Legal Resources available for Military Families

With the United States currently fighting two wars in the Middle East, most members of all service branches, both active duty and reservists, have faced a deployment.  During their deployments, the legal affairs our nations defenders do not simply vanish until they return.  Fortunately, several options for legal assistance are available for both the veterans and their families before, during, and after an overseas deployment.

The military provides free legal assistance for many common legal issues that service members face.  The Judge Advocates General (JAG) consists of lawyers who have joined the military, and serve the members of their chosen branch.  While movies and television have focused on the JAG officers’ duties in criminal trials, they more often provide legal counsel in such common issues as the drafting of wills.  In this capacity, the JAG officers provide legal services for service members, their dependants, and retirees.

JAG officers assist troops in many common legal tasks, including the drafting of wills, living wills, and powers of attorney that troops should have in place before deployment.  Most units will ensure that their members attend counseling as part of the unit’s preparations for deployment.  However, the services offered by the JAG officers extend beyond these common preparations.

All JAG officers must graduate from an American Bar Association accredited laws school.  JAG officers must also pass the bar exam in at least one state or territory of the United States.  JAG officers also undergo additional training while in the military before assuming their duties.  Since JAG officers must remain in good standing with the bar association of the state in which they received their license, they must also follow the rules of professional conduct of that state.  All dealings with a JAG officer have the same level of privilege that a service member would receive from a civilian attorney.

JAG officers who work in legal assistance offices can normally review contracts and leases for service members.  They also offer advice on numerous topics, such as tax advice and financial planning advice.  Also, the legal assistance offices will provide advice on family law issues ranging from divorce to adoption.  Most now offer advice for naturalization and obtaining citizenship.  For reservists and National Guard members, the services only remain available during periods of active duty, or during preparations to mobilize for active duty.

Each branch of the military has its own regulations that govern the limits of the legal assistance given by JAG officers.  To know the extent of the legal assistance available to a member of a specific branch, he or she should contact a legal assistance office.  Nearly every military installation, including bases, ships, and overseas installations, has a legal assistance office.   The military makes locating nearby legal assistance programs fairly easy with a listing made available on the internet

Some services now offer the Expanded Legal Assistance Program (ELAP) to its members.  The ELAP program will allow a legal assistance JAG officer to represent a service member in court under some circumstances.  The representation under ELAP is free to the service member, but he or she must still pay any fees and costs of the case.  Unfortunately, the program has limited resources, and makes representation available only to those who could not otherwise afford an attorney.  Also, the ELAP program usually only handles cases that have a wider impact than the effects on the litigants, such as in consumer scams.

If a service member or their family members face a legal dilemma that falls outside of the scope of the JAG officer’s duties, he or she will refer them to a civilian lawyer.  Some additional resources outside of the military also provide free legal assistance, although availability often depends on resources.  The American Bar Association sponsors a military pro bono program that matches attorneys with military members and their families to deal with cases outside of the JAG Corps’ ability to offer representation. 

If a service member or their family needs legal assistance, the bar association of their state would provide the best resources for finding free or discounted legal assistance.  If a JAG officer cannot give a referral to the ABA Pro Bono Project, the state bar association would most likely have the contact information for attorneys participating in the program who have licenses in that state.  Also, some law schools have established clinics for assisting military members and their families, such as Marquette University in Wisconsin and North Carolina Central University.  These programs may have expanded service bases, and may offer assistance not only to service members and their families, but also to veterans.  Information about such statewide or local programs can be found through the state bar associations, and contacts for each state’s bar association can now be found on the internet.

Unfortunately, the lives of the people who defend America’s freedoms (and their families) often face more legal challenges than most civilians.  The very act of defending the United States often creates unforeseen legal issues that a civilian would never have to face.  Yet, fortunately, both the military and civilian resources offer assistance for our troops and their dependents, and today, finding these resources can be quite easy if troops only take a cursory search for them.