If you need help with estate planning, probate, conservatorship, guardianship, long-term care, Medicaid, or Social Security, but cannot afford to hire a lawyer, you may be able to receive basic legal information or limited legal assistance through a legal aid office, law clinic or free seminar in your area.
What Services Are Available From Legal Aid?
Legal aid organizations provide legal representation and information to individuals that could not otherwise afford an attorney or access to the court system. Some legal aid organizations offer assistance with drafting wills, health care power of attorney forms, DNR orders, and living wills, as well as matters involving guardianship of a minor child, conservatorship of a senior, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, nursing home abuse, and other elder law matters.
While some legal aid organizations are able to offer assistance on a wide range of legal issues, others only provide a very limited scope of services. This is because legal aid organizations are usually non-profit entities that can only provide services based upon the funding they receive. So while many legal aid offices help low-income individuals with estate planning, probate, and elder law matters, others must limit their services to immediate basic needs such as housing, medical care, public benefits, domestic violence, and child custody. If the legal aid office in your area does not provide the services you need, ask for a referral to another organization or attorney.
When You Need to Hire an Attorney
It is important to recognize there are certain types of legal matters for which you must hire an attorney. Services from legal aid, law clinics, and pro bono programs are limited in scope. Volunteer and legal aid attorneys may provide general information but are usually not specialized in complex areas of estate planning such as estate tax strategies, living trusts, financial planning, will and trust disputes, and long-term care. They are also unable to devote the amount of time required to probate an estate or litigate a case against a nursing home for elder abuse. If you need to create a pet trust to provide for the care of your animals, a legal aid attorney is unlikely to assist you with this type of estate planning. If you have a small estate and want to make a basic will or have a few questions about how to complete your state’s living will or agent for health care forms, a consultation with a pro bono or legal aid attorney may be sufficient. However, do not expect to complete an estate plan for a large or complicated estate using legal aid or attending a senior law clinic.
What are the Eligibility Requirements for Legal Aid?
Legal aid services are available to individuals with low to moderate incomes. To qualify for legal aid services, you generally must have an annual income below a specified amount, such as not exceeding 125% of the federal poverty level. There are some exceptions to the income limits for legal aid. Contact your local legal aid office for information about the income limits to qualify for legal services.
Tips for Meeting With a Legal Aid or Pro Bono Attorney
If you meet with a legal aid or pro bono attorney or attend a free legal seminar regarding estate planning, the time you are allotted to meet with an attorney is usually very limited. Many legal clinics provide only a 20-minute consultation with an attorney. It is essential you know in advance what you want to accomplish at the meeting.
Before attending a law clinic or meeting with a legal aid attorney, make a list of questions regarding your estate plan or other legal concerns. Prioritize your questions in order of importance. If you will be bringing any documents to the meeting, such as an outdated will or a health care directive form, keep them in a file and have them organized. Take a pen and notebook so you can write down any instructions or important legal advice. Be on time and prepared so you can obtain the most benefit from the free services available.
Free Legal Help From Law Clinics and Seminars
Most law schools operate legal clinics that allow law students to gain experience by providing free legal services in a limited range of practice areas. Volunteer attorneys in private practice also sometimes participate in free legal seminars for the community. Legal clinics and free legal seminars provide general legal information and brief legal advice. Often these law clinics and free seminars focus on elder law or issues facing seniors.
A volunteer attorney at a free seminar usually will not represent you or take your case to court. Instead, they can provide an overview of the legal issues you are facing and let you know whether you need to hire an attorney or can handle the matter on your own. If a law student or attorney from a legal clinic does agree to represent you or take your case to court, find out the amount of experience they have handling matters similar to your own before deciding to have them represent you.
If you are interested in obtaining legal information or services from a law clinic or seminar, contact the law schools in your area. Watch your newspaper and search the Internet for events, seminars or clinics offered by volunteer attorneys in your area.
State and County Bar Association Referral Programs
Many state and county bar associations operate referral programs for individuals of modest means that cannot afford to pay standard attorneys fees but do not qualify for legal aid because of income eligibility requirements. These referral programs refer people to attorneys that agree to perform legal services at a reduced hourly rate.
Legal Services Available From Pro Bono Lawyers
Pro bono lawyers provide free legal services to low income individuals. Pro bono legal services projects provide free estate planning services, such as help with wills and advance medical directives or living wills, primarily to seniors and persons that are disabled or have a terminal illness. Contact your state or county bar association for information on pro bono legal services projects in your area.