Serving in the military shouldn’t make you more likely to need legal advice, but in these litigious, complicated times, military service can’t isolate you from conflicts that require legal advice. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available for veterans, both from the government and from attorneys committed to pro bono work for veterans. It is possible to find free or discounted legal help, but it helps to have a road map to guide you.
Whether you are active duty or a veteran, a good place to start is the U.S. Armed Forces Legal Assistance Office.
VA and Veterans Legal Assistance
The U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs has long held free legal clinics at VA facilities around the country. That practice was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. At this time, various legal partners of the VA hold similar events, either virtually or in person, at non-VA sites.
There are as many resources available as there are specialties among lawyers. The VA site is a good place to start a general search. For specific legal needs, you can try a more specific approach.
The American Bar Association (ABA) offers a wide variety of services.
- State Side Legal promises to “empower (veterans) to enforce all their rights.”
- VetLex describes itself as “lawyers serving veterans to keep the promise of a nation.” It allows veterans to contact lawyers, and allows lawyers to contact veterans.
- Military Pro Bono Resources can be found at this American Bar Association site. Help is available for veterans and active military.
- ABA Federal Free Legal Answers may provide information that allows you to proceed without contacting a lawyer.
- The Veterans Consortium offers pro bono legal advice to veterans. The Consortium is operated by a group of organizations, including the American Legion and Paralyzed Veterans of America.
- National Veterans Legal Services Programs (NVLSP) provide pro bono legal advice for veterans with an emphasis on issues regarding disability.
Free Legal Assistance Services for Veterans
“Free” is a tricky word. Sometimes it means without cost. Other times, it is used to describe goods or services that are discounted but still come with some costs. In the case of legal advice, it is common for a lawyer to work for a client for “free” but then take fees if a case is successful. It is important to make sure you and your attorney are using “free” the same way. It is worth noting that “pro bono” generally means totally free. So go with the Latin when possible.
Powers of Attorney
Even when you move your family and your possessions overseas, some parts of your life remain at home. Powers of attorney allow another person to act on your behalf in matters legal and practical: banking, for example, or taking care of decisions and actions that must be made while you are gone. An attorney can help you select a family member or friend to assume powers of attorney, define which powers they do and do not assume, and help direct those decisions and actions.
Lease and Rental Contract Reviews
A lawyer can be helpful when anyone signs a lease or rental contract, whether for an apartment or other dwelling. But a service member can benefit in particular ways. A lawyer can make sure the terms of the lease or contract are acceptable but also can ensure that the documents include the right military rental protection clauses for your state. And if you are looking for a rental property before deploying to a new post, a lawyer can represent your interests in person.
An attorney can help service members prepare a military living will, which is always a good idea. So is a living will, which allows you to make decisions about what kinds of medical treatment or life-sustaining measures you want, or don’t want, if you are injured or seriously ill. Making and documenting those wishes assures that your choices will be respected and frees your loved ones from making such difficult choices during a trying time.
You may not have a mansion, but you do have an estate, which consists of all the worldly possessions you leave behind when you die. An attorney can help draft a will that is legally binding, and which will make sure your property, belongings and assets are distributed according to your wishes. An attorney can make sure your beneficiaries are properly designated. Also, an attorney can help put together a plan in case you become mentally or physically disabled.
Family Care Planning
Legal advice can help you plan to care for your family while you’re deployed. Such a plan is required for single parents, dual-military couples with children, or military members who care for an elderly or disabled family member. An attorney can help you put a plan in place. A legal assistance office also can review and offer advice on family care plans.
Many attorneys are qualified notaries or have a notary in their office. They can provide services such as administering oaths, witnessing signatures or taking sworn statements, affidavits or acknowledgements.
Military personnel are subject to the same consumer problems as everyone else but have to manage those problems while serving, sometimes overseas. Credit problems, becoming a victim of scams or identity theft or other consumer disputes can take a lot of time to resolve. An attorney may help you communicate and negotiate with collection agents, lawyers or other parties.
Nothing is certain except death and taxes, as the saying goes, and that is as true for service members as for everyone else, again with the additional burden of meeting tax deadlines while deployed or assigned to a difficult station. Many legal assistance offices provide income tax return services when filing federal, state and local taxes.
Legal assistance is available for a wide range of issues, from marriage, separation and divorce, to adoption, child support, child custody, alimony, property division, name changes, paternity questions or legal benefits. Assistance is available to service members and their partners under the Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act.
Civil lawsuits brought by private citizens do not have the possible consequences of criminal charges, but they can have serious legal or personal impact. In limited cases, the legal assistance office or a lawyer working with the VA directly or independently can help with the preparation of legal correspondence, documents and pleadings.
Service Member Rights and Responsibility
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act is a comprehensive bill last modified in 2003 but with roots as far back as the Civil War. The SCRA protects service members and recent veterans from being sued or forced into bankruptcy. An attorney or your branch’s legal assistance office can help you understand the specific protections and rights guaranteed by the law. It is a good idea to educate yourself about those protections and rights before you need them.
Immigration and Naturalization
A lawyer or legal assistance office can help service members and veterans navigate the complicated world of immigration law. The member or family member may require help with citizenship and naturalization matters, including alien registration, re-entry permits, passports, naturalization of a surviving spouse and citizenship of military children who born abroad.
VA benefits are available to veterans, but sometimes it takes knowledge and effort to obtain your benefits. Lawyers who specialize in VA benefits, especially disability-related benefits, can help navigate the process to receive benefits, including benefits owed due to a veteran’s changed condition.
Benefits for disabled veterans are approved or denied after an evaluation by the VA. That process is not perfect, and denials can be challenged with the help of a lawyer. There are lawyers who specialize in military disability benefits.
Limitations on Free Legal Services
Military legal assistance offices are great resources, but there are areas that those offices are prohibited from working on. They include:
- Providing legal advice to third parties or opposing parties on the same issue
- Claims against the government
- Serious criminal matters (service members may be entitled to free representation from the military defense counsel)
- Citations for driving under the influence (see above)
- Legal matters concerning your privately owned business
- In-court representation
Other attorneys, including those who work pro bono independently or in collaboration with the VA, may have different policies on what areas they will work on. It is advisable to check all avenues for assistance when needed.
About The Author
Phil Sheridan writes about military benefits for Military Money. Phil spent over 30 years learning about labor negotiations, salary caps, stadium negotiations and a lot of other finance-related matters as a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and ESPN.
- N.A. (2021, Oct. 20) 12 Situations Where You Can Get Free Legal Help. Retrieved from https://www.militaryonesource.mil/financial-legal/legal/other-legal-issues/12-situations-where-you-can-get-free-legal-help/
- Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. Retrieved from https://scra.dmdc.osd.mil/scra/#/home
- N.A. (2019, March 19) Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act. Retrieved from https://www.dfas.mil/Garnishment/usfspa/legal/