Last week we brought you advice on how to find free or low-cost resources for legal aid. This week we break down some of life’s most common and sticky legal situations, with resources to help solve them.
Living Will, Trust & Health Care Proxy
A will designates where your assets go when you pass away (and only then). A trust can divvy up your assets and property on the terms you create, even if you’re still alive. Wills and trusts each have their advantages: for example, a Will will allow you to name a guardian for children and to specify funeral arrangements, while a trust can be used to plan for disability or provide savings on taxes. With a trust you can appoint yourself as the trustee, or you can assign a successor trustee should you die or become incapacitated. And unlike with a will, a trust won’t require you to go through probate court (a process that can take 6 months to two years!) making it much easier to distribute your assets to your beneficiaries. It’s possible to have both a will and a trust, but if you transfer all your property into a living trust, your will probably won’t have to be used. To catch any property that wasn’t transferred, a“pour-over will” states any property in your name be transferred into your trust automatically.
But, don’t stop there. You also need to think about what would happen if you were incapable of making your own health care decisions, whether due to a debilitating sickness, coma, mental illness, etc. To assign someone to make these tough calls for you, a living will is a medical document that tells doctors and family what kind of care you want. To make sure these orders are followed, you need a Durable Power of Attorney for health care, and an Advance Directive. These two items instruct the doctors what to do and are legally binding.
You can find documents for a Living Will, Durable POA, Health Care Proxy, DNR Order & even Nomination of Guardian documents at a plethora of websites online — for free. For a living will or trust, you’ll just need signatures of you and your successor trustee, witnessed by a notary (or a few others, depending on your state). And don’t forget to plan for and provide for your pet after you’re gone with a Pet Trust as well!
Debt & Bankruptcy
Personal bankruptcy can excuse some kinds of debt when you get in over your head: credit card debt, medical bills and personal loans (though you will still be responsible for paying recent back taxes, student loans, and any child support or alimony). Compile all your financial paperwork proving you cannot repay your debt and in addition, you will need at least 180 days of credit counseling prior to filing. It’s strongly encouraged to find a legal representative to handle your case, however, some may qualify for free legal services, or a Chapter 7 fee waiver. Check out the US courts Bankruptcy Resources page to find out more.
Family Law, Divorce & Custody
Marriage, divorce, and custody issues can be complicated and sensitive for families. But if your divorce is amicable, you can file for free. Check out Rocket Lawyer’s page of Uncontested or No Fault divorce papers: You can also find Family law resources available at the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, an association with over 1,600 members in all 50 states.
Visit ImmigrationLawHelp.org to find organizations that provide free or low cost immigration legal help.
Real Estate Or Landlord Trouble
When you fall behind on your mortgage, don’t wait too long to find out what to do about it. Gust G. Sarris, a business attorney in Florida, says “I see at least one client every week who has waited too long…. If you wait until the foreclosure begins you most likely will lose your house! It does not get cheaper to ignore a summons, court date or official paper.” The first step is to educate yourself, which you can do for free on government sites or you can call the Federal Housing Administration at 1-800-CALL FHA.
When you rent, not paying on time will eventually get you evicted, no matter what the circumstances. If you want to withhold rent because the landlord hasn’t complied with the lease obligations (making repairs, turning on heat the heat in the building during the cold season, etc), don’t just “not pay it”. The right way to put pressure on your landlord is to escrow your rent with the local municipal court. That means you pay your rent to the court instead of to the landlord and the court holds it until the landlord fulfills their obligations. If the landlord makes promises upon move in (ie, trash collection, all utilities included, etc), make sure theses terms appear in writing – in the lease itself – or a court may not be able to enforce it. Check out do-it-yourself rental agreements, and Renters and Tenant’s rights here.
Employment & Retirement Benefits
Sometimes you need help in securing the employee or retirement benefits you have earned. The Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) enforces the law by informally resolving benefit disputes, conducting investigations, and seeking correction of violations of the law, including bringing lawsuits when necessary. Contact a benefits advisor by requesting local assistance or by calling 1.866.444.3272.
There is a trade association devoted to almost every industry. Most have legal staff that monitor the industry and specialize in that area of law. Your Small Business Development Center website will provide free legal information about planning, starting and managing a business. You can also find counseling, training and business development specialists providing free and low-cost services in your area. Finally, find basic legal advice on taxes, wages and finances through organizations such as the Freelancer’s Union .
No matter what the legal issue, know there’s lots of DIY resources available to you, your family, and your business that DON’T require en expensive lawyer.
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