November 2022 Peek at Pro Bono - Guidance for Bankruptcy Litigants

by David L. Price

Sometimes an emotional hug from a client (aka Kathy) who was pulling herself up by her own bootstraps is all the thanks you need when your pro bono services through Veterans Legal Institute (VLI) helped her keep her home and her hopes for a better life.

I joined the Marine Corps Reserves right out of high school and served eight years while going to college and law school. I was not called to active duty, but many others fought and were injured or died while serving in Vietnam. When I learned about VLI, I offered to help those who served in the armed forces but who were less fortunate than I. It may be that, with your help, no needy veteran would be without legal assistance!

In 2017, I volunteered to provide free family law services through VLI in Santa Ana (now Tustin). One of my first cases was for a divorced young woman with five years of service in the U.S. Army who had a fierce desire to succeed in life. She had joined the Army with only a high school education, got married, had two children, bought a home in the Inland Empire, then did her own divorce after her husband left and moved away.

With few prospects to be able to afford her home by herself, the home soon went into foreclosure. Kathy managed to take it out of foreclosure by moving out and renting it, then moved to Orange County to find employment and go to college. She was determined to hold onto her home. Although there was modest equity, it offered a future opportunity when the value increased for her to buy another home in a better area.

She enrolled in the first of three different community colleges while working two part-time jobs and receiving some financial help from the Veterans Administration. After a few years, one of her part-time jobs became semi-permanent with a promise of a substantial raise. This was a single mom with two kids and no great prospects, but who was determined to work hard, get an education, and move up in life.

Her renters sometimes didn’t pay their rent, so she had to take the home out of foreclosure several more times, and was even able to secure a loan reduction through a federal program. But her problems with the home weren’t over. Her ex-husband filed an action to require her to get his name off the loan so he could buy a home in Florida. The court ordered her to take reasonable steps to refinance the home. At that point, Kathy had not advanced far enough with her studies to qualify for a better paying job, so she was turned down each time she tried to refinance in her own name.

When her ex-husband filed a motion to require her to sell the home, VLI stepped in. Kathy was realistic about her chances to refinance, and needed a few more months to complete the education requirements for her prospective job. But there were no guarantees. So, we offered to sell the home if Kathy could not refinance within six months but her ex insisted on an immediate sale.

We filed a brief and prepared for the hearing. We were successful! The judge ruled Kathy had made reasonable efforts to refinance, and since there was no requirement in the divorce judgment that her husband’s name be taken off the loan, no sale was ordered. The hug that followed, accompanied by a few tears, was all the thanks I needed.

In another case, I spent a day trying a custody case for a father where the mother’s two teenage daughters had been arguing and it had become physical. The mother attacked the younger daughter with a pair of scissors, and although no one was injured, the mother was arrested and charged with a felony. Both daughters were put into temporary physical custody with the father by Child Protective Services.

A hearing was set for further orders for custody following the mother’s arrest, and we sought to have the family engage in a reunification process, including counseling and an extended temporary order for physical custody to the father. The mother insisted on a hearing unless she was granted custody of the oldest daughter and the father was granted custody of the youngest. Both daughters testified and the court ordered full physical and legal custody to the father and a no-contact order between the mother and the daughters for one year. This was not the result we had hoped for but at least the daughters were together with one parent, and safe.

Many current and former servicemembers face difficulties when leaving the military, including battling with the VA over compensation and pension claims, discharge upgrades, expungement of criminal convictions preventing them from gainful employment, and child custody, support, and other family law issues. Every attorney in Orange County should consider helping homeless and low-income veterans with their legal issues, even if it is just one case a year.

David L. Price is a family law mediator, private judge, special master, and referee. He is a past president of the OCBA and was named 2019 Volunteer Attorney of the Year by Veterans Legal Institute. He can be reached at dpmediator@gmail.com.

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