Whether you need to create a will, obtain notary services or have a rental agreement reviewed, you and your family can access free legal services and attorney advice through your legal assistance office. Although the Legal Assistance Program focuses on helping service members get their legal affairs in order before they deploy or mobilize, the legal assistance office also serves as a source of legal information on a variety of issues, such as wills and estate planning, family and domestic matters (separation, divorce, child support, child-custody, etc.), citizenship and immigration, taxes, consumer and economic matters, military rights and benefits, landlord-tenant issues and powers of attorney.
Legal assistance services
Each service branch has specific regulations explaining the legal services they provide. Specific services may vary by installation based on available resources and expertise of the legal assistance attorneys. Generally, however, the issues your legal assistance office may be able to help you with include the following:
- Drafting powers of attorney - A power of attorney legally allows one person to act on behalf of another. For example, if you need to give someone permission to release your household goods shipment because you're leaving before your furniture ships, your legal assistance attorney can help you appoint someone to do this. You may have a "general" power of attorney drafted, which authorizes a person to act on your behalf in most of your affairs, or you may choose a "special" power of attorney, which authorizes a person to act on your behalf only during specific situations such as obtaining emergency medical care for your children or registering your car.
- Drafting wills - A will is a legally binding document describing how you want your property distributed after your death. It may also include other matters such as the appointment of your child's guardian. The legal assistance attorney generally can draft a will to fit your particular desires and needs. If an attorney determines that he or she can't provide adequate advice or assistance regarding your property (or estate), then the attorney will help you find a civilian attorney. A legal assistance attorney may also be able to help you draft a "living will," which addresses the use of extraordinary life-sustaining measures if you become seriously ill or injured.
- Estate-planning advice - Estate planning is an ongoing process that may include more than just preparing a will. Legal assistance providers can help you design a plan that not only provides for transfer of your property on death, but also considers authorized benefits, the adequacy and flexibility of your life insurance, the need for retirement income and what to do in the case of mental or physical disability. Effective estate planning may also include preparing a power of attorney or designating organ donation. Highly complex plans may also address trusts and other property-transfer instruments.
- Advice on family law matters - Your legal assistance office can also help if you need advice on adoption, child support, marriage, divorce, separation, child custody, alimony, property division, name change, paternity or legal benefits under the Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act.
- Review of landlord-tenant contracts and leases - If you plan to enter into a lease or other contract, schedule a consultation and review of the document at your legal assistance office. Some state laws may offer specific protections for service members
- Notary services - Notary services are also available through legal assistance offices for things such as administration of oaths, witnessing authenticity of signatures, taking of acknowledgments, sworn statements and affidavits, and certification of true copies.
- Consumer advice - Unmanaged debt can cause serious problems and may have career implications for military members. If you're having credit problems, legal assistance attorneys may be able to help with communication, correspondence and negotiation with collection agencies, lawyers or other parties. Federal and state laws provide many protections for consumers regarding purchases, credit reporting and creditor collections. Meet with an attorney if you need help with any kind of consumer issue. Be sure to bring all relevant documents, including letters, contracts, and your credit report, with you to your appointment. Your legal assistance attorney can also help if you believe you are a victim of a scam or otherwise have a dispute over a consumer issue or service.
- Tax assistance - Many legal assistance offices operate tax centers or provide income tax return preparation assistance during tax season to help with federal, state or local tax issues.
- Immigration and naturalization information - Immigration and naturalization issues can be particularly important to service members. If they have served honorably in the U.S. armed forces, but do not have U.S. citizenship, they can become citizens without satisfying the usual residence, physical presence and waiting-period requirements. Legal assistance personnel can provide assistance and referrals on issues including immigration, citizenship and naturalization matters such as alien registration, re-entry permits, passports, naturalization of a surviving spouse and citizenship of children born abroad to U.S. military parents.
- Civil suits - Legal assistance attorney can help, in limited cases, with the preparation of legal correspondence, documents and pleadings.
- Service member rights and responsibilities - The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act provides certain protections for service members. Legal assistance attorneys can explain these protections as well as service member responsibilities under the act.
- Misdemeanor criminal matters or traffic offenses - A legal assistance office may provide general advice on these matters.
Issues not covered by legal assistance
There are a number of issues that legal assistance offices cannot help with, including:
- Providing legal advice to third parties or opposing parties on the same issue
- Claims against the government
- Serious criminal matters
- Citations for driving under the influence
- Military administrative issues or justice proceedings such as courts-martial, fitness report rebuttals or Article 138 complaints (varies somewhat by service)
- Legal matters concerning your privately-owned business
- In-court representation (although legal assistance attorneys generally do not represent clients in court, some service branches do offer the Expanded Legal Assistance Program, which allows for in-court representation in limited cases. This service is usually only provided to active-duty service members and their families who could otherwise not afford legal representation. Even when the service member is deemed eligible for ELAP, in-court representation is not guaranteed due to limitations on the legal assistance attorneys' time and program resources.)