"Life is a party, and parties weren't meant to last" - Prince

On April 21st 2016, pop icon Prince Rogers Nelson was found dead unexpectedly at age 57, without leaving a last will and testament. Prince’s death is just the latest in the long line of celebrity deaths which leave behind a massive estate and no clear will;  according to CNBC, some report that Prince’s estate totals “some $300 million.” Like Prince, wealthy musicians Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and Tupac Shakur all died without a will - or intestate. So what happens in those cases? What is the legal protocol?

In the case of Kurt Cobain, rights to his image and most of his music and estate were passed to his widow, Courtney Love, and into a trust for his daughter Frances Bean Cobain. After the murder of Tupac Shakur, who had neither spouse nor children, control of his estate passed to his mother Afeni Shakur. Many speculated that British singer Amy Winehouse’s estate would pass to her ex-husband, but instead the law defaulted the millions to her parents, Janis and Mitch Winehouse.

Although U.S. intestate laws vary by state, there are several common threads and underlying principles. The primary beneficiary is a surviving spouse, followed by (or in some cases sharing equally between) surviving heirs (children and grandchildren). In Prince’s case, at the time of his death he had no legal spouse and no known children (although since his death, some have spoken up claiming to be heirs). If no heirs are found, the bulk of his estate will likely pass to his sister Tyka Nelson, since his parents are both deceased.

After spouses and direct descendants, money, property, and rights usually pass to parents, siblings, half-siblings, nieces, nephews, and after that, even more distant relatives. The precise details about what kind of property is inherited, and by whom, will vary from state to state. For example, New York state inheritance laws dictate that if a person with a spouse and children dies without a will, their spouse inherits “the first $50,000 of your intestate property, plus 1/2 of the balance” with the rest distributing evenly between the children.

In intestate cases of no living relatives, legal spouses, or descendants, the state becomes the beneficiary. Laws recognizing domestic partnerships and non-legally-binding relationships also vary widely. Historically, same-sex spouses unable to be legally married in their state have time and again lost inheritance (and custody of children) to more distant blood relatives of the deceased.

For those wishing to allot money and property to specific loved ones and avoid this outcome, it’s very important to research estate laws for your state and speak with an attorney about drawing up the appropriate legal documents. Some might be inclined to set up their last will independently, but Lawyer.com reminds us that, “Experienced estate lawyers can guide you through the intricacies of the law and help make sure that after your death everything is divided up the way you intended it to be. If your estate documents including your will are not properly set up it could lead to a lot of confusion, fighting and even lawsuits among your loved ones.” Especially if there are complex situations in your family, such as divorce, remarriage, children, 401ks, IRAs, or taxable estates, an estate planning attorney is an invaluable investment.

The use of recreational marijuana is currently legal in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia - with many more states allowing for regulated medicinal use. The United States is at a crossroads, with public support of decriminalizing cannabis the strongest it’s ever been. This is compounded by growing awareness and education about the seed of racism which influenced the so-called “War on Drugs” and many of America’s sentencing laws. However, decriminalized recreational marijuana is still opposed by many, and Oregon and Washington are being watched closely as “case studies” for the potential negative or dangerous effects of the drug’s legal use.

From a legislative standpoint, there are both pros and cons attached to marijuana decriminalization.

Pros:

One factor nearly universally acknowledged is the unjustly harsh punitive measures that many states allow for, when it comes to the sale and possession of marijuana. For example, possessing 2oz of marijuana in Florida, Texas, or Oklahoma could result in a year of incarceration; growing even one marijuana plant in Florida could mean 5 years, and selling any amount of marijuana in Oklahoma could result in a sentence up to life in prison. Regulating, rather than outlawing, marijuana possession, could heavily reduce the amount of nonviolent arrests, convictions, and incarcerations clogging U.S. courts and prison systems - and work to break the school-to-prison pipeline.

Another strike against marijuana criminalization comes from its legal and political history. There is evidence to suggest that cannabis (once commonly used and found in U.S. pharmacies) only became criminalized because of anti-immigrant sentiment after Mexican laborers began to introduce recreational smoking as a use of the plant. Since the 70’s “War on Drugs,” a top Nixon aide has publicly admitted that the movement was largely for political reasons, to turn public sentiment against African Americans and antiwar leftists. Moves to decriminalize would be a step against institutionalized racism.

A further pro to legalization is taxable revenue that states are able to collect from marijuana sales. For example, from just June 2014-July 2015 Colorado pulled in nearly $70 million taxing marijuana.

Finally, regulating and legislating marijuana use allows for the expansion of businesses in the private sector, lower prices for pot consumers, and the states to more closely track and control its use and abuse.

Cons:

The chief rationale for keeping the use of marijuana illegal over the years has been to cut off a common “gateway drug” to more dangerous substances and addiction, and to safeguard the American population from its potentially damaging effects: “a distorted sense of time, random thinking, paranoia, depression, anxiety and short-term forgetfulness.” Driving, dangerous accidents, and inflicting self-harm have all been reported as consequences of marijuana use.

One issue that Washington and Colorado are both currently facing is the struggle to properly label and regulate edibles, candies, baked goods, and other treats laced with THC. Since decriminalization took place in those states, edibles-related Emergency Room visits have increased dramatically, often due to the treats’ potency and its delayed effects which result in consumers eating far more than recommended. This is a definite problem faced by states wishing to legalize recreational marijuana.

Another con is children potentially having easier access to the drug. The number of accidental marijuana ingestion in children, especially due to the aforementioned edibles, was far higher in Colorado after decriminalization than it had been before. Businesses and regulators would have to work hard to overcome this problem to justify decriminalization.

A final con is an obvious one, and one which which will only take time to overcome: U.S. staticians simply don’t have enough data yet to predict the results of widespread marijuana decriminalization. Many arguments for and against change in legislation are based on hypothetical rationale, although an increasing number of organizations are looking to U.S. Prohibition and marijuana legislation in other countries to predict potential outcomes. In the end, only time will tell.

Since the December 2nd 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, American Citizens’ right to privacy has been a subject of much public discourse. After the shooter’s iPhone was apprehended, the FBI was putting intense pressure on Apple to create a software hack to retrieve information from the device. Apple refused, and argued that giving the government a backdoor entry would compromise the privacy of every iPhone user. In March, however, it was announced that the Justice Department paid an outside source to break into the iPhone, and thus dropped the suit against Apple.

Richard Clarke, former national security advisor, told NPR:

“[The FBI] is not as interested in solving the problem as they are in getting a legal precedent,” Clarke said. “Every expert I know believes the NSA could crack this phone. They want the precedent that government could compel a device manufacturer to let the government in.”

The FBI insisted at first that this case was not about setting precedent, and was rather to uncover terrorist leads in one singular instance. Department spokesperson Melanie Newman now claims.

"It remains a priority for the government to ensure that law enforcement can obtain crucial digital information to protect national security and public safety, either with cooperation from relevant parties, or through the court system when cooperation fails...We will continue to pursue all available options for this mission, including seeking the cooperation of manufacturers and relying upon the creativity of both the public and private sectors."

Many are concerned that the FBI refuses to reveal the method by which they broke into Syed Farook’s phone. Hackaday argues that, if a software glitch was found, Apple should be notified so that further operating systems can be protected from new avenues of criminal hacking.

Several other issues related to privacy in the U.S. have been on the forefront of both media coverage and legislative debate. For example, there is currently some debate over how and when video cameras worn by police officers should be released to the public. On the one hand, many insist, footage could invade the privacy of those in the videos. But, the LA Times counters, the converse could often be necessary to hold officers accountable for their actions.

The Intercept reported last week that top privacy watchdog David Medine, Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board chairman, will be entering retirement on July after a long tenure advocating for American privacy. It also provides thoughtful commentary on the proposal that “the NSA would soon be sharing with other government agencies the raw, unfiltered intelligence from the depths of its massive overseas spying programs.”

Ever since Edward Snowden blew the whistle on NSA operations, American citizens have been increasingly skeptical of government power to intercept confidential information from private citizens. Many are openly championing the right of citizens to keep their information private from Internet Service Providers. And on March 31st, “[T]he FCC voted …[to] require ISPs to get opt-in permission from customers if they want to use their personal information for most reasons besides marketing their own products.”

This is good news for privacy advocates. However, it has been suggested by one study that those most likely to be put under government surveillance are also less likely to openly criticize or question government action.

For now, abovethelaw.com recommends lawyers focus on cybersecurity, always backup information, use strict verification methods, incorporate password managers, look into encyption, and educate collegues and clients on security measures.

Gun regulation comes under close scrutiny whenever a mass shooting takes place on U.S. soil, especially in an election year. So what’s the current scope of this hot-button issue?

According to the NRA, 8 states in the U.S. have restricted right-to-carry laws, where each state has complete discretion over issuing or denying carry permits. 7 states allow citizens to conceal-carry without any permit. The rest* fall in-between, allowing for a conceal carry permit upon completion of certain requirements. (*The exceptions being Connecticut, which prohibits carry outside homes or businesses, and Puerto Rico, where local government retains some, but not total, discretion over granting permits to all law-abiding persons)

Many college campuses prohibit firearms. Recently, the Georgia Senate passed a bill that would make it legal (for those with appropriate permits) to conceal carry on campuses, except at athletic events, in dorms, and in Greek life houses. The bill (HB 859) would make Georgia the 9th state to allow college carry. The next could very well be Missouri, which, at the time of this writing, was hearing arguments in the House Emerging Issues Committee for two bills which would expand concealed carry privileges on campus. Many Missourians have expressed concern about this bill as the next in a long line of laws loosening restrictions on gun ownership, specifically because Missouri gun related deaths have increased over the past 10 years - including accidental deaths.

According to Ziming Xuan, assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, “gun-related research is limited in part because there is virtually no funding from the federal government to advance our understanding about the nature and mechanism of gun violence or to identify and evaluate effective prevention strategies.” Still, there are existing studies which allow us to reflect legislation and patterns.

John Donohue, who has been researching gun violence in the U.S. for 25 years, explains that one study shows in only .8% of nonfatal violence crimes (such as home burglary) did victims choose to defend themselves with a gun, even “in a country with 300 million guns in civilian hands.” He cites another showing that a home invader is “twice as likely to obtain the victim’s gun than to have the victim use a firearm in self-defense.”

Several studies have shown that risk of suicide is higher in homes with guns, whereas those with suicidal inclinations are less likely to commit the act if no gun is available. There is also a higher rate of gun suicide (but usually a lower rate of gun homicide) in rural areas of the country, according to U.S. News. This may factor into many politicians advocating for mental health services during gun-control conversations, although there are increasingly more voices in the social and psychological sciences reminding us that the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime.

collection of tables compiled by The Atlantic shows that the average of gun-related deaths is higher in states with “Stand Your Ground” laws, fewer background checks, and easily obtained concealed carry laws. However, some argue that certain gun laws actually increase death tolls. According to a study published in The Lancet, a British medical journal, “laws that restrict firearm access to children, including age restrictions, were shown to be ineffective” and “laws that appeared associated with higher gun deaths included limiting the number of guns people can buy, a three-day limit for a background-checks extension, locks on firearms and allowing police to inspect stores.”

In Washington state, suicide accounts for nearly 80% of firearm deaths. Hoping to cut down those numbers, the NRA has partnered with University of Washington professor Jenn Stuber to create Washington’s Suicide Awareness and Prevention Education for Safer Homes Act. The legislated “passed both houses with bi-partisan support” and would go into effect next year, if it passes budget negotiations. Some states, like Oklahoma, have introduced bills to remove restrictions on gun usage- such as HB 3098, which “allows any person to lawfully carry a firearm in this state when carried in a holster... and the person is twenty-one years of age or older” - even if you have a record of domestic abuse.

No major gun-control measures have been passed by Congress since the 1990’s, but it continues to be a hotly debated subject in politics. In January of 2016 President Barack Obama used executive orders to introduce new background check laws.

Anna Alaburda, top-tier graduate of Thomas Jefferson School of Law, is taking her alma mater to court. She hasn’t been able to find a job as a lawyer since she graduated in 2008, she claims, and she has upwards (and growing) of 150k in student loans. She is suing TJSL for “inflat[ing] the employment data for its graduates as a way to lure students to enroll,” a first of that nature in student-debt related lawsuits in the U.S.

With new stories like Alaburda’s appearing ever more frequently, we step back and ask, what is the current state of student loans and college debt in this country? And what does that mean looking ahead?

As reported by the department of education, interest rates for federal student loans start around 4.3% and can climb as high at 8-9% for graduate students. Many states, including Minnesota, are taking a look at state budgets to consider channeling more money into higher education.

According to the President of Washington College, tuition hikes as a result of increase loan availability means that “[The U.S. has] increased the costs of college. We have not increased access.” One North Carolina study published in the Washington Post found, “the average sticker price of college now eats up more than 40 percent of a family’s paycheck. In 2001, it accounted for less than a quarter.”

Individuals and families aren’t the only ones with big student debt problems. Nevada Public Radio finds that “The accumulated total of student loan debt in the United States has hit $1.3 trillion...the greatest amount of student debt in U.S. history.” Interestingly, students apparently in the most danger of default or unaffordable payments are not those with debt in the 100ks. Rather, it is those whose debt figures in the tens of thousands, often because those students received education for lower-paying jobs or dropped out of school and failed to graduate.

The Examiner also takes a look at the skyrocket figure of U.S. student loan debt, asserting, “What’s even more shocking is that this number makes up over 37 percent of the government’s total assets of $3.2 trillion...The number rose about 10 percent from 2014 and is expected to follow trend in 2016.

“Around 7 out of 10 of graduates from the class of 2015 left school with a diploma in one hand and a bag of educational debt in the other—with the average holding over $35,000. This made the class of 2015 the most indebted class in U.S. history.”

Many presidential candidates have proposed radical changes to the university system. But, whether the Republicans or Democrats take the White House in 2017, change appears to be on the horizon for what most consider to be an unsustainable student loan industry. A large number of colleges have such broad admission standards that nearly any high school graduate can gain admission, take on debt, and at a growing rate of 12%, drop out. This has led many to suggest that federal student loans, and college acceptance letters, should be reserved for those with higher GPAs and greater overall likelihood to stay in college.

One negative consequence of this debt crisis is a new kind of targeted scam which advertises, but does not provide, student loan relief or guidance, and then collects fees from unknowing clients. The Chicago Tribune reports that this type of scam broke into the top 10 scams in the state of Michigan for 2015 for the first time ever.

Federal efforts such as the William D. Ford Direct Loan program are on the rise to help students take advantage of delayed and reduced payments. Private organizations like CommonBond are also springing up as alternatives to borrowing federal money and to offer refinancing services for both students and parents.

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