Thursday, November 02, 2006

How do I get my homestead exemption on my new home?

Certain types of property will qualify for an extra Texas property tax rebate called the homestead exemption. Basically, the homestead exemption allows you to pay less in taxes on your home than you would normally be entitled. For example, if your home was worth $100,000 and the tax rate was 2%, you would pay $2,000 in property taxes ($100,000 x 2% = $2,000). However, if the hoemstead exemption was $50,000, you would only pay $1,000 in property taxes ($100,000 - $50,000 = $50,000 x 2% = $1,000).

To make sure that you get this reduction, go to your county appraisal district office and fill out a homestead exemption application. There may also be other exemptions for which you may qualify that could also reduce your Texas property tax bill.

As always, please feel free to contact us through our website,, if we can be of assistance.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Practical real estate advice

While looking for some ideas on future blog entries, I came across this excellent, starightforward blog entry from a real estate agent in Sugarland, Texas. Click here for the full article. It contains the true facts for 5 of the most popular homeownership myths. One of particular interest is about how transferring real estate into an adult child's name may actually end up costing the child more than simply going through the probate process.

I lost my social security card. How do I get another one?

According to the Social Security Administration website, here's what you should do:

"You can replace your Social Security card for free if it is lost or stolen. However, you are limited to three replacement cards in a year and 10 during your lifetime. Legal name changes and other exceptions do not count toward these limits. For example, changes in noncitizen status that require card updates may not count toward these limits. Also, you may not be affected by these limits if you can prove you need the card to prevent a significant hardship.

"To get a replacement card:

As always, please feel free to contact us through our website,, if we can be of assistance.

Monday, October 30, 2006

What will my business pay under the new Texas Franchise Tax?

Every business is obviously different, so it is hard to answer. But, the Texas State Comptroller has just released a new calculator that can help you figure out what your business can expect to pay under the new Texas Franchise Tax. Click here to go to that calculator.

As always, please feel free to contact us through our website,, if we can be of assistance.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Social Security cost of living increases announced

The Social Security Administration announced that social security and SSI recipients will have a 3.3% increase in their benefits. This increase is a cost of living adjustment. If you receive social security or SSI, you will see a slight increase in your checks.

For a copy of the press release and to learn more, click here.

As always, please feel free to contact us through our website,, if we can be of assistance.

What should I do if some steals my identity?

Here are some practical steps for you to take if you become a victim of identity theft:

•Contact all creditors, by phone and in writing, to inform them of the problem

•Call your nearest Postal Inspection Service office and your local police

•Contact the
Federal Trade Commission to report the problem

•Call each of the three credit bureau’s fraud units to report identity theft
–Ask to have a “Fraud Alert/Victim Impact” statement placed in your credit file asking that creditors call you before opening any new accounts

•Alert your bank to flag your accounts and to contact you to confirm unusual activity

•Request a change of PIN and new password

•Keep a log of all contacts and make copies of all documents

•You may also wish to contact a privacy or consumer advocacy group regarding illegal activity

•Contact the Social Security Administration’s Fraud Hotline

•Contact the state office of the Department of Motor Vehicles to see if another license was issued in your name
–If so, request a new license number and fill out the DMV’s complaint form to begin the fraud investigation process

Don't forget to report the situation to:

• Your local police department

Equifax Credit Bureau, Fraud

Experian Information Solutions

TransUnion Credit Bureau, Fraud

Federal Trade Commission
–1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338)

Social Security Administration, Fraud Hotline

Friday, October 27, 2006

How can I obtain a credit report?

You can contact one the 3 major credit reporting agencies. Their contact information is below:

Equifax –
P.O. Box 740241
Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
Telephone: 1-800-685-1111

Experian -
P.O. Box 949
Allen, TX 75013-0949
Telephone: 1-800-397-3742

TransUnion –
P.O. Box 1000
Chester, PA 19022
Telephone: 1-800-916-8800

Thursday, October 26, 2006

How can I protect myself from identity theft?

Identity Theft is now a big issue and is becoming more common everyday. The following are some common sense steps to protect yourself from someone stealing your identity and hurting your credit or your finances.

• Promptly remove mail from your mail box
• Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection mail boxes or at your local post office. Do not leave in unsecured mail receptacles
• Never give personal information over the telephone unless you initiated the call
• Shred pre-approved credit card applications, credit card receipts, bills and other financial information you don’t want
• Empty your wallet/purse of extra credit cards and Ids
• Opt to use an alternate number on Driver’s License
• Order your credit report from the three credit bureaus once a year to check for discrepancies
• Never leave receipts at bank machines, bank windows, trash receptacles, or unattended gasoline pumps
• Memorize your SSN and all your passwords
• Sign all new credit cards upon receipt
• Save all credit card receipts and match them against your monthly bills
• Be conscious of normal receipt of financial statements and contact sender if they are not received on time

• Notify credit card companies and financial institutions in advance of any change of address or phone number
• Never loan your credit cards to anyone else
• Never put account numbers on post cards or on the outside of an envelope
• If you applied for a new credit card and it hasn’t arrived in a timely manner, call the bank or credit card company involved
• Report all lost or stolen credit cards immediately
• Know your expiration dates, and contact issuer if replacements are not received promptly

• Beware of mail or telephone solicitations disguised as promotions offering instant prizes or awards designed solely to obtain your personal information or credit card numbers
• Never use commonly used passwords/PINs, like birth date, last four digits of SSN, last four digits of phone number, or series of consecutive numbers (1234)
• Don’t carry your Social Security card with you.
• Do not have the DMV put your Social Security Number on your driver's license

As always, please feel free to contact us through our website,, if we can be of assistance.

In the News -- Chris Peterson

Chris Peterson, a partner in Peterson & Swearingen, LLC, recently won a bench trial in Burleson County, Texas involving a real estate dispute. Judge Reva Corbett awarded our clients damages for brecah of contract in the amount of $57,693.30. The Judge also awarded $32,750.00 in damages for violations of Section 5.077 of the Texas Property Code. We also recovered $22,000.00 in attorney's fees spent in pursuing the case.

Congratulations to our clients, Jesse & Sonja Turner for their victory.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Seminar on October 29, 2006 -- How to Protect Your Identity

Please be our guest at a seminar on "How to Protect Your Identity." Identity theft is becoming a big issue and you need more than a shredder to protect you. This informational seminar will gve you some tips on avoiding identity theft and what to do if you become a victim of identity theft.

The Seminar will address the following topics:

--What is Identity Theft
--How Thieves Do It
--Preventive Actions
--Internet and On-Line Services
--Credit Reports (who to contact)
--Steps for Victims
--Reporting Identity Theft

This event is being co-sponsored by Jay Meador of Decker Financial Group and Raymond James Financial Services, Inc. RSVP for this Event NOW!

The seminar will be held at our offices at 3002 Texas Avenue South, College Station, Texas. Seating is limited, so please RSVP at 979-680-9993.

In the News -- Robert Swearingen

Robert Swearingen, a partner in Peterson & Swearingen, LLC, was cited in The Eagle concerning a case he successfully won before the Texas Supreme Court. Through the disqualification of a local judge, Robert successfully overturned a divorce decree and child custody order for one of our clients. The case was noteworthy because it ended up changing Texas Law, and Robert is now cited in numerous articles and legal publications about judicial qualifications.

Click here for the full article.

For a copy of the opinion, click here.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Why do you use BrazosLawyers in your blog name?

Our law firm, Peterson & Swearingen, LLC, is located in Brazos County, Texas. The main cities in the county are Bryan and College Station, which are next door to each other (you literally cross a street and you are in the other city). College Station is home to Texas A&M University. Brazos County is located within 3 1/2 hours of Dallas, Austin, Houston & San Antonio.

As always, please feel free to contact us through our website ( if we can be of assistance.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

In the News -- Robert Swearingen

Recently, Robert Swearingen, a partner in Peterson & Swearingen, LLC, was quoted in The Eagle concerning the death of his mentor, Sam Rowland. Click here for the article. "Swearingen said Rowland hired him fresh out of law school, and he considered him a first-class mentor.
'I cut my teeth at his office,' Swearingen said. 'I was taken to the show by the master. I feel very blessed to have him as a mentor.' (The Eagle, October 5, 2006).

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Who makes medical decisions for me if I cannot make them myself?

With a Health Care Power of Attorney, you can decide exactly who will make health care decisions for you if you cannot. The Health Care Power of Attorney is a legal document that designates what family members or friends that you want to make critical health care decisions for you if you are incapacitated. You can even designate in what order those individuals will serve. The Health Care Power of Attorney ends the guessing game about which family member will make decisions at the hospital when time is of the essence. No more family disagreements about who will make that decision. Instead, one person is clearly designated to make decisions for you.

In addition to the power of attorney, you can also make known exactly what treatments you desire through a Medical Directive or "Living Will". In a living will, you can state exactly what life sustaining treatments you desire if you have a terminal or irreversible medical condition. You can also specify if you want to donate your organs.

Finally, in the most critical of cases, you may want to sign a "Do not resuscitate order". In that order, you can provide that, due to a deteriorating medical condition, you no longer want life-saving medical procedures performed, but instead want to be allowed to die as peacefully as possible. I only recommend the do not resuscitate order to clients with extreme medical circumstances.

I recommend that all of my clients have a Health Care Power of Attorney and a Living Will just in case they are seriously and unexpectedly injured. These are commonly signed at the same time as new wills.

As always, please feel free to contact us through our website ( if we can be of assistance.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

How long does it take to get divorced?

It depends. Isn't that a great lawyer answer! But it really does depend on many factors like:

--are you in agreement about how to divide your assets/debts?

--are you in agreement about where your kids will live?

--are you in agreement about child support amounts?

--are you in agreement about child custody visitation orders?

In most cases, these factors determine the length of time a divorce takes. However, there is a minimum time required.

In Texas, the Family Code (state law) mandates a 60 day "cooling off" period. What this means is that a Court cannot approve a divorce decree within 60 days of the date the divorce petition was filed. Therefore, even the shortest divorce case will take at least 2 months to complete. We advise our clients not to expect "quick" divorces.

As always, please feel free to contact us through our website ( if we can be of assistance.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Am I common law married?

Someone recently asked this question in the office, which caused us to again look at the common law (or informal marriage) statute. According to the Texas Family Code, there are 2 ways to be informally married.

1. Sign a declaration of informal marriage (which is kind of like filling out a birth certificate form)


2. Agreed to be married, live together in Texas as husband and wife, and represent to others that you are married.

Some typical proof of informal marriage is the "wife's" use of the "husband's" last name, the way that you filed a tax return (married filing jointly), or the way assets or bills are titled (Mr. and Mrs. Smith). Other typical proof is the having of children together and the comments made to neighbors, family members or other friends.

A few other interesting things about Texas law on this subject are:

--you cannot be informally married if you are minor

--you also cannot sign a declaration of informal marriage if you are married to someone else

--only a man and a woman can be informally married (i.e. homosexual couples do not qualify).

As always, please feel free to contact us through our website ( if we can be of assistance.

Do I need a will?

I recommend that my clients have a will for several reasons. First, with a will, you decide who inherits your money and possessions. Without a will, a Texas statute and the court will make that decision. Many times your wishes would not have been the same as what the statute and courts provide.

Second, in Texas, you are allowed to choose between whether your estate will be independently administered or probated. Independent administration is less costly and less time-consuming than the traditional probate process. The only catch is that independent administration needs to be provided for in your will.

Third, with a will, you get to decide who the executor of your estate will be. Without a will, a court will make that determination.

Fourth, you can set up a trust for your children in your will to provide for their future financial needs. You can also select a family member, friend or financial advisor that will oversee and invest your children’s inheritance until they are old enough to manage it themselves (whether you decide this age is 21 or 51).

Fifth, if your estate is large enough, you may be able to minimize or eliminate any estate taxes paid to the government. With proper planning, you can maximize the amount of money that your children or other heirs will receive, rather than paying extra, unnecessary taxes.

If you want to decide who will receive your estate and you want to maximize what they receive, you need a will.

As always, please feel free to contact us through our website ( if we can be of assistance.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Who would raise my children if something happened to me?

I recommend that my clients with minor children choose who they want to be the future guardians of their children through a legal instrument commonly called a Designation of Guardian. By signing a Designation of Guardian, you can decide exactly who your first, second, third and even fourth (or more) choices to raise your children are in the event of your death. This legal document is typically honored by the courts, and avoids disputes between family members (or both sides of the family) as to who will raise your children. The Designation of Guardian will allow you to pick the most suitable person in your eyes to raise your children.

In making that decision, you should consider many factors:

--Is your child familiar with them?

--Will they raise your child with the same religious values as you?

--Are they responsible?

--Will they preserve your child’s contacts with your extended family?

--Do they have the financial resources to take in another child?

--Do they value the same things that you consider important?

I often recommend my clients make this Designation of Guardian when signing new wills. In their wills, we compliment their choice of guardian by also designing a trust for their children to take care of future financial needs, such as college costs. In this way, your child can be provided for emotionally, physically and financially, and you can have peace of mind that these decisions have been made.

As always, please feel free to contact us through our website ( if we can be of assistance.

Friday, October 06, 2006

I heard that the estate tax is being repealed. Do I really need to plan for estate taxes in my will?

This is another common misperception that is spread around (and quite frankly asked about by my clients in our initial estate planning conferences).

Estate planning is actually more important than ever because of the complexity and uncertainty created under the 2001 changes in tax laws. Instead of repealing the estate tax, the estate tax is gradually phased out over the next 4 years. In 2010, the estate tax is repealed–for one year. In 2011, the estate tax is reinstated at the 2002 level (the exemption level that year will be $1 million).

Because of insurance payments, the last 20 years of the stock market, and increasing property values, it is pretty easy to get over the estate tax threshold. Thus, planning for estate taxes is still a primary concern when creating a will.

As always, please feel free to contact us through our website ( if we can be of assistance.

Medical Power of Attorney

We get a lot of calls at the office about drafting wills, but no one ever calls about powers of attorney. Also, we have lots of clients that come in with a poorly drafted will that was done by some cheap lawyer or by the client himself, but give me a blank stare when I ask about powers of attorney. If you take nothing else from this post, please remember this: IF YOU PLAN FOR DEATH ONLY (AND NOT DISABILITY) YOU HAVE ONLY DONE HALF THE JOB.

I read somewhere that people under 40 years old are 4 times more likely to be disabled than to die. Therefore, if you only plan for death (i.e. a will), you are missing out on 80% of your legal need.

So what is a Medical Power of Attorney? It is a short document that gives an individual you designate the right to make health care decisions for you in the event that you are unable to make them for yourself. Typically, medical powers of attorney your doctor to be the one that certifies (in writing) that you are unable to make the decision.

So why do I need one? Your appointee (attorney-in-fact) will be the one to sign surgical consent forms, admit you to a hospital, and make key medical decisions. It is much better to have decided on one person you trust to make a decision than to have your family members arguing in the hospital hallway about what you would have wanted done. I have so many stories that I could tell you about family squabbles that could have been avoided with this simple document.

So what is the cost? This varies from state to state and attorney to attorney, but it really should take no more than an hour for an attorney to draft one. Most estate planning attorneys have some flat fee will package that includes a will and disability planning documents (medical power of attorney and others).

As always, please feel free to contact us through our website ( if we can be of assistance.

Starting to blog

After much fits and starts, we are now entering the world of blogging. We hope that our future posts will give some basic information about various areas of the law that would be of interest to our clients and the public at large. Please check back for updated posts.

As always, please feel free to contact us through our website ( if we can be of assistance.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

In The News: Chris Peterson

Here's another recent story about Chris Peterson from The Eagle.

"Peterson says multiple roles do not lead to conflict"

By HOLLY HUFFMAN, Eagle Staff Writer

When Paul Marvin Jr. decided to run for a seat on the College Station City Council, he hired Chris Peterson to serve as his political consultant. The selection of Peterson, Marvin said, would free him to meet with voters and discuss issues while Peterson handled the myriad details that accompany campaigns: crafting letters to voters, designing signs and sending press releases to the media. "He's there to guide and advise," Marvin said of Peterson. "The benefit is that he's seen many of these campaigns."

Bryan school board president and business council member Chris Peterson has helped guide at least nine candidates seeking municipal or county elective office this year. Marvin is one of many political hopefuls who have turned to Peterson for guidance on how to put together a campaign. Last year, Peterson was instrumental in the bitterly contested - and successful - campaigns of Ron Gay and Chris Scotti for seats on the College Station City Council.

Peterson, 34, also was the consultant for Jason Bienski's successful Bryan City Council campaign last year. That relationship came under some criticism after the councilman voted last fall to support a project that Peterson touted before the City Council. The city has been asked to invest future tax revenue in the project. Both Peterson and Bienski maintain there was no conflict of interest. Peterson, who said he intentionally keeps a low profile in the campaigns he guides, has been involved in the political organizations of at least nine candidates seeking municipal or county elective office so far this year. He wields significant influence as president of the Bryan school board and as a member of the Bryan Business Council, a panel appointed by the Bryan City Council.

Click here for the full article.