agreement and will successfully manage your estate upon either your incapacity or death, so long as your assets remain titled in the name of your trust or the trust is designated as a beneficiary of your assets. And unlike what some may assume, trusts are perfect planning mechanisms for middle-class Americans, and you don’t have to be a Gates or a Rockefeller to afford this type of planning.

The three main advantages of estate planning through a revocable living trust over other basic estate planning options are the following:

  1. Avoids probate.
  2. Privacy.
  3. Flexibility
    3 Reasons Why a Trust Protects Your Family Better than a Will Does

Avoids probate.  Since a trust is a private contract which determines the terms of how its assets are to be managed upon your incapacity and death, there is no need to have a third party bureaucratic entity administering your estate via a potentially lengthy, expensive, and very stressful process called “probate”. The main reason for the probate process is to change title to property from a dead person’s name to that person’s living beneficiaries. With a trust, however, you already retitled your assets during your lifetime out of your individual name and into the name of your trust. Thus, when you die there are no assets owned in your individual name. Therefore, your estate has no reason to go through probate.

Privacy.  Because a trust is private and is administered privately, there is no need of the public process of probate. No need to have your assets sold at a public estate auction nor will your loved ones be bothered by people looking to take advantage of your estate because they could review your will and your list of assets at the probate court.

Flexibility.  As you have read, a trust is a versatile and flexible document. This flexibility is further apparent in how it can work with your transfer-on-death (TOD) accounts in leaving a lasting legacy to your children and grandchildren.

For example, suppose you have two adult children. One is very responsible, but the other not so much. Typically, most parents designate their children individually as the beneficiaries of their financial accounts without considering how they can protect their hard-earned wealth from a child’s creditors or future ex-spouse. Instead, you can establish trusts in your revocable living trust agreement for each of your children (and potentially grandchildren). The share you leave to each child resides in the trust created for them and protects such assets from that child’s creditors or ex-spouse. It just depends on the terms you want drafted. Therefore, you designate your trust as the beneficiary of your TOD accounts instead of the children in their individual names.

If you have more questions about whether a trust may be appropriate for you, give us a call at (703) 865-6100 or send us an email at estateplanning@pjilaw.com.

What Happens if I Die or Get Incapacitated Tomorrow, with No Plan in Place?

What’s the most popular estate planning option? Will-based planning? Trust-based planning? Unfortunately, it’s neither. Number one on the list in Virginia is: doing nothing. The more technical term for this lack of planning is called “dying intestate.”

“Dying intestate” simply means that you have decided to depart this world without doing any estate planning whatsoever. While your family will be horrified at this prospect, your unintended beneficiaries, the government and the probate court will all be delighted.

By dying intestate, you will have allowed the government to draft your estate plan for you. As a result, they can tax your estate and impose other costs at the maximum amount allowable by law. In addition, your assets will go to people according state law’s priorities, not your own. For example, most married couples want their share of the estate to be used by the surviving spouse before the children inherit. However, if you have a blended family situation and provided no direction ahead of time, when you die, the court will only give one-third of your estate to your surviving spouse and two-thirds to your children from a previous marriage.

This problem is exacerbated before you die if you have no incapacity planning documents in place. If (and more likely, when) something happens to you that renders you unable to handle your own affairs, without you having a proper legal plan in place, you will have to go through a legal proceeding where a court appoints a guardian to handle your personal affairs and a conservator to handle your finances. The procedure is oftentimes referred to as “living probate.”

Living probate can be a living nightmare for you and your family for several reasons. First, it can be a humiliating process. You are declared incompetent in a public proceeding. Next, the court is in charge. It will decide which people will manage your affairs; it’s neither you nor your family’s choice.

Because of this court proceeding, there is lag time in the management of your affairs due to paperwork and delays. Of course, these hassles can add a lot of stress and expense to what is already a very stressful situation for your family.

Finally, living probate can be very expensive. Typically, there are court fees, attorneys’ fees, expert witness fees and accounting fees. Additionally, once your conservator has been appointed by the court, this person has to give an annual accounting to the court on how your financial affairs have been managed. This is true even if the court appointed your spouse or one of your children as your conservator.

Doing nothing hurts you, but hurts your family even more. Most of our clients tells us that the reason they’re doing proper planning is to protect their family. If that sounds like what you wish to do, we at PJI Law are here to help. Call us at (703) 865-6100 or email us at family@pjilaw.com.

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.

Super Lawyers Names Paul J. Abraham a 2019 Rising Star

PJI Law is pleased to announce that for the fourth year in a row, its Managing Attorney Paul J. Abraham has been selected by Super Lawyers to its Rising Stars List!

The selection, according to Super Lawyers, stems from Mr. Abraham having “attained a high degree of peer recognition and professional achievement.”

“This award is due entirely to our excellent team and to our team approach,” Mr. Abraham noted. “Every one of our clients and their cases get the benefit of being attended to by everyone from our Managing Attorney, to a committed Associate Attorney, paralegal, legal assistant, and of course to our Client Liaison. This exposure to so many members of our PJI Law family is what allows our team to deeply understand and work together effectively on our client matters, and it is a large part of the reason we have so many happy clients.”

The recognition is the result of a rigorous selection process by the nationally known and respected organization, which includes a statewide survey of lawyers, an independent research evaluation of candidates, and peer reviews by practice area.

Is In-Home Separation Possible in Virginia?

When you think of a married couple being “separated”, you probably envision one spouse moving out of the marital home. While that is the most straightforward way to separate, Virginia courts do recognize in-home separation as well. In-home separation occurs when the couple is still living in the same home, but each person is conducting his or her life as though they weren’t living together.

This is helpful to people because in most cases, and depending on the specific circumstances, Virginia requires a couple to be separated for one year or six months before they can file for divorce. Virginia requires a separation, or waiting period, in hopes that the couple will have enough time to work things out or, hopefully, reunite during that time. Waiting that long, however, can be difficult financially and sometimes even logistically. Therefore, many people elect to continue to live in the same home – but separately – so that they can avoid the expenses of maintaining two homes.

In-home separation doesn’t come without awkward moments and other difficulties.                                    

The question then becomes, how does the court know that the couple is separated if they are still living in the same house? While there is no formula, here is a checklist of some of the main facts the court would look at:

  • Using separate bedrooms.
  • Not engaging in marital relations.
  • Not running errands for the other spouse (grocery shopping, dry cleaning, etc.).
  • Not preparing food for the other spouse.
  • Not sharing meals together (unless it is a holiday or event pertaining to the children).
  • Not sharing chores (each spouse should be responsible for his or her own portion of the living space).
  • Not doing laundry for the other spouse.
  • Establishing separate checking accounts.
  • Not socializing together (not going on dates together, not going to family reunions, social gatherings, or work events together).
  • Not celebrating or exchanging gifts for special occasions.
  • Letting other people know that you are separated.
  • Having other people over to the house and making it clear that you are separated.
  • No longer wearing wedding bands.
  • No longer playing the role of the happy couple.
  • At least one person deciding that the separation is permanent (not trying to work things out, not going to couples therapy, etc.).
  • Note: If a couple has children (even if they are not minors), they are both still going to be parents regardless of whether they are separated. It is perfectly acceptable to continue to do things for the children such as attending sports events, concerts, and other special events for the children.

Again, there is no black and white rule, but all of these factors can add up to show either that the couple has been living separately or that they have not been.  In order to ensure that couples are not saying that they were separated before they truly were, the courts require a third party witness to confirm that they know the couple and know for a fact that the couple was separated for the necessary period of time.

We at PJI Law have guided a large number of Virginians through a divorce when the couple was separated within the same home. Sometimes, the separation may not have been as “clean” as one would have wanted, but our experienced attorneys have seen countless such situations and are ready to advise on how to deal with them, and on helping our client achieve their goals.

Remember Your Loved Ones (of All Species!) in Your Estate Planning

When thinking about estate planning, most of us think about our loved ones. Who will take care of my children? Who will inherit my estate? How will my spouse manage to pay the bills? However, a beloved household member is often overlooked . . . the pet!

While Virginia still classifies pets as property, their owners often treat them as members of the family. As such, responsible pet owners need to have a contingency plan in place for their pets in case something happens to the owners. If you leave your planning to chance, your pet’s future is uncertain. If something happens to you, your pet will be left relying on your friends or family to step up and care for them. If no one has the desire, time, space, or resources, your pet may end up at the mercy of a shelter or adoption agency.

You may believe you’ve addressed this issue via a verbal agreement with someone you trust. You may have a friend or family member who is pet-friendly and has told you they are willing to care for your pet. Unfortunately, that verbal agreement does not come with any guarantees that the person will (or, more often, can) follow through when circumstances change and times get tough, not to mention the potential disputes and competing claims over your pet that may arise among your family, friends, and acquaintances.

Good planning ensures your pet is properly provided for.

A far better course of action is to provide for your pet in your Last Will and Testament. This can be as customized as your needs require. You may simply direct whom you want to take care of your pet, you can set aside money for that person to use in caring for your pet, or you can even establish a pet trust.

A trust may cost slightly more to establish than a provision within your Last Will and Testament, but that is the safest way to ensure that your last wishes will be followed with respect to your pet. With a trust, you can not only leave your pet to someone’s care, but you can also leave funds to be specifically used for your pet and outline the conditions for use.

In addition to these formal steps for ensuring the care of your pet, it is also necessary to prepare the person you choose to care for your pet. Make sure the person knows where to find important information like medical records, and organize those records so that the person can easily identify allergies, medical conditions, and medication. Have the person and your pet spend time together and get to know each other. It would be helpful for the person to have information about your pet’s groomer, sitter, routine, and favorite things. These steps will make the adjustment period much easier for everyone involved.

Responsible pet owners must think about all of their loved ones, including their pets, and plan for the unexpected. Our PJI Law family has many pets, and being very much in the same boat as you are, we care about you and the ones you love, regardless of their species. Contact us if you would like to discuss options for your estate plans and the plans for your loved ones.

Check Out These Newly Enacted Virginia Laws

We’re not passive about the practice of law here at PJI Law – we pride ourselves on keeping up with the latest changes in the law in order to gain as big of an advantage as possible in our clients’ cases.

Newly enacted Virginia statutes typically go into effect on July 1 of each year, which means it’s now time to look at some of the newest and, in some cases, most interesting, laws that have gone into effect as recently as a last week:

Family Law

1. For the purposes of petitioning the court for a modification of spousal support, the payor spouse’s reaching full retirement age (per the Social Security Act) must be considered a material change in circumstances.

2. Virginia has developed a Kinship Guardianship Assistance Program to facilitate child placements with relatives if it is not appropriate for the child to return home or be adopted. The law also allows financial payment to the relative acting as the guardian of the child.

Business Law

3. The board of directors of a nonstock corporation is now authorized to determine that a meeting of members be held via remote communication, assuming the articles of incorporation or bylaws don’t have contradictory requirements.

4. A new law removes the requirement that a corporation authorized to issue one or more classes of shares list the number of shares of each class on its corporate annual report.

5. Landlords may now accept full or partial payment of rent during a court action for possession and still receive an order of possession if the landlord states in the written notice to the tenant that any payment of rent, damages, money judgment, award of attorney fees, and court costs would be accepted with reservation and not constitute a waiver of the landlord’s right to evict the tenant from the dwelling unit.


6. Everyone with pets knows that there can be liability if the pet bites someone. If there is a history of biting, the repercussions could be even worse. A new law in Virginia requires that previous bites must be disclosed upon the release of a dog or cat for adoption.

7. Virginia is lifting the prohibition on hunting or killing raccoons after 2:00 a.m. on Sundays.

8. Health care practitioners employed by the Department of Health may now prescribe antibiotics to the sexual partner of a patient diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease without physically examining the partner.

9. Effective July 1, 2020, 911 is required to be able to receive and process calls for emergency assistance via text message.

If you have questions on how these or other Virginia laws may impact you, we stand ready to assist you.