Earlier this week, a 74-year-old woman visited the offices of Public Counsel, the public-interest law office of the Beverly Hills and Los Angeles County bar associations.
She had a simple enough legal problem. Her second husband had died and she wanted to take his name off the deed on the home they owned together. She had originally owned the house with her first husband and had added her second husband's name to the deed when they were married a few years ago.
She tried to find and file the correct forms herself, but the bureaucrats bounced the forms back because they were not completed correctly.
She wanted a lawyer to help her, but she didn't have much income and had few assets other than her house.
So she called Elderline, the new legal referral service for the elderly sponsored by four Los Angeles bar groups.
Because of her financial situation, she was referred to Public Counsel, one of the sponsors of the service, which provides legal assistance free of charge to qualified clients. There, a volunteer lawyer will "help her get through the maze of legalities and help her straighten things out," according to Ann Haskins, Public Counsel's associate director.
Elderline, which has only been in service for a few months, "was established to help people age 60 and over find legal assistance without being sent from agency to agency," Haskins says.
The service does not provide free legal assistance to anyone who calls. It is a referral service geared exclusively to senior citizens. It tries to connect senior citizens' legal needs, and their ability to pay, with the right lawyers.
Fits Your Wallet
You may not be referred to a free lawyer, but the hope is that you will find one that "fits" with your problem and your wallet.
It is a "one-stop legal referral service," Haskins says. Elderline calls are answered by a bilingual counselor at the Lawyer Referral and Information Service of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., another one of the sponsors.
Senior citizens grew up at a time when lawyers were not as common as they are now. Hiring a lawyer must seem like a foreign act for a solid, self-reliant 65-year-old. Many elderly folk may not know when a lawyer can help them, and most will probably assume they'll be too expensive.
A lawyer may be able to help a senior citizen combat all kinds of legal problems, from the routine--faulty auto repairs, bothersome door-to-door salesmen or writing a simple will--to the catastrophic--missing Social Security benefits, eviction or home foreclosure.
Elderline is the first step to overcome the natural anxiety a senior citizen might feel about contacting a lawyer. The counselor who answers the call will determine if a lawyer is needed at all. Many callers are referred to the appropriate consumer or government agency.
Callers are screened to determine where they live, their income and financial assets and the nature of their legal problem.
Then, "depending upon their problem and their pocketbook," Haskins says, they may be referred to one of several places: Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (another sponsor), Public Counsel, Bet Tzedek Legal Services or a lawyer from a panel of referral lawyers. (Depending upon financial eligibility, some clients will be referred to lawyers from a "modest means" program who have agreed to charge reduced rates.)
The Elderline service should be especially helpful for those senior citizens with limited mobility--those who don't have cars, have trouble with busy freeways or are confined to nursing homes.
And just because you've been referred by this service does not mean you should accept the legal advice without question. You should be a demanding, conscientious client. Whatever your age, and whether you are receiving free legal services, paying a reduced fee or paying full fare, you have a right to understand your legal rights and risks fully.
The Elderline telephone number is (213) 622-3809.
A brochure on Elderline is available free of charge. Send a legal-size, stamped, self-addressed envelope to: Public Counsel, 3535 West 6th St., Suite 100, Los Angeles, Calif. 90020. Do not send your requests to me.
Speaking of senior citizens, the State Bar of California also publishes a 111-page Senior Citizens Handbook, a summary of the laws and programs affecting older Californians. To order, send a check to the State Bar, Attention: Ron Abernathy, 555 Franklin St., San Francisco, Calif. 94102. The price is $3 for senior citizens, $5 for agencies and organizations.
Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, The Times' senior staff counsel, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal View, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.