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This response is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. The information offered in this response is for general informational purposes and is not a legal consultation. You must talk with an attorney of your choice before making any decision about your actual legal rights.

What happens if someone dies without a will?

If someone dies without a will, the laws of intestate succession apply. The intestate succession rules provide that all of the estate goes to the surviving spouse, if there are no children (or grandchildren). If there is a surviving spouse and children (or grandchildren), one-half goes to the spouse and one-half goes to the children. If there is no surviving spouse, but there are children, then all of the estate goes to the children. If there is no surviving wife or children, the estate goes to brothers and sisters and their descendants. If they don't exist, it goes to grandparents and their descendents. For a full explanation see an attorney experienced in wills and estates.

What can my credit card company do if I fail to pay my bill?

The credit card company's rights are set out in the fine print in your credit card contract. Generally, the credit card company has the right to sue you to recover past due amounts. As a practical matter, however, they usually undertake collection efforts prior to filing suit, such as calling you at home or sending you letters in the mail. The collection efforts typically escalate as the debt gets older. Another step they can take is to cancel your card, which denies you any further credit from that company. All these efforts can harm your credit rating, which could make it more difficult for you to obtain credit in the future.

What does joint custody mean?

In the typical post-divorce arrangement, one ex-spouse will have custody of the child or children, and the other spouse has visitation rights. As a practical matter, this means that the children live with the one parent, and then they stay with the other parent on, for example, alternating weekends. Where the non-custodial parent lives out of town, the children might visit him or her on designated holidays or during parts of their summer vacation.

Joint custody means that the two ex-spouses share legal custody of the children. In some cases, the children will rotate from parent to parent. In other cases, the children will live primarily with one parent, but the other parent plays an active role in their upbringing. Where both parents work, and they share school drop-offs and pick-ups, joint custody offers them more flexibility because either parent can sign school documents or grant sick-day permission. Joint custody isn't typically used where one spouse lives out of town.

Do I have to give my ex-spouse visitation rights?

Yes, generally, unless you can establish to the court's satisfaction that your ex-spouse may flee with or harm the child.

What is involved if I start a business under an assumed name?

If you want to operate as a sole proprietor under any name other than your own, you have to register with the local county clerk's office. In fact, you have register with the clerk regardless of the entity you choose. Your local bank should be able to supply you with the papers you'll need to fill out and information on the costs that you'll incur.

If I get a divorce, who pays the mortgage?

If both names are on the mortgage, you both continue to be responsible for the debt, regardless of who is actually living in the house. Unless the mortgage holder agrees to remove your name (an unlikely event), you're not going to be able to get your name off the mortgage. In that event, one option is to sell the house and pay off the mortgage.

When do you have to probate a will?

If all of a decedent's assets were transferred to a trust, and nothing transfers by reason of his death, probate will not be necessary. Otherwise, if ownership of any of the decedent's property passes by reason of his or her death, probate will be necessary, unless the estate has a value less than $50,000 (because special rules apply for those smaller estates).

What is required to gain asylum in the U.S.?

Asylum laws protect those fleeing to the United States to escape political, religious, or social persecution. The one seeking asylum must demonstrate a "well-founded fear of persecution" stemming from their political beliefs, their race, their religion, their nationality, or their membership in some unpopular group. Whether the fear will be deemed to be well-founded will depend, at least in part, upon which way the political winds are blowing in the U.S. at that moment. Someone escaping from a country whose troubles have gained wide media attention, for example, will generally have a better chance than someone escaping from a lower-profile country.

What happens if we can't find the deceased's will?

If you cannot find the original will, the probate court will typically presume that the deceased destroyed it. You should note that it must be the original will; even copies are generally not good enough.

How can I stop telemarketers from calling my home?

Place your name on the Federal Trade Commission's Do Not Call list: Some smaller organizations, however, such as neighborhood newspapers and the local policemen's benevolent association, will probably continue to call.

To what extent am I legally responsible for my child's actions?

Parents are legally responsible for their child's actions. Parents can be held civilly responsible for their child's criminal acts. At this point, there is no criminal liability for a child's criminal acts — parents cannot be put in prison if their child commits a crime — but some have suggested that there should be. At the very least, there is a growing movement to allow victims of a child's violent behavior to be able to sue the parents for the injuries they suffered.

Under what conditions can I collect unemployment benefits?

Unemployment benefits are available to those who lose their job through no fault of their own. Thus, if an employee quits or is fired for poor job performance, the employee is generally not entitled to unemployment benefits.

How long does COBRA last?

COBRA is a federal law that allows an individual between jobs to continue to pay for health insurance coverage provided to him in his previous job, under certain conditions. Generally, it provides coverage for 18 months. The coverage can be extended up to 36 months under certain conditions, such as where coverage is terminated due to the employee's death or divorce.

What can I do if my employer reneges on a promise to provide retiree health insurance coverage?

Years ago, many employers offered certain retirees a promise of lifetime health coverage at company expense as part of their benefit package. When health care costs skyrocketed, many employers looking to cut costs began dropping retiree health coverage. Whether your employer can drop its coverage depends upon your plan documents. If the documents contain a specific promise to maintain coverage during your life at their expense, you may be able to stop them for reneging on the promise. Absent the specific promise, however, there is nothing to prevent an employer from dropping the coverage, even where they led you to believe that they would provide them. If you think that you might be protected, talk to an attorney about your options.

What are my workplace rights if I'm environmentally sensitive?

For the most part, there isn't much regulation of indoor air. There is, however, a growing recognition of what has become known as sick building syndrome, which is flu-like symptoms often caused by poor ventilation. The first place to start is to notify your employer's human resources department of your problem. If they don't remedy your problem, talk to a workers compensation attorney about your options.

As a new business owner, do I need to write a business plan?

The general rule is that you don't need to write a formal business plan unless you need to raise funds, either by borrowing from a lender or attracting investors. Even for those who don't need to raise funds, however, writing a business plan can be a good idea because it forces you to come to terms with important aspects of operating your business.

What are my options if my ex-spouse stops paying child support?

Your first option concerns who will collect the overdue child support. You can do it yourself, or you can hire someone else to do it, such as a lawyer, collection agency, or social services agency. Changes have been made to the law in recent years to give you easier and more powerful tools to collect overdue amounts. Doing it yourself will be the cheapest option. Whether you want to handle it yourself will depend upon the time you have, how hard you believe your ex-spouse will fight the process. One suggestion is to go to your local courthouse and ask them what processes are available to you. If it sounds too difficult or time-consuming, talk to a divorce attorney.

Under what conditions should I put my possessions in a trust?

Some people choose to place their possessions in a living trust in order to save their descendants the trouble of having to put the estate through probate after their death. This works, however, only if every asset is part of the trust. If not, those assets that are not part of the estate will generally have to be probated. A trust can also be an estate-planning tool to help larger estates avoid or reduce estate taxes. The first spouse to die can transfer his or her estate to the surviving spouse without incurring estate taxes. The surviving spouse's estate, however, will pay estate taxes when he or she dies. By placing their assets in trusts, a married couple can avoid or reduce what their estate otherwise would have had to pay. Talk to an estate planning attorney to discuss whether a trust makes sense for you.

How can I prove age discrimination?

Under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against a person because of his or her age with respect to any term, condition, or privilege of employment. The law applies to those who are at least 40 years of age, and it applies to all aspects of employment: hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation, benefits, job assignments, and training. The law covers employers with at least 20 employees; all governments, including federal, state, and local governments; employment agencies; and labor organizations. To prove age discrimination, you would need evidence that your employer engaged in discriminatory activity. In the case of a single incident, such as a younger person was promoted over a person who is at least 40 years old, you would need strong direct evidence of discrimination, such as statements, email, or correspondence from the employer admitting or strongly implying that age was a factor in the decision to promote the younger employee. In some situations, you may be able to prove age discrimination by demonstrating that the employer engaged in a pattern of disriminatory behavior. For example, if you didn't have strong direct evidence of age discrimination, you might still be able to establish it by showing that every time or virtually every time the employer offered a promotion, it gave it to the younger person. Talk to an employment attorney about what might be necessary in your particular

If I file for bankruptcy, will my creditors be able to get to my retirement account?

Generally, no. Proper retirement accounts, such as those in a 401(k) plan or IRA, are exempt from creditors' claims in bankruptcy.

What are my options if I no longer trust my business partner?

The simplest option is to cease doing business with your partner. If that isn't the option you want to pursue, you need to take a closer look at how your business is organized. If you are organized as a partnership, you need to remember that all partners are responsible for partnership debts, which means that you are potentially responsible for your partner's actions. You may want to consider changing the business to a form where you have some liability protection from the acts of your co-owners, such as a corporation or a limited liability company. Talk to an attorney about which options best suits your situation.

When do I lose the earnest money I put down on a house?

When you make an offer to buy a house, you signed a real estate contract. The conditions under which you will lose your earnest money are contained in the contract. Generally, if you're unable to come up with the purchase money at closing, you'll lose your earnest money. The typical contract has a mortgage contingency clause, which provides that the contract is contingent upon the buyer obtaining a mortgage commitment by some specified date. If the buyer is unable to obtain the commitment, the contract is void and the earnest money is returned to the buyer. Some people mistakenly believe that they'll lose their earnest money if they cannot get a mortgage commitment, but that's not true.

What privacy rights do I have in my computer at work?

An employee generally doesn't have any privacy rights in a workplace computer. The theory is that the employer has paid for the computer, has provided the network, has provided the office space you're working in, and is paying you to perform work. They have a right to monitor what you do on their computer while on their time.

Does a spouse have to join a bankruptcy filing?

No. You can file for bankruptcy without having your spouse join you, but any assets in which youhave an interest will be part of the bankruptcy estate, which means that your spouse's interestsmay be affected even though his or her name is not on the bankruptcy petition.

At what point should I file for bankruptcy?

That's a difficult question with no easy answer. The timing for any particular individual is best left for that person's bankruptcy lawyer. If you're insolvent, which means that you're paying out more than you're bringing in, and you don't see any change in your financial condition in the foreseeable future, it's probably time to talk to an attorney.

Can creditors get to my Social Security benefits?

Generally, no, although the IRS is allowed to use your benefits to pay back taxes and the benefits may be tapped to pay court-ordered child support.

If I have an accident out of state and want to sue the other party, where should I file the suit?

Under the typical jurisdictional rules, you have a choice to make. You can file suit in the state where you live, the state where the other party lives, or the place where the accident occurred. You should consult with an attorney to discuss the best place for you to file suit. The decision will depend upon factors such as convenience and availability of witnesses.

What can I do if my landlord refuses to give back my security deposit?

If your landlord refuses to return your security deposit, you'll probably have to file suit against him or her in small claims court. The only real option short of filing suit is to talk to attorney about having the attorney write a letter on your behalf to the landlord demanding return of the security deposit. Talk to an attorney about which option works best in your situation.

What makes a will valid?

Wills are valid when they meet all the requirements of California law. Those requirements are that the will must (1) have been made by someone at least 18 years old who is of sound mind, (2) be in writing, (3) have been signed by the one making the will, and (4) have been attested by people who witnessed the testator's signature. The laws also provide guidance on what to do if the testator cannot make his or her own signature and what constitutes a revocation of the will.

Under what conditions may I sue my doctor for a misdiagnosis?

Generally, you can sue a medical provider for malpractice if the provider's care falls below the standard of care for that type of treatment. Since the appropriate standard of care can be identified only by others practicing in that field (except in situations where malpractice is obvious, even to the layperson), you can sue your doctor when you or your lawyer are able to find another doctor willing to state under oath that he or she believes that your doctor's care fell below the standard. Remember, however, that medicine is not an exact science. Some mistakes, including some misdiagnoses, may not be grounds for a lawsuit.

Can I get to my deceased spouse's safety deposit box?

Smaller estates, those of $50,000 or less, can use a quicker procedure known as summary administration, if certain conditions are met. Once the survivor or survivors file an affidavit, the holders of certain assets, such as safety deposit boxes, are permitted to turn them over to the survivors without the need for further proceedings. If the estate is larger than $50,000, you're probably going to need to have the probate court intervene. In that case, discuss your options with an experienced attorney.

How do I protect an idea I have for a movie?

The general rule in intellectual property law is that you cannot protect an idea — you can only protect an expression of that idea. Thus, you cannot protect an idea you have for a movie, but you may be able to protect a script you've written. In your case, you would need copyright protection for the script. If a script exists, and you're interested in legal protection for it, talk to an intellectual property lawyer about your next steps.

Who should I notify if I want to home school my children?

Technically, you're not required to notify anyone. It's a good practice, however, to notify your local school administrator that you plan to home school your child in order to prevent any truancy proceedings from being initiated. Although the truancy proceeding won't succeed, because you're entitled to home school your child in Illinois, you can save yourself the trouble by letting the school district know your plans.

Where can I get advice on starting a small business?

There are a number of professional advisors you can consult, including lawyers with vast small business experience. Your local bookstore should also have an ample supply of how-to books available. Another resource is SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), which provides free advice from retired executives and is affiliated with the U.S. Small Business Administration.

What is required to get a work visa in the U.S.?

Visas are available for a limited number of foreign nationals to come and work in the U.S. The most common type is called an H-1B visa, which requires a U.S. employer to sponsor an applicant because they want the applicant to work for them in the U.S. The applicant must have at least the equivalent of a bachelor's degree, and there must be a correlation between the job duties and the applicant's qualifications. The visa lasts for three years and can be extended for another three, but not beyond six years. Other types of work visas are available to those who fall into special categories, such as religious workers and those who are transferring to the U.S. within a company they already work for. For a full list or more information about work visas, talk to an immigration attorney.

If I came to the U.S. on a work visa, under what conditions can I apply for a green card on my own? Applying on your own, without your employer's backing, can be difficult. Generally, you have to be able to show that you possess extraordinary ability in one of the following fields: science, art, education, business, or sports. There may be other limited options that exist in certain situations. Talk to a qualified immigration attorney to find out if you fit into any of those options.

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