June 2022 Peek at Pro Bono - Advocating for Veterans in Orange County

by Sheila-Marie Finkelstein

Access to justice remains a pressing issue for veterans. Veterans, especially those who have military related health/mental health difficulties, are disproportionately affected by homelessness, and/or are in the criminal justice system, and have a national average of twenty-two daily deaths by suicide. Too many veterans need pro bono legal assistance even to receive the benefits they have earned but are not aware of available legal resources. Consider this your call to action to serve the veterans who have served our country and who now need our help.

I was raised with a deep appreciation for our service members. I have two grandparents in the Air Force and two in the Navy. In fact, my grandmother, Evelyn Finkelstein, of blessed memory, was one of the first women in the military. She served as a court reporter in the NAVY WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), which was established on July 30, 1942, as the U.S. Navy’s corps of female members during World War II. My mother has served as a Registered Nurse with the Department of Veterans Affairs for over thirty years. I grew up volunteering with veterans, both formally (such as visiting geriatric patients, helping at local “Standdown” homeless veterans’ events, etc.) and informally (such as organizing “Kards for Kosovo” for my community service club in high school).

These strong women of valor and compassion shaped who I am. I wanted to join the military out of high school; my parents convinced me to attend college first. During law school, I clerked with the U.S. Air Force JAG Corps, where I first experienced the importance of proper estate planning, not just for those with money, but for everyone who loves someone. My experience with JAG, the veterans at the Long Beach Veterans Administration hospital, and as the spouse of a Navy veteran have impressed upon me the unique and often unmet needs of our veterans and service members. My professional and personal experiences have sculpted my knowledge and ability to navigate veterans affairs. When I entered the legal field in California, I knew our veterans were being underserved.

Due to my well-known passion for veterans as a young lawyer in 2014, Ashleigh Aitken (the 2015 OCBA President) and Dwight Stirling approached me to help establish and lead the Orange County Bar Association’s Veterans and Military Committee (VetCom) task force, which became an official OCBA committee in 2015. I have been privileged to continuously serve as the Chair or Vice-Chair of that committee since 2015. The mission of VetCom is to empower the legal community to serve those who serve our nation through education, engagement, and action.

It is essential to build the legal community’s military cultural competency, including the ability to spot important issues unique to veterans within their practice areas. Many professionals (attorneys, doctors, etc.) without military exposure are unapprised of the unique military cultural norms that can prevent them from effectively assisting their military clients or patients.

For example, in American society, everyone knows you have a right to remain silent and that anything you say can and will be used against you. However, in my experience, even though service members also have a right to remain silent and to representation, because of their necessarily deeply ingrained training, most will “sing like a canary” and waive representation upon initial questioning from a superior—usually to their own detriment. Similarly, in medical settings, they will delay seeking treatment and will downplay their pain and ailments for fear of appearing weak or unfit for duty. Also, many will not apply for their veterans’ benefits because their injuries are “not that bad” compared to their fellow service members, and they don’t want to “use up” the available services or “take away” from their comrades. Unfortunately, most funding for veterans’ affairs benefits and programs is directly related to the number of veterans enrolled. So, by not enrolling, these well-meaning veterans actually cause there to be less funding for resources to be available for all.

In the legal field, specifically, there are several laws specific to veterans and service members in all areas of practice, such as consumer protection, housing, family law, estate planning, and more. If attorneys are unaware of these laws in their respective practices, they could inadvertently mis­represent their client. For example, in family law, something that could be a slap on the wrist or “normal” legal issue for civilians could be career-ending for a service member, negatively impacting them and their family. Worse, it could be career-ending with “bad papers,” which would prevent the veteran from finding a job in the civilian world or accessing the veterans’ benefits they need and deserve, to the detriment of their entire family. Worst case scenario, it could be life-ending if the veteran becomes one of the “daily twenty-two” who die to suicide.

VetCom assists veterans across the board by providing a place for the legal community to coordinate, collaborate, and educate. As a part of VetCom, we created and maintain the resource webpage at http://veterans.ocbar.org/, and facilitate CLE programs to enhance the system of justice by supporting lawyers, enabling pro bono legal services, supporting the OC Veterans Treatment Court, staffing law school clinics, referring cases to private sector law firms, and training individual attorney volunteers to work synergistically for the benefit of our veterans. Without access to an experienced attorney who understands military issues, many veterans are not able to successfully navigate civilian society.

Through my work with VetCom, I met Antoinette Balta and became involved with Veterans Legal Institute (VLI). VLI provides pro bono legal assistance to homeless, at-risk, disabled, and low-income current and former service members to eradicate barriers to housing, healthcare, education, and employment, and to also foster self-sufficiency.

I joined VLI as a volunteer attorney helping with cases and mentoring young lawyers, some of whom were veterans and were older than I was. I was invited to join the board in 2016, and now serve as the Vice Chair. In 2017, I founded the monthly pro bono estate planning clinic with Vietnam veteran Scot Douglas. Through the clinic, we prepare comprehensive estate plans, including wills, living trusts, advanced health care directives, and powers of attorney for elderly and low-income veterans. While often difficult, proper end-of-life planning is critical to the emotional health of our clients, as well as the stability of their families. The demand for estate planning, specifically among Vietnam and Korea-era veterans, is a great unmet need in Southern California that the VLI seeks to address through direct in-house services, legal clinics, and its pro bono attorney network.

VLI also assists veterans and family members with completing forms for guardianships and conservatorships. We have veteran clients who have sought guardianships to legally provide and care for a family member’s child, and family members seeking a conservatorship over an aging veteran so that they can ensure the veteran’s physical and financial security. VLI supports these families and helps them provide for each other by giving them our assistance in navigating the court system. New in 2022, we now also assist with basic probate administration.

Through VLI, we serve 100+ clients annually with estate planning and probate matters (VLI handles 1000+ matters annually, but I focus on my area of specialty). This translates to over 1000 hours and more than $300,000 annual worth of pro bono services.

Not only have we provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in necessary services for free, but we also have saved veterans thousands of hours in court and millions of dollars in fees by avoiding conservatorship and probate. In California, probate takes an average of two years to complete, and the fees are set by the Probate Code based on the gross value of the estate (not the net). So even if the only asset is a home with no net value due to a mortgage, the estate will still be responsible for the probate fees. Here is a probate calculator for reference: https://ahavalaw.com/probate-calculator/.

By example, according to the Los Angeles Almanac, the average home value in Orange County is $1,195,000, for which the probate attorney and executor’s fees are an estimated $49,900 plus costs! Often families are forced to sell or foreclose the property instead of being able to pass them to their families because of these costs. This means that not only did we provide over $300,000 in pro bono services, but we also have prevented over $5 million in potential probate fees. We also have prevented the costs of conservatorship, which are not as easily estimated, but have been compared to a “living probate” for every year the conservatee is conserved.

Due to my extensive volunteer endeavors as a new attorney at a private firm, I frequently received feedback that I was doing too much pro bono work rather than meeting my billable hours requirements. To be able to continue extensive service to our community, I founded AHAVA Law, P.C. AHAVA is Hebrew for love. People create estate plans because they love someone (and sometimes because they don’t love someone). In addition to my involvement with VetCom and VLI, AVAVA allows me to provide complimentary community outreach and educational services to community organizations, such as rotary clubs, synagogues, community centers, and schools. I am deeply honored to have been recognized as the Lawyers for Warriors 2021 Veterans Advocate of the Year. This means the world to me because it validates my choice to pursue my passion for service instead of a higher paycheck. I dedicated this honor to my grandmother and mother in appreciation for their trailblazing service to our country and for setting quality examples of servant leadership.

I encourage you to use your legal skills to become a champion and advocate for our veteran community in Orange County and beyond. You can answer this calling by volunteering your talents, time, and treasure with OCBA’s Veterans and Military Committee and the Veterans Legal Institute.

Please encourage all veterans you know to apply for their complimentary comprehensive estate plan through VLI. The monthly estate clinic currently meets via Zoom. Applications must be received one week prior to the clinic date or they will be scheduled for the following date. The upcoming clinics are scheduled for June 9, August 11, and September 8. A few hours of your time could very well change someone’s life.

Sheila-Marie Finkelstein, Esq., LLM (Tax), MEd is the Principal of AHAVA Law, P.C., a Board-Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trusts, and Probate Law, by the California Board of Legal Specialization, and a VA Accredited Attorney. She is married to a Navy Veteran of whom Grandma Ev greatly approved. For more information on veterans and pro bono, please read her other OC Lawyer and ABA GPSolo articles available at ahavalaw.com/sheila-marie-finkelstein/. She can be reached at smf@ahavalaw.com.

Peek at Pro Bono is an occasional column that offers insight into meaningful pro bono work being done by an Orange County lawyer.