Seattle resident Randy was planning to visit his old college roommate who lives in Portland, Oregon, and he thought he’d bring along some great new marijuana edibles he’d discovered at his local (and legal) recreational pot store. He’d heard about Washington motorists getting busted by Idaho cops for carrying legally purchased pot across the state line. But, he reasoned, those drivers were transporting marijuana from a state where it’s legal to one where it’s not. Surely, he thought, it would perfectly lawful to carry his personal stash from one pot-friendly state (Washington) to another (Oregon).
In fact, Randy couldn’t be more wrong. While both Washington and Oregon have legalized the sale and possession of recreational pot, the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance, the transport of which across state lines constitutes a federal crime. So in taking his pot-infused chocolate truffles from Washington to Oregon, Randy would be breaking federal law. Not only that, he would also be violating the state laws of both Washington and Oregon, each of which forbids the transport of marijuana across its state boundaries.
Now as anyone who’s driven Interstate 5 from Seattle to Portland knows, there are no federal checkpoints at the state line. But there are plenty of state troopers and local police patrolling the busy highway, looking for speeders and other driving miscreants. Suppose Randy got pulled over for an illegal lane change by an Oregon trooper, who then spotted the clearly labeled bag of marijuana edibles in plain view on the passenger’s seat. With his Washington state plates and driver’s license, Randy could be in for more than a traffic ticket, unless he could convince the officer that he’d purchased the pot products in Oregon.
What if Randy flies from Seattle to Portland and tries to bring along his marijuana edibles? Bad idea. While TSA officers do not search for pot and other drugs, if they find marijuana products during security screening, they will refer the matter to law enforcement. And since airports, airspace, and airplanes are all under federal jurisdiction, Randy would be breaking the federal law against the transport of Schedule 1 drugs.
In reality, the chances of Randy getting busted for bringing his pot-infused treats from Washington to Oregon are low, whether he drives or flies. Or, for that matter, takes Amtrak. But why risk it, when he can just go to a legal pot shop in Portland and buy his edibles there? It would probably be a lot less hassle than hiring an attorney to defend him against a drug charge.
In TV’s beloved sitcom The Office, the Scranton workplace of Dunder Mifflin was decidedly non-PC, a place where harassment of all sorts was tolerated and went unpunished – the perfect environment to get away with just about whatever you wanted. The ongoing office pranks that Jim Halpert pulled on his colleague Dwight Schrute made for relatable and hilarious television. Trying these tricks in your own workplace, however, could land you in legal trouble.
Jim makes Dwight smack himself in the face with his phone
What happens: Jim slowly increases the weight of Dwight’s phone handset by putting a few nickels in it at a time, until Dwight gets used to the weight. Then Jim removes all the nickels at once, decreasing the weight, and causing Dwight to smack himself in the face with the handset.
The legal problems: Dwight might have a personal injury claim, though it could be hard to prove. More likely, Dwight could charge Jim with harassment, especially when compounded by the other pranks in the episode: Jim paying all the employees $5 to call Dwight “Dwayne”; Jim trying to convince Dwight he’d committed murder; Jim moving Dwight’s desk an inch every time he left his desk; the list goes on.
Jim puts all of Dwight’s desk items in the vending machine
What happens: Jim is friends with the vending machine guy, who does him a solid and lets Jim put Dwight’s desk belongings into the vending machine.
The legal problem:Theft. Even though Jim gives Dwight nickels (nickels for a vending machine!) to buy back his possessions, Dwight’s wallet is still inside that machine.
Jim replaces Dwight’s desk and chair with cardboard wrapped in Christmas paper
What happens: Dwight thinks Jim has merely wrapped all his belongings, but when he sits down, he falls through the chair and lands on his rear.
The legal problem: An employee injury at work caused by on-the-job horseplay could result in the company (not the offending employee) being liable for medical bills and a workers’ comp claim.
Jim sends Dwight a “gaydar” machine
What happens: Dwight receives a “gaydar” machine from Jim – a handheld metal detector that supposedly can detect homosexuals. The machine goes off when Dwight scans Oscar, an openly gay colleague. But then Dwight scans himself, and the machine buzzes when he swipes his own belt buckle.
The legal problem:Discrimination based on sexual orientation reigned supreme in this episode, but it was just one of many that parodied homophobic attitudes in the workplace. The “Gay Witch Hunt” episode revolved around Michael outing Oscar (who was then still in the closet), ignorantly using homosexual slurs and forcing a hug and kiss on Oscar. Dwight then demanded “all other office gays out themselves or I will do it for them.”
Jim convinces Dwight the impersonator he hired is the real Ben Franklin
What happens: Instead of hiring a stripper for a female co-worker’s bachelorette party (as instructed by his boss, Michael Scott), Jim hires a Benjamin Franklin historical lecturer. Dwight spends the episode quizzing Franklin to determine if he’s the real deal.
The legal problem: It’s not so much the prank that’s legally problematic as the impetus for the prank. Strippers at work? Even the discussion of strippers at work? Sexual harassment claim, here we come.
Ask people to name landmark Supreme Court cases and they’re likely to come up with such textbook examples as Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and Dred Scott v. Sandford, but not many will think to include the 1819 decision in McCulloch v. Maryland. But this less-famous Supreme Court case established two important principles in constitutional law. It confirmed the “Necessary and Proper” clause of the Constitution, granting Congress broad, implied powers in creating a functional national government. It also established the hierarchy of federal and state government by determining that state law cannot impede valid federal actions. These principles remain as relevant today as they were in the early 1800s, as can be seen in the Justice Department’s 2018 suit against the state of California.
The facts of the case
In 1816, the federal government established the Second National Bank of the United States, which was chartered to handle all fiscal transactions of the United States government. The idea of a national bank was highly controversial; opponents charged that its establishment was unconstitutional and that it trampled on state sovereignty.
In 1818, Maryland placed a prohibitive tax on bank notes issued by Bank of the United States. The bank, in the name of its Baltimore branch manager James W. McCulloch, refused to pay the tax and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Both parties’ arguments addressed the underlying principle: the primacy of federal government. Maryland argued that as a sovereign state, it could legally tax any business within its borders. The Bank of the United States argued that a federal bank was necessary for Congress to carry out its enumerated powers, and so states could not interfere.
The Supreme Court unanimously agreed with the bank: taxation counted as interference. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “The States have no power, by taxation or otherwise, to retard, impede, burthen, or in any manner control the operations of the constitutional laws enacted by Congress to carry into effect the powers vested in the national Government.”
The Court did, however, allow that the federal government was not exempt to less direct forms of taxation, such as real estate taxes for property used by the bank. Likewise, citizens of the state who derived any sort of profit from the bank were still subject to state income taxes.
“Necessary and Proper”
Even more significant than the specific question of taxation, the court agreed with the bank’s characterization of the “Necessary and Proper Clause” of the Constitution (Article I, Section 8), which states that Congress has the power “to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or any Department or Officer thereof.”
Marshall wrote, “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means… which are not prohibited … are constitutional.” By agreeing that the Congress may hold powers which are not expressly prohibited by the Constitution – rather than only those which are expressly granted – the Court greatly extended the possible scope of federal government.
The United States is one of the few countries worldwide that does not have a national paid sick leave policy. Some 40 million American workers are not paid for the time they take off for health reasons. In the absence of laws at the federal level, many states and cities are moving to legislate paid time off (PTO).
States with paid time off
Over the past two years, more than 30 PTO laws have been enacted across the country. But currently, only nine states and the District of Columbia require paid time off (listed below chronologically by year of enactment, then alphabetically within the same year):
In several other states, cities are taking matters into their own hands, implementing policies and, in some cases, forcing state legislators to take the politically unpopular position of overturning the benefit later.
For example, in July 2017, Minneapolis passed a sick and safe time ordinance that lets workers accrue up to 48 hours per year. The time can be used to care for the employee or employee’s family member’s mental or physical illness, diagnosis, or treatment. It also can be used following incidents of domestic abuse, sexual assault, or stalking. St. Paul followed suit in January 2018. The city’s ESST (Earned Sick and Safe Time) mandate mirrors that of Minneapolis, and Duluth is working on a city-wide plan that will be voted on in the fall of 2018. These city ordinances have incited opposition in the Minnesota state legislature, but the state has yet to overturn the city acts.
In neighboring Wisconsin, however, things got more contentious. After Milwaukee passed its own PTO law in 2008, the state legislature passed a law that prohibited mandated paid sick leave.
Much further south, Austin, Texas, is hoping to be one of the success stories. It’s the first city in the Lone Star state – actually, in the entire South – to establish paid sick leave. Beginning in October, Austin workers will begin to accrue one paid hour off for every 30 hours worked.
Unlike some other cities, Austin’s mandate applies to the entire private sector. All private employers with more than 15 employees are required to allow workers to accrue up to 64 hours of paid sick leave. Businesses with 15 or fewer employees will provide 48 hours. Sick days also include safe days for families dealing with domestic violence.
Some Texas state legislators have vowed to reverse what they see as a liberal “intrusion into the private sector.” A group of small business owners are circulating a petition opposing the bill, indicating they were “not against the workers but against this policy.” Until the bill is overturned, Austin business must comply or be fined. Meanwhile, Dallas is working on its own paid time off plan.
Other US cities move ahead
A host of other American cities – including some of the nation’s largest – have enacted paid-time-off requirements in the absence of state laws:
Illinois: Chicago and Cook County, July 2017
New Jersey: Jersey City and Newark (2014); Passaic, East Orange, Paterson, Irvington, Montclair, Trenton, and Bloomfield (2015); Elizabeth, New Brunswick, and Plainfield (2016); and Morristown (2017)
When it comes time to transfer your wealth, the Internal Revenue Service will have its eye on both you and the recipient. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which took effect January 1, 2018, contains sweeping changes to personal and corporate rates, available deductions, and helpful credits. The new tax law also has a significant impact on estate planning and how to limit the tax liability on intergenerational transfers of wealth – like when baby boomers transfer their assets to their gen-X and millennial children.
Transfer bases: the basics
As a general principle, giving a large gift of cash while you’re still alive can come with a tax bill. Likewise, waiting until death to transfer cash via one’s estate can also pique the Treasury’s interests – depending upon the size of the estate. For those with sizable (think: seven-, eight-, nine-figure estates and beyond), estate taxes can be brutal – sometimes requiring heirs to sell assets to foot the bill.
To avoid this unhappy outcome, many estate planners advise higher net-worth clients to begin gifting assets inter vivos (during their lifetime) – either to a trust maintained for the benefit of another person, or to the person directly. Historically, the key to such “gift plans” has been to gift assets incrementally, over time, across many beneficiaries. Eventually, the remaining estate becomes small enough to avoid estate tax penalties at death.
Under the new tax law, the inter vivos gifting process will become less necessary, as the likelihood of a federal estate tax bill has evaporated for the vast majority of Americans. For tax year 2017, a deceased individual’s estate is on the hook for federal estate taxes – at 40 percent – if its taxable value exceeds $5.49 million (double that for married folks, as a surviving spouse can access a deceased spouse’s unused exemption – a concept known as portability). The TCJA nearly doubled the individual exemption to $10 million, or $20 million per couple, amounts that will indexed for inflation until 2026. At that point, this part of the new law sunsets, and the exemptions revert to their pre-2018 levels, adjusted for inflation.
For the rest of us
While few Americans anticipate leaving an estate valued north of $10 million, many are curious as to how the estate and gift tax changes impact the general population. Remember the inter vivos gifting plans described above? Well, those each of those gifts also have a tax exclusion. In 2017, you could make tax-free gifts of up to $14,000 to each of any number of individuals. Amounts over that threshold were taxed at a rate of 40%.
With the sizable estate tax exemption increase explained above, lawmakers presumably did not see the need to tinker much with the gift tax exemption, and so they increased the threshold only minimally, to $15,000. Further, Congress indexed increases in the gift tax threshold to the chained consumer price index (C-CPI) instead of the traditional consumer price index (CPI). The C-CPI rises more slowly than the CPI, which essentially means the gift tax exemption will increase more slowly over time.
More simply, expect the gift tax exemption to remain stagnant for a long while, even as inflation erodes the real value of those gifted dollars each year. While a $15,000 cash gift may seem like a bundle today, time will tell the purchasing power of this figure in the future. The lethargic C-CPI likely will, as its name suggests, keep the gift tax exemption chained to the past, meaning that future transfers of all but a modest amount of cash might trigger a hefty tax bill – even for the rest of us.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) ranks among the best-known laws of the land. We’re all familiar with FOIA-enabled exposés in the news media, such as the recent revelation that HUD Secretary Ben Carson and his wife personally selected a $31,000 furniture set for his office, contradicting Carson’s claims he was not involved in the controversial purchase.
But many Americans fail to realize that FOIA is for everyone. You don’t have to be a journalist to use it. In fact, the overwhelming majority of FOIA requests today don’t come from the news media.
Background of FOIA
Enacted in 1966, FOIA was the brainchild of Congressman John Moss, a California Democrat with a zeal for piercing the veil of government secrecy. First elected during the secretive Eisenhower administration, Moss led a range of inquiries seeking government records related to that era’s communist blacklists and civil rights abuses.
Prior to its enactment, FOIA was opposed by no less than 27 federal agencies. The Department of Justice even argued that the act would be unconstitutional.
FOIA was initially used primarily by journalists, as a tool to hold government officials accountable and help ensure oversight. Today only about 8 percent of FOIA requests come from journalists. A recent study found that businesses and law firms generated 56% of the requests. Even political parties use the act, to research opposition candidates at all levels of elections.
The act’s limits
Despite its reach, FOIA does have limitations. The law applies only to federal agencies; it cannot be used to request records held by Congress or the federal courts. Moreover, federal agencies can refuse to release records that fall under any of nine exemptions or three exclusions.
Nor can FOIA be used to obtain records held by state and local governments. Access to those records are governed by state public records acts, which vary by state and are sometimes resisted by government agencies. In Washington state, for example, public outcry led Governor Jay Inslee to veto a controversial bill that exempted the state’s legislators from the Washington Public Records Act. The state legislature had swiftly approved the vetoed legislation without public hearings or even a floor debate.
How to make a FOIA request
Are you seeking information the government may be hiding? You can submit your FOIA request online to most agencies. But be prepared to crunch the data yourself, because FOIA does not require agencies to do research for you, answer written questions, “or in any other way create records (such as lists or statistics) in order to respond to a request.”
Curious as to federal records about yourself?
Your best course is to submit a request under the Privacy Act of 1974, which gives U.S. citizens and legal aliens the right to obtain records about themselves from federal agencies. Once you have the records, you can review them for accuracy and request that the information be amended or corrected. Each agency’s website provides guidelines on how to submit a privacy request.
President Donald Trump has touted the new tax law, which took effect on January 1, 2018, as the “biggest tax cut in the history of our country.” Like many of Trump’s hyperbolic claims, this one is false—both Presidents Barak Obama and Ronald Reagan presided over tax cuts that exceeded those in the GOP’s Tax Cut and Jobs Act. And, as many critics have pointed out, the cuts in personal income rates are only temporary – they expire at the end of 2025 – while the new law’s reduction of the corporate tax rate is permanent.
But to be fair, the new tax law will reduce personal income taxes for most Americans over the next several years. However, not everyone will get the “big, beautiful tax cut” that the president promised. Among those who might see little benefit under the new law are empty-nesters, especially those who itemized deductions in the past.
Why? Because the new law eliminates personal exemptions, each of which used to lop off $4,050 of taxable income. Under the old rules, you were allowed one personal exemption for yourself, one for your spouse (if filing jointly), and one for each of your dependent children. All these personal exemptions have disappeared under the new tax law, which tries to compensate for their elimination in three ways: (1) by adjusting the tax brackets to lower overall tax rates, (2) by roughly doubling the standard deduction, and (3) by doubling the child tax credit and making it available to far more families.
These changes will likely work out well for families with dependent children, most of whom will qualify for the full child tax credit of $2,000 per kid (provided the family’s taxable income doesn’t exceed $400,000, if filing a joint return). A tax credit of $2,000 per qualified child will more than offset the loss of a $4,050 tax deduction per dependent, even for taxpayers with high marginal rates. (Remember, a tax credit directly reduces your tax bill, while a tax deduction only reduces your taxable income.)
But empty-nesters, who, by definition, have no dependent children living at home, derive no benefit from the increased child tax credit. So, an empty-nest couple stands to lose $8,100 in personal exemptions with only the change in tax rates and the higher standard deduction as possible compensation.
How well will this work? Let’s look at the impact on two hypothetical empty-nest couples.
Our first couple, John and Mary, have a gross adjusted income of $80,000 and do not itemize deductions. Under the old law, their taxable income would have been reduced by their two personal exemptions of $4,050 each, and by their standard deduction of $12,700. So, their taxable income would be $59,200, producing a tax bill of $7,947.50 under the old tax law.
Under the new law, John and Mary lose their personal exemptions but can take a standard deduction of $24,000, so their taxable income is $56,000. Based on the new tax rates, their tax bill is only $6,339, a reduction of $1,608.50. John and Mary are delighted with their (temporarily) lighter taxes.
Now let’s look at Jim and Jane, empty-nesters who also have a gross adjusted income of $80,000, but, unlike John and Mary, itemize deductions. Or at least they used to. With deductions of $24,000, (comprised of mortgage interest, property taxes, state income tax, and charitable donations) it made sense to itemize under the old law. The itemized deductions, together with their personal exemptions, reduced Jim and Jane’s taxable income to $48,900 under the old tax law, resulting in a tax bill of $6,402.50.
Under the new law, however, it makes no sense for Jim and Jane to itemize, since their standard deduction of $24,000 is the same as their previously itemized deductions. (In fact, the new law imposes a $10,000 cap on deductions for state and local taxes, so Jim and Jane’s itemized deductions in 2018 would no doubt be less than $24,000.) So, by taking the standard deduction their taxable income is $56,000, the same as John and Mary’s, and their tax bill, like John and Mary’s, is $6,339 – a saving of only $63.50. That’s about a $1.22 a week – hardly a windfall. Jim and Jane feel betrayed by the new law, which had promised a sizeable tax cut but delivered pocket change. Oh, well, at least they’ve been spared the hassle of filling out Form 1040 schedule A in their tax return.
As this comparison shows, there are winners and also-rans in the new tax law, and empty-nesters who previously itemized have a good chance of falling into the second category. Of course, every couples’ tax situation is unique, so the only way to know if you’re going to see a substantial tax cut or a tax increase is to run the comparative numbers yourself. Calculators like this one make it easy to do.
Thoughtful estate planning is important for all parents. But for single parents, a thorough and legally compliant plan is vital to ensure that their wishes are carried out.
In many ways, estate planning for a single parent is no different than that for married parents. All parents should have a will in place to dispose of property, to create a financial scheme for their children’s care, and to designate a guardian or guardians. A single parent, however, can face complicating issues driven by his or her situation, such as whether there is a surviving parent who will be responsible for the children.
Custody or guardianship
In matters concerning children, the court’s standard is the “best interest of the child.” When a custodial parent dies and the other parent is still living, the court will presume that custody will transfer to the surviving parent. This is true whether the parents were divorced or legally separated, and regardless of any guardianship designation made by the deceased parent. Of course, that is not a hard and fast rule. Sometimes the surviving parent is unable, unfit, or unwilling to care for the child. An estate plan should include any information or rulings by the court about the other parent’s fitness. If the noncustodial parent has legally waived parental rights, inclusion of that documentation is important. These are extremely complicated and fact-specific situations that require the advice of an attorney experienced in working with single-parent households.
The distribution of assets through a traditional will may not be the best route for a single parent, especially when a large inheritance is likely. In such cases, the parent might be concerned with the ability of their children to manage that windfall responsibly. A well-drawn trust that holds assets under the control of a trustee selected by the parent can be a better choice. In addition, the trust can allow for the parent to place restrictions on the distribution of the inheritance; for example, dictating that a child only receives a portion of the assets at certain ages, such as 19, 21, or 25. Such trusts also allow assets to pass to the benefit of the children without having to go through probate after the parent’s death.
Single parents should also have a plan in place should they become disabled or otherwise incapable of caring for their children. This plan should include a living will and a durable medical power of attorney, which will facilitate medical decisions. It should also include powers of attorney to handle financial arrangements for both the incapacitated parent and the children. Again, an experienced attorney is an important ally in preparing for these worst-case scenarios.
When someone searches for personal information about another person and then shares that information with malicious intent, they’re doxing. People dox to enact revenge, to discredit, or simply to reveal the identity of the anonymous. Anyone with an online presence runs the risk of being doxed. So, should you be worried?
The term doxing (or doxxing) is derived from the online “documents” or “docx” that identify a person, such as the individual’s real name, address, phone number, place of work, or other personal identifiers. A doxer can gather the desired information from publicly available databases and social media sites, as well as by hacking and social engineering. It’s a tactic that’s been used to “out” public and private figures alike.
One need not be a professional hacker to dox. Anyone who knows how to use a search engine can easily locate personal information about their target. A simple web search of a name often reveals other online accounts where still more personal information may reside.
Doxing is not illegal if the doxer has used social media and publicly available websites to gather the information. However, it does violate the terms of service found on many websites – which can result in the doxer being banned from the site. Moreover, some jurisdictions are making doxing illegal under stalking and harassment laws. And hacking into a private database to obtain confidential information is against the law.
Protect yourself from doxing
Anyone can be a victim of doxing – the internet can deliver a great deal of publicly available information about the average person. You may not be able to protect yourself completely from being doxed, but you can limit its effect.
Google yourself to see what pops up. Check out your public records and review your social media. Remember that doxers can take any information and photos you post and put them into a different, unflattering context. You’ve inadvertently helped doxers by putting stuff out there.
If you discover information about yourself that you want taken down, visit that site’s terms of service. Follow its protocol for filing a complaint or requesting a removal. Document everything.
Make it more difficult for others to access information about you. Take advantage of the privacy options at Facebook, Twitter, and other sites you frequent. Change your passwords on a regular basis. Utilize two-factor authentication (2FA) for all your accounts.
When it happens to you
If you become a doxing victim, take immediate action to protect your privacy and identity. Lock down your online activities, and contact an attorney to determine whether your legal rights have been violated.
Most people hear the term “common law” and automatically think of common-law marriage. That’s part of it, but common law is actually one of two fundamental approaches to a legal system, the other being civil law. Worldwide, civil law systems are more common, but common law dominates in the United States. The differences between the two systems are not always clear, and many countries (including the United States) do not fall neatly into either category.
Common law is defined as: The ancient law of England based upon societal customs and recognized and enforced by the judgments and decrees of the courts.
Common law developed in England during the Middle Ages and continues to be used today in England and countries it colonized. In common law countries, courts interpret the law and build up a body of precedents, known as case law, which judges use as guidelines in evaluating new cases. Common law judicial systems are adversarial: plaintiffs and defendants oppose each other in court under the guidance of legal counsel, with the judge acting as moderator. Decisions are made by juries of regular citizens.
Civil law is defined as: The law of ancient Rome embodied in the Justinian code, especially that which applied to private citizens, and any system of law having its origin in Roman law, as opposed to common law or canon law.
Civil law developed on the European mainland. It is still used there, as well as in most countries colonized by continental European powers. Rooted in the collection of laws assembled for Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, it generated numerous attempts to unify and systematize local legal practices throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern era. The Napoleonic Code of 1804 still forms the basis of civil law in France today. It may seem like the United States has a lot of laws, but countries with civil law systems have comprehensive, continuously updated legal codes that cover all aspects of the legal process. Judges are responsible for applying the laws rather than interpreting them, and juries may not exist at all.
America’s court system unquestionably falls in the category of common law, but has been influenced by civil law traditions, especially at the state level. Louisiana, which was colonized by France and Spain, rather than England, adopted a version of the Napoleonic Code before it became a state.
Even American case law sometimes relies on principles from civil law. The judge deciding the landmark case Pierson v. Post in 1805 cited a Justinian principle to settle a dispute between hunters. The 1926 Supreme Court case United States v. Robbins established California’s community property laws using the medieval Spanish civil law concept of property.