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A series of changes in tax law are in effect this year, but may be relatively little-known -- at least compared to last year, when the only certainty was uncertainty.

Around this time last year, Congress was set to let estate tax exemption rates of $5.12 million per person, or $10.24 million per married couple, expire to pre-2010 rate of $1 million, or $2 million per couple.  That caused a significant demand for estate law and tax experts, who dealt with a flurry of activity leading into the new year.

[caption id="attachment_79845" align="alignright" width="162"] Nick Donovan[/caption]

While the changes this year are perhaps less dire, they should nevertheless be taken into consideration, said Nick Donovan, a partner with Napa law firm Gaw Van Male.

For example, the capital-gains tax rate is increasing from 15 percent to 20 percent for people making more than $250,000. Additionally, a new Medicare tax of 3.8 percent will take effect for net investment annual income above $200,000 for single tax payers and $250,000 for couples

Despite the seemingly annual changes in tax law, Mr. Donovan said careful, long-term planning could lead to less heartburn over shifting tax laws.

"The hard thing is that you never know what's going to happen, like last year," Mr. Donovan said, referring to the exemption rates, which largely stayed the same.  "The question is how can we plan around those variables?"***

Santa Rosa law firm O'Brien Watters & Davis recently announced that State Sen. Noreen Evans, who recently announced she would not seek another term, would return to the law firm as of counsel upon leaving the Senate.

Ms. Evans, by training a civil litigation attorney, previously served as the firm's first associate back in 1982. She also worked for the former Santa Rosa law firm Lanahan & Reilley before embarking on a political career in 1996, first at the Santa Rosa City Council.

In her first stint with O'Brien Watters &  Davis, Ms. Evans started as a civil litigator and eventually became the firm's first "home-grown" partner. She will focus on appellate work in her new role, according to the law firm.

In 2010, she received the Scales of Justice award from California Judges Association, and in 2011 she received the Defender of Justice award from the Judicial Council, and was the first woman to ever receive the Defender of Justice award, according to the law firm.***

Starting this month, The Marin County Bar Association's newsletter got a digital makeover. The Marin Lawyer is now being emailed,  as the association studies new formats for delivery. 

Readers of the letter can still opt for a printed and mailed copy, but the Bar Association said it is adapting the letter for computer, iPad, iPhone and other portable electronic devices, as part of a "21st Century makeover." The digital shift will save Bar Association members over $20,000 a year in printing and postage costs.

The association said it is in the process of conceiving a new format for the letter, which consists of legal articles and announcements written by member attorneys.  They hope to make articles more visible online and more visible in online search engines. It also hopes to enhance user interactivity for readers and members, such as posting comments, joining discussing or saving and forwarding individual articles.

The Bar Association also hopes the new digital format will be a boon for advertisers and sponsors, who will be able to design their own ads, offering more than the previously available two-dimensional quarter and half-page ads.***

Farella Braun + Martel, a law firm with offices in San Francisco and St. Helena, recently represented Clos Pegase Winery, Inc., and sole shareholder Jan Shrem in its sale to Vintage Wine Estates.

The transaction includes the winery and surrounding land at Clos Pegase, near Calistoga, as well as vineyard land at nearby Los Carneros vineyards. Santa Rosa-based Vintage Wines has a collection of brands, including Girard Napa Valley, Windsor Sonoma Winery, Cartlidge & Browne and Cosentino Winery.

The Farella team was led by Partner Frank Farella and included Partners Karen Yuen and Said Kordestani. ***

[caption id="attachment_79846" align="alignleft" width="163"] Dave Jones[/caption]

California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones recently approved Covered California's application for an insurance business entity license, as the online health benefits exchange that was established under the new federal health care law, or Obamacare, gets ready for enrollment season.

The license approval will allow licensed health insurance agents to affiliate with Covered California and sell health insurance offered on California's new health insurance exchange.

Full implementation of healthcare reform has been a priority for the Department of Insurance, according to Commissioner Jones.  The license approval for Covered California also provides "a more efficient way" for licensed agents to help consumers and businesses purchase health insurance through the exchange, by allowing the agents to affiliate with the exchange versus obtaining appointments from each carrier selling health insurance products through the exchange, according to the department.

Additionally, the department said it fast-tracked its approval of Covered California as an education training provider, thus ensuring that insurance agents completing Covered California's training receive continuing education credit. Continuing education is a requirement that all licensed agents must meet, in order to make sure they are up to date on the latest consumer protections and other insurance regulations. The Department will also monitor and review the training and training curriculum used by Covered California....

Submit items for this column to Business Journal Staff Writer Dan Verel, dverel@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257.