We Practice Law for Your Peace of Mind

Student Loan Debt and the Student Aid Bill of Rights

Author: Hogan Willig

June 3rd, 2015

Student loan debt can be a source of much concern and stress for a lot of people. Those of us in the legal profession wholeheartedly understand the effect that undergraduate and graduate debt can have on an individual and their family. President Obama has introduced various initiatives designed to help students manage their loan debt. A recent proposal was launched called The Student Aid Bill of Rights, which aims to identify various problems that some borrowers experience while repaying loans and seeks to help resolve those issues.

Here is the current Student Aid Bill of Rights:

A Student Aid Bill of Rights

  1. Every student deserves access to a quality, affordable education at a college that’s cutting costs and increasing learning.
  2. Every student should be able to access the resources needed to pay for college.
  3. Every borrower has the right to an affordable repayment plan.
  4. And every borrower has the right to quality customer service, reliable information, and fair treatment, even if they struggle to repay their loans.

In order to achieve these ideals, Obama has announced various reforms. One of those is creating a centralized website in which all debt account information can be viewed, as well as where grievances can be filed by borrowers. The use of contractors or servicers by the government in order to collect loans can be confusing and result in a communication gap for borrowers. A single website would reduce confusion and display important information that is helpful to borrower.  Another important directive is to create a framework in which fees charged to borrowers are reasonable and create ways in which borrowers can return their loans to good standing if they are in default.

Although some of the changes announced are vague or uncertain, these, along with various other reforms, have a common goal: to make loan repayment and management easier for the borrower.

For more information about the Student Aid Bill of Rights and other student debt initiatives, visit www.whitehouse.gov and search student loan debt.

Financial Elder Abuse

Author: Hogan Willig

May 23rd, 2015

Sadly, it is all too common that elderly persons fall victim to abuse. Whether it is physical, emotional, or financial abuse, the vulnerability of older individuals makes them easy targets for such ill-treatment. Financial abuse is a difficult type of abuse to recognize and can be easily overlooked because there are not always blatant signs of it.

Financial abuse of an elder is defined as the illegal or improper use of a senior’s money, property, or assets. This week, The Buffalo News wrote a story about an elderly woman who fell victim to this kind of abuse by her own granddaughter.

To make sure someone you know isn’t falling victim to financial abuse, look for these signs:

  • Sudden changes in handling money. If you notice that an elderly person is making frequent withdrawals, withdrawing large sums of money, or placing additional names on a bank account, this may be a sign that they are being exploited.
  • Radical and sudden changes in Last Will and Testament or other estate planning documents. If family members or someone close to the elderly individual are attempting to steal funds or increase their inheritance, a change to the person’s Will or Power of Attorney might occur to secure changes in writing.
  • If an elder is receiving insufficient care. If an individual has the financial capability to receive adequate care, but is not receiving proper care, this may be a sign of abuse and isolation.

If you believe a person is being victimized, there are a few steps you can take. First, privately sit down with the individual you feel is being abused to find out what his or her desires are and what may be in their best interest. Loneliness can put an elderly person at risk for abuse and undue influence because they long for companionship.  This may cause an elderly person to entrust with people that aren’t known very well by them.  Being an active support can be a helpful beginning. If you suspect that financial abuse is happening, you can contact Adult Protective Services or local law enforcement. A meeting with an attorney who is experienced in the field of Elder Law is an extremely important step in ensuring the proper handling of an elder abuse situation.

It is important to make sure assets are protected by having estate planning documents put into place. At HoganWillig, our talented and passionate Elder Law/Estates Department can help guide families and loved ones to prepare for and take steps to protect an elder’s future.

Why A Collaborative Divorce Might Be An Option

Author: Robin Friedman

May 20th, 2015

In many divorces, couples take matters to court seek resolution. Each side usually has a lawyer. Depending on the circumstances, fighting may continue/increase and communication may become non-existent. The lawyers spend more time on the case, and the stress continues to rise for the parties. In many cases, the animosity continues and the parties ultimately end up putting their future, and that of their children in the hands of a judge. This is referred to as the “adversarial system”.

In many instances, there are alternatives for people to consider, including collaborative divorce and mediation.

Many couples are increasingly turning to collaborative divorce when their marriages end. In a collaborative divorce, each spouse hires a trained collaborative lawyer. Spouses sit down with their lawyers and talk through matters. Often, they bring additional professionals who can lend their perspectives. These include divorce coaches, financial neutrals and psychologists. The lawyers are tasked in this process to be problem solvers as opposed to adversaries.

If issues cannot be resolved through collaboration and if the spouses wish to go to court, the collaborative attorneys must withdraw from the case. New attorneys must be hired before the matter can be taken to court for the traditional adversarial process.

Our clients often find that, by sitting down and resolving issues, they can reduce the financial and emotional costs of divorce, as well as the impact on the children involved. Collaborative divorce also gives them more control over critical issues. It is also more private and avoids potentially embarrassing pleadings or motions being presented in a court. Further, instead of waiting for a judge’s decisions, they can make those decisions for themselves.

Collaborative divorce only works when the parties are willing and able to talk. The parties attempt to resolve their situation by sitting across the table with their attorney present with them.

At the HoganWillig Law Firm, attorneys Elizabeth DiPirro and Kevin Mahoney are trained collaborative divorce lawyers who focus their practice on family law. If you want discuss a collaborative divorce, contact us today at 636-7600.

Dog Bites and Liability: Not always man’s best friend

Author: Robin Friedman

May 12th, 2015

Every year as the weather warms, it is not uncommon to spend far more time outdoors.  This is especially true of people with pets.  Pet owners can be found walking their dogs around town, playing with their dogs in the parks, taking their dogs to the beach and even bringing their pets to eat at restaurants with outdoor seating areas.  With this increased socialization also comes an increased risk.

Dogs are animals.  It can be difficult to predict how they will react in certain situations.  If you are a dog owner, here are 5 ways you can dramatically reduce your risk of dog bites in summer:

  1. Do not allow children or others to approach your dog while he or she is eating, playing or interacting with another dog.
  2. Learn how to read your dog’s signs.  Growling is not the only sign your uncomfortable or upset.  If your dog’s ears are pinned-back, tail is tucked under or your dog is heavily panting, it could be a sign something is wrong.
  3. Give your dog a lot of opportunities to socialize with other dogs and burn off energy.  Exercise, scheduled playtimes and time where your dog can interact with other dogs in a safe environment can all reduce the risks of dog bites.
  4. Keep your dog well hydrated.  When possible, keep your dog inside in a cool space during the hottest times of the day.  While a hot sidewalk may not seem hot to you, it could burn the pads of your dog’s feet.  Putting your dog in a stressful or painful situation could invoke aggressive behavior.
  5. Invest in professional behavior training for your dog.  If your dog is properly trained, listens to commands and knows how to act in certain situations, he or she will be less likely to act aggressively regardless of the situation.

If your dog bites another person, can you be held liable?

Liability Statute

New York does not have a Dog Bite Statute that outlines when an owner will be subject to statutory liability, except in cases involving dangerous dogs. However, New York does have a statute for civil penalties. Under that statute, in addition to common law liability, a dog owner who negligently permits his or her dog to bite someone is subject to a civil penalty of up to $400. In cases where the dog causes a serious injury, the owner will be subject to a civil penalty up to $800.

Common Law Liability

In cases where a dog owner knows, or should have known, of the dog’s vicious propensities, the owner will be subject to strict liability for injuries inflicted by the dog. Where the owner does not know of the dog’s vicious propensities, the plaintiff must prove that the owner was negligent and that the owner’s negligence caused the attack. In cases where a person was injured by a dangerous dog, the victim can recover under the common law, as well as the Dangerous Dog Statute.

Dangerous Dog Statute

The Meaning of a “Dangerous Dog”

A dangerous dog is:

  • a dog that, without justification, attacks a person, a companion animal, a farm animal or a domestic animal and causes physical injury or death. “Physical injury” means impairment of physical condition or substantial pain.
  • a dog that behaves in a manner which a reasonable person would believe poses a serious and unjustified imminent threat of serious physical injury or death to one or more persons, companion animals, farm animals or domestic animals. “Serious physical injury” means physical injury which creates a substantial risk of death, or which causes death or serious or protracted disfigurement, protracted impairment of health or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily organ.
  • a dog that, without justification, attacks a service dog, guide dog or hearing dog and causes physical injury or death.

Any person who witnesses a dog attack or a threatened dog attack upon a person, companion animal, farm animal, or domestic animal may make a complaint to a dog control officer or a police officer of the appropriate municipality. The dog control officer or police officer must then make a complaint under oath to a municipal judge, who will determine if there is probable cause to believe the dog is a dangerous dog. The person bringing the complaint must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the dog is dangerous. If the judge is satisfied that the dog is dangerous, the judge must order neutering or spaying of the dog, microchipping of the dog, and one or more of the following, as deemed appropriate under the circumstances and as deemed necessary to protect the public:

  • Consultation of the dog by a certified applied behaviorist, a board certified veterinary behaviorist, or another recognized expert in the field and completion of training or other treatment deemed appropriate by the expert. The dog owner will be responsible for all costs associated with consultations and training.
  • Secure, humane confinement of the dog for a period of time and in a manner deemed appropriate by the judge, but in all instances, the confinement must prevent the escape of the dog, protect the public from unauthorized contact with the dog, and protect the dog from the elements.
  • Restraint of the dog on a leash by an adult 21 years of age or older whenever the dog is on public property.
  • Muzzling the dog whenever it is on public property in a manner that will prevent it from biting any person or animal.
  • Maintenance of a liability insurance policy in an amount to be determined by the judge, but not in excess of $100,000 for personal injury or death resulting from an attack by the dangerous dog.
  • Euthanasia or permanent confinement of the dog if the judge finds that the dog, without justification, attacked a person and caused serious physical injury or death; or that the dog had a known vicious propensity as evidenced by a previous unjustified attack on a person that caused serious physical injury or death; or that the dog, without justification caused serious physical injury or death to a companion animal, a farm animal, or a domestic animal, and has, in the past two years, caused unjustified physical injury or death to a companion or farm animal.

Dangerous Dog Owners Liability

  • A dog owner who negligently permits a dog to bite a person causing serious physical injury, is subject to a civil penalty not to exceed $1,500.
  • A dog owner who negligently permits a dog that was previously determined to be dangerous, to bite a person causing serious physical injury is subject to a fine of $3,000, a term of imprisonment up to 90 days, or both.
  • If any dog, which was determined to be a dangerous dog, without justification, kills a person who is peaceably conducting himself in any place where he is lawfully entitled to be, regardless of whether such dog escapes without fault of the owner, the owner will be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to one year in prison.
  • The owner of a dangerous dog is strictly liable for medical cost associated with the injury sustained.

For more information, call us at 636-7600.

Foreclosure help is a phone call away

Author: Robin Friedman

May 9th, 2015

Your home is probably your most valuable material asset, and you have undoubtedly put a lot of your time, money and care into it.  Unfortunately, any combination of setbacks, from illness to job loss, can leave you suddenly unable to keep up with your mortgage payments and facing the possibility of foreclosure.

You may have done some research and find out that there are ways to save your house, but then you have a choice to make-do you try to figure it out on your own, or do you seek help? So much is at stake; can you risk trying to fix your problem alone? There are many reasons to hire a professional to assist you if you are facing foreclosure:

  • The consequences of foreclosure are severe.  New York has no redemption period; you have no opportunity to regain your home once the sale is complete, and you must vacate the property.  Not only that, but the foreclosure remains on your credit report for years, preventing you from getting another mortgage, financing a car or even renting an apartment.  In the initial stages of your loan default, doing everything the right way  and on time is imperative.  If you have experienced guidance, you are more likely to come out ahead.
  • Mortgage companies are notoriously difficult when it comes to communication.  They may provide you with documents and forms that you do not understand, and then confuse you further when you try to contact them.  They may repeatedly ask you for the same documents after you have already provided them.  You may find yourself transferred from one representative after another, having to retell your story every time.  An attorney can help you navigate the paperwork and will talk to the mortgage company on your behalf.
  • The law of mortgages and foreclosures can be very complex, and mortgage companies may take advantage of your lack of knowledge.  The mortgage company may send you jumping through hoops and foreclose on the home despite your efforts, because you may have missed a crucial step that you did not understand and that no one explained.  Competent legal counsel can provide you with the direction and support you need to stay on top of deadlines and documentation.

Call us at 636-7600.

Wills, Living Wills and Durable Powers of Attorney-Protecting Youself and Your family

Author: Robin Friedman

May 6th, 2015

I am often surprised at how few people including professionals and executives have met with an attorney and drafted Wills, Living Wills and Durable Powers of Attorneys in the event they or a family member get sick or have a terrible accident and cannot speak for themselves, or die.  I know that generally none of us want to think that we are going to die or want to prepare for the inevitable—I too want to believe I am immortal and will never lose my conscious stream of existence and thus I am in denial of my mortality—but too often we see tragedies at our firm and more often than not the injured victims or decedents do not have a Will, or a Living Will or a Durable Power of Attorney.  As a result of this lack of foresight and not being prepared, doctors, nurses, hospitals and families go through extreme anguish and stress because no one is sure what the injured person wanted or desired, or there is a conflict among family members as to that person’s wishes, or the doctors are not sure what to do or to whom they should speak because there is lack of formal documentation that everyone can rely on.  This is particularly alarming and difficult when there is resuscitation or a DNR issue, or when someone is in a coma.  I strongly encourage you to meet with one of our probate/estate lawyers and finalize such documents so that you better protect yourself and loved ones.  It is very inexpensive insurance for you and your family and all those who care about you.

SSD/SSI Hearings at the Buffalo NY Social Security Office of Disability Adjudication and Review

Author: Robin Friedman

May 1st, 2015

You probably have seen television or movie depictions of courtrooms, so you may expect your Social Security disability hearing to take place in a big, old courthouse with lots of pomp and circumstance.

Every hearing is different, but if you have a disability hearing scheduled in Buffalo, New York, your hearing will be held at the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) located at 50 Fountain Plaza, Suite 200, Buffalo, New York.  The Buffalo ODAR is on the second floor of a regular downtown office building.

As you leave the elevator on the second floor , you will check in at the office window.  The staff member will confirm that you have a hearing and will usually give you a CD that contains your disability claim file.  (However, if you have an attorney or authorized representative, he or she will receive the CD).  If you want to look at the medical records and other documents that Social Security has collected regarding your case, you can asked to be shown to a private room with a computer where you can examine your file.  Before entering the waiting area you must go through security.  There is a guard  who is there for your safety as well as that of the Social Security staff and Administrative Law Judges(ALJs). The security guard will ask you for valid picture identification card, or passport.  Before the date of your hearing, make sure your identification card has not expired! Also be prepared to empty all your pockets and remove your hat if you are wearing one.  You will be scanned with a metal detector, and the security guard will inspect any bags or purses you are carrying with you.  You may not carry deadly weapons, such as guns and knives, into the Social Security office.  Women carrying pepper spray in their purses will also be turned away.  If you have any of these items with you when you come to the hearing office, you will most likely be asked to return them to your vehicle.

Once you have gone through security find a seat in the waiting area and wait for your attorney or representative to arrive.

Once the ALJ is ready, the hearing reporter will lead you to a hearing room.  The hearings are closed to the public, so the rooms aren’t very big.  The judge typically sits at a raised desk and everyone else is seated around a table in front of the judge.  You will have a microphone in front of you , but it won’t make your voice louder.  The judge will speak directly to you and ask you some questions and then allow your attorney or representative to ask questions.  The hearings are designed to be fairly informal, so there should not be people jumping up to object or make motions during your testimony.  The only people who will likely ask you questions are the judge and your own representative; there is no opposing counsel who will cross-examine you.  Hearings generally last between forty-five minutes and an hour.  You should show respect to the Administrative Law Judge by addressing him/her as “Your Honor”, “Judge”, Ma’am”, or “Sir”.  It is also important to make sure you understand the judge’s question before you answer it- do not try to talk over the judge, and always ask for clarification if the question is confusing or hard to hear.  In addition to your testimony, the ALJ may take testimony from some experts who have reviewed your case, such as a Medical Expert (ME) and/or a Vocational Expert (VE).

Most of the time, when your hearing ends you do not know how the ALJ is going to decide.  He or she will most likely review the evidence once more after having the opportunity to hear your testimony, and the he or she will write a decision.  Social Security will mail a copy of the written decision to you as well as to your lawyer or representative.  The ALJ will typically tell you that a decision will be issued within thirty to ninety days.  This waiting time can be increased if the judge needs to obtain additional evidence after the hearing.  Unfortunately, there is no deadline the judges have to meet in writing their decisions, so sometimes the wait for a decision can stretch out several months.

What I’ve described in this blog is simply a snapshot of how things might go on your hearing date.  There are many variables involved in a Social Security disability hearing.  It may be in your best interest to talk to an attorney or representative to better prepare you for your day in court.  Please call us at 636-7600.


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