Legal resolutions for the new year

As the old year ends and the new year begins, we can’t seem to help taking personal inventory of our lives. It’s also a good time to take stock of whether we are in good standing on important legal issues — resolutions that we should consider adopting.

1. Do you have a will? If you make one legal resolution for the new year, make it to put a will in place if you don’t have one, or review your current will to make sure it still meets your circumstances. As one of my professors in law school warned, don’t let the state decide how your assets will be distributed (which is what happens if you don’t have a will that directs those decisions). You also can consider putting a trust in place so that you can avoid probate entirely. This also can reduce or eliminate estate taxes.

2. Do you have advanced directives specifying whether you want life sustaining treatment? Have you indicated in a legally binding way who should make end of life decisions for you if you are incapacitated? Do you have a financial power of attorney and a medical records directive? Do it now while you can think objectively about the quality of life that you want and how you want decisions about you made.

3. Have you prepared for disasters that may strike your organization? Do you have backup tapes for your computer systems located in a secure, off-site location? Do you have backup tapes for your home PC? Should you fall victim to a disaster, do you have a road map for your loved ones to follow? Do they know where to find your insurance policies, wills, trusts, and advanced directives? Do they know how to find your lawyer, accountant and financial planner?

4. Do you understand how your organization’s policies apply to you? A New York doctor recently learned the hard way. He was not familiar with his hospital’s e-mail policy, which prohibited the use of hospital e-mail for personal reasons. It also gave the hospital the right to monitor all employee e-mail. The doctor, who was in an employment dispute with the hospital, used his hospital e-mail account to communicate with his lawyer about his case. The hospital read those e-mails, which the court held it had a right to do under the hospital’s e-mail policy. The doctor ultimately lost his employment law claims against the hospital and the right to receive $14 million in severance. The lesson learned is know the policies that apply to you. If you are the employer, make sure that you have policies in place that achieve your organization’s goals, and communicate those policies regularly to your employees.

5. Are all of your important legal documents in one safe place? If you are a corporation or a non-profit, you should have corporate record books where your articles of incorporation, bylaws, corporate votes and minutes and material contracts are kept.

6. After you’ve found and compiled important legal documents, read them! Refamiliarize yourself with your contractual obligations and those owed to you by others. Are parties performing under contracts as they are required? Is now the time to consider making changes in contractual relationships? The best place to start this process is to review the contract and then map out a strategy to reach your goal.

7. Is your intellectual property protected? Have you taken the necessary steps to obtain legal protection for your trademarks, domain names, logos, copyrightable materials, and inventions? If you have already obtained legal protection, are you actively enforcing your rights? If you don’t enforce the rights you have, you might be found to have waived them.

8. Are you in compliance with immigration laws? Employers must verify the identity and employment eligibility of anyone to be hired, which includes completing the Employment Eligibility Verification Form (I-9). You must keep each I-9 on file for at least three years, or one year after employment ends, whichever is longer. Penalties for violating these provisions are stiff.

9. While you are digging out documents, find your insurance policies and read them. This would include commercial general liability, workers’ compensation, disability and health policies. For individuals, review your property and casualty, real estate, umbrella policies, automobile, and life insurance policies. Meet with your insurance agent to review these policies to ensure for adequate coverage.

10. Are you taking care of yourself and your employees for the future? Have you put in place adequate retirement plans? Make it easy for your employees (your most valuable resource) to plan for a secure future by creating appropriate retirement plans.

While this list may sound daunting, just pick even one of the resolutions. It will make a difference.

Sarah B. Knowlton, a director at McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton, is chair of the firm’s Healthcare Practice Group. She can be contacted at 603-334-6928 or