Tree Liability

Legalese by Kate Fletcher

Hot weather means storms and downed trees. The question is, who is liable and when? Virginia has specific law regarding liability from damage caused by a fallen tree.

EXAMPLE: Your neighbor’s tree threatens to land on your house if it comes down – can you force your neighbor to remove it? NO The storm hits and the neighbor’s tree actually comes down on your house – is the neighbor now liable? NO – This’s a case for your homeowner’s insurance.

The neighbor attempts to remove the tree but does an incomplete job and the tree comes down on your house – is the neighbor liable now? Maybe – the law says if the neighbor did something to worsen the situation, they may be held liable.

Generally, fallen trees are “nature” and there is no liability from your neighbor for what nature does. Review your homeowner’s policy to make sure you have the appropriate coverage.

Is It More Than Stress?

Feeling Grumpy

By Mark Loewen

LGBTQ people are pretty resilient. Even as Virginia becomes a “purple” state with marriage equality and all, being LGBTQ still means you at least face micro-aggressions regularly. Growing up lesbian, gay, bi or trans has most likely thrown a few “lemons” at you. And, as the saying goes, you most likely were forced to “made some lemonade”.  You created the best life that you could for yourself. Many of us decided to set boundaries with friends and family. We’ve separated work and personal life because we didn’t know if it was OK to be ourselves at our jobs. These decisions kept you safe, and in many ways made your life better. But, they also carry weight on your wellbeing in the long term.

As a therapist I notice a special kind of strength in clients who have to deal with these tough decisions. Struggle and suffering has made them stronger in many ways.

But, when you are used to live with stress, and you start to become overwhelmed, how do you know if this time you are dealing with more than just the regular? How do you know if you should reach out to someone and deal with the underlying issues that fuel your negative feelings? Are you dealing with feelings of depression that require some extra help? Or does everyone go through these same moods, which basically would make your feelings “normal?”

In this post I’ll address one the signs that you may be dealing with more than just stress: feeling grumpy. Regular stress can leave you in a grumpy mood. But, if you are always feeling angry, that can also be a sign of depression. This goes beyond a sassy personality (although it can be expressed as such). Rather, it’s a more constant state of irritability.

Depression is closely linked to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Another symptom of depression is a loss of interest in activities that you enjoyed in the past. So, when you feel this dip in experiencing pleasure or happiness in general, a very common reaction is to feel and act grumpy.

Society makes anger more acceptable than other, more vulnerable feelings. Raising your voice at someone that mistreated you feels safer than crying in front of someone that hurt you. When you fear feeling weak you may unconsciously switch your perspective to a feeling that makes you feel stronger. You can observe this in animals that feel threatened, and as a result make themselves look bigger and more aggressive. It’s a very useful defense mechanism, and has helped our species survive for millions of years.

Anger is a very useful feeling, because it elicits change in yourself and people around you. But, it blocks you from feeling better if you are using it at a time when a different feeling needs to be expressed. Being in a constant state of irritability prevents you from seeing the good in the world and finding solutions to your stress.

If you feel annoyed or irritable too often, you may be seeing a sign that your stress is more serious than the average. It may be a good time to learn new ways of dealing with difficult situations. Some life changes may be in order. You don’t need to feel this way all the time! The first step to feeling better is to reach out, whether this means contacting a friend, reading a helpful book, or scheduling an appointment with a good therapist. My only advice, don’t wait too long.

Mark Loewen helps overwhelmed adults find their way when life becomes too much to handle. He specializes in parenting, relationships, and LGBTQ issues.

Is It More Than Stress?

Not being able to focus

By Mark Loewen

I work with people who are emotionally overwhelmed. Counseling is for many a last resort. By the time a client steps in my office, they have struggled for a while, only to see things become worse. This makes total sense to me. If you are used to dealing with difficulties, you tackle them on your own first. Many stressful situations are successfully resolved this way.

So how do you know if your stress is in the normal range? In my previous post I discussed one of the signs: lack of sleep. Here I’ll address the second: difficulty to focus on regular tasks.

We all struggle with concentration and focus during times of extra stress. Or, rather than experiencing a lack of focus, you feel that your mind is focusing very strongly on what it deems most important. Maybe you struggled to focus on work tasks during a big change in your personal life. Your mind saw the personal event as more important than your daily tasks. But with some extra effort, you were able to responsibly fulfill your job duties that day. Once the event passed, everything went back to normal.

So, when is lack of concentration a sign of something more than regular life-stress? When it’s overwhelming and you aren’t able to complete daily tasks successfully. Or, when you are simultaneously overwhelmed with emotions. You may feel anxious, worried, sad or helpless. On the other hand, you may feel the opposite - a total lack of emotion that feels numb. Another sign is that it lasts longer than you feel you can tolerate.

Not being able to concentrate or having a foggy memory could be signs of depression or anxiety. Depression often shows up as a lack of energy or motivation that makes efforts to focus very hard. Anxiety can show up as a heightened state of alertness that focuses on your worries. Much so, that it’s actually hard not to focus on what makes you anxious. You struggle to control your anxious thoughts.

During this time, you try even harder to concentrate, therefore putting even more stress on yourself. The extra stress heightens your anxiety and your lack of success fuels your feelings of helplessness. It becomes a vicious cycle.

The more helpful solution sounds counterintuitive. It is more helpful to give your mind rest, instead of added pressure. Activities such as taking several breaths with long exhalations can give you some relief. More focused activities such as yoga or exercise can also make a big difference. These strategies reduce stress by targeting your physiology directly, reducing your heart rate, and relaxing your muscles. They are, however, most effective when combined with deeper reflection about the source of your stress. The unbiased feedback from a counselor can shed light on areas of your life that are hard to figure out. A non-judgmental relationship with someone that has “heard it all” allows you to safely express thoughts that you wouldn’t share with an acquaintance. And, counseling creates a domino effect that allows you to apply new coping strategies and insight to other scenarios - making it easier for you to deal with stress in the future.

If a consistent difficulty with concentration or focus is coming in the way reaching personal or professional goals, don’t ignore it. It may be time to reach out for help.

Mark Loewen helps overwhelmed adults find their way when life becomes too much to handle. He specializes in parenting, relationships, and LGBTQ issues.

Estate Planning for Same-Sex Couples

By Benson Wealth Management Group

In United States v. Windsor (2013), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which required that federal statutes, regulations, and rulings be interpreted as defining marriage as a "legal union between one man and one woman" and a spouse as "a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife." Then, in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down every ban on same-sex marriage in the United States, including Section 2 of DOMA which provided that states have the right to deny recognition of same-sex marriages licensed in other states.

As a result, same-sex marriages must now be recognized by every state and the federal government. If you're in a same-sex marriage or about to get married, you'll want to consider reviewing your estate planning goals, strategies, and documents with an estate planning attorney to determine whether changes are necessary.

Civil unions and domestic partnerships

During the period when same-sex marriages were not recognized universally throughout the country, some states created marriage equivalents such as civil unions and domestic partnerships. These laws varied, and there is now some reconsideration about the need for these laws. Other states (and the federal government) are not required to recognize these marriage equivalents as they are not legally marriages. For example, for federal tax purposes, marriage is not considered to include civil unions, domestic partnerships, and similar provisions. If you are in a civil union or domestic partnership, you might consider taking the next step to marriage.

Transfer taxes

When you transfer your property during your lifetime or at your death, your transfers may be subject to the federal gift tax, estate tax, and generation-skipping transfer tax (at a top tax rate of 40%). Your transfers may also be subject to state taxes.

Federal gift tax

You can make annual tax-free gifts of up to $14,000 per recipient. The amount can be doubled if you split gifts with your spouse. And while you can make deductible transfers to your spouse if you are married, transfers to your partner may be taxable if you are not married. However, you have a basic exclusion amount that protects up to $5,450,000 (in 2016, $5,430,000 in 2015) from gift and estate taxes.

Federal estate tax

As with the gift tax, you can make deductible transfers to your spouse, and you have the basic exclusion amount. When you die, your estate can elect to transfer any unused exclusion amount to your surviving spouse (a concept referred to as portability). Your surviving spouse can use your unused exclusion amount, plus his or her own basic exclusion amount, for gift and estate tax purposes. Portability is not available if you're not married. If you're married, you should review your estate planning documents to ensure that they properly provide for the marital deduction and applicable exclusion amount.

Federal generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax

The federal GST tax generally applies if you transfer property to a person two or more generations younger than you (for example, a grandchild). The GST tax may apply in addition to any gift or estate tax. Similar to the gift tax provisions above, an annual exclusion is available, and married couples can split gifts. You can protect up to $5,450,000 (in 2016, $5,430,000 in 2015) with the GST tax exemption. However, the GST tax exemption is not portable between spouses.


A will is quite often the cornerstone of an estate plan. It is a legal document that directs how your property is to be distributed when you die, including amounts that pass to your spouse or partner. It also allows you to name an executor to carry out your wishes as specified in the will and a guardian for your minor children.

If you are married, your spouse may have rights under state law to elect to receive a portion (e.g., one-half or one-third) of your estate, even if you provide otherwise in your will. Your spouse may also be entitled to a portion of your estate even if you don't have a will. However, if you're not married, your partner will generally receive only what you provide for in your will (or through joint ownership or beneficiary designations). To protect your spouse and other loved ones, make sure your documents are up-to-date, including your will and beneficiary designations.

Tenancy by entirety and community property

In some states, married couples can use a form of joint and survivor ownership of property known as tenancy by the entirety. While both spouses are alive, a tenancy by the entirety generally provides better asset protection than other forms of property ownership.

Spouses generally own property acquired while married and living in a community property state as community property. If you are married and live in a community property state, consider converting property owned separately by you and your spouse into community property.

Planning for incapacity

Incapacity can happen to anyone at any time, but your risk generally increases as you grow older. You have to consider what would happen if, for example, you were unable to make decisions or conduct your own affairs. Failing to plan may mean a court would have to appoint a guardian, and the guardian might make decisions that would be different from what you would have wanted.

Health-care directives, such as a living will, a durable power of attorney for health care, or a do-not-resuscitate order, can help others make sound decisions about your health when you are unable to do so yourself. There are also tools, such as joint ownership, a durable power of attorney, or a living trust, that can help others manage your property when you are unable to do so.

These tools may be useful whether you are married or not. But if you're not married, they may be critical in giving your partner (who is not related to you) some authority to make decisions for you.

Life insurance

Life insurance plays a part in many estate plans. In a small estate, life insurance may actually create the estate and be the primary financial resource for your surviving family members. Life insurance can also be used to provide liquidity for your estate, for example, by providing the cash to pay final expenses, outstanding debts, and taxes so that other assets don't have to be liquidated to pay these expenses. Life insurance proceeds can generally be received free of income tax.

Reconsider your insurance needs to make sure that you have the right types and amounts of coverage, and check your beneficiary designations. For instance, if you are married with children, you might consider a second-to-die policy that pays benefits only upon the death of the surviving spouse.


If you were denied some right or benefit because your same-sex marriage was not recognized in the past, you might still be entitled to some corrective action. At a minimum, for example, you can still file an amended federal tax return as married for any year in which the time for filing is still open. You generally have three years from the date you filed your federal tax return or two years after the date you paid the tax due (whichever is later) to amend your return. In general, this means that you may be able to amend 2012 returns until as late as October 17, 2016, depending on when you filed your 2012 return.

A word of caution

The decision to marry can involve many complex factors. Whether you view certain state laws as favorable may depend on your own situation. For example, depending on whether you bring significant assets into the marriage, you may have a different viewpoint of a state law that allows a surviving spouse to elect a share of the estate regardless of what is provided in a will.

Many tax provisions are favorable to married taxpayers. Marital deductions, split gifts, and portability of the applicable exclusion amount are just a few examples. However, many tax provisions are designed to restrict tax benefits if the parties to a transaction are related. You might want to consult a tax professional.

Voter ID requirements

By Kate Fletcher

A critical date is just around the corner - November 8 - the day to exercise your right to vote. Regardless of who you vote for, voting is not just a right (for many a very hard-fought right) but an ethical responsibility. To exercise your right to vote in Virginia you MUST show an acceptable form of ID at the polls on election day. Don't have ID, unsure about your ID or don't know if you are available to vote on election day? You can request an absentee ballot and with a valid reason you can vote absentee. Go to to request an absentee ballot or to check on what is an acceptable form of ID.

Some cultures wait (or walk) for days to vote, some people get killed if they vote. We do not have these obstacles. Staying home and not voting is not an option. This election is historical; make your vote count. Above all else, VOTE!