Legal Aid & Divorce
By Beverly Bird
Divorce has the reputation for being messy, costly, time-consuming litigation, and sometimes that is unavoidable. You’re often fighting for the things that are most precious to you, like your children. Not everyone has the income to fund such a battle, however. Thanks to a variety of resources, low-cost and no-cost legal aid is available in most states, but you must usually qualify for it.
Legal aid services focus their efforts on legal problems that can happen to anyone, such as divorce, and they generally restrict their services to clients who wouldn’t be able to get help in any other way. Depending on local economic conditions, however, many people may require help, which can result in long waiting lists for legal assistance. Because of limited resources, some legal aid services take only certain cases, such as those involving domestic violence or other emergency situations. The attorneys on staff must meet the same educational requirements and pass the same bar exams as attorneys in private practice.
Funding for legal aid services varies widely from state to state. The attorneys and staff receive pay, although they rarely receive top dollar, as they might if they worked in the private sector. State and local bar associations generally provide funding for salaries, as well as other costs of operation, with the help of government assistance and private donations and grants.
Free divorce services are almost invariably limited to clients who earn 125 percent of the federal poverty level. This is adjusted by the size of your household. For example, if you are supporting two children, you must earn less than $23,163 per year as of May 2011 to be eligible for free divorce help. If you have more children, you can earn somewhat more, and the threshold in Hawaii and Alaska is somewhat higher as well. Some states offer a sliding scale of reduced rates for those who earn more than this limit. Many waive these income barriers for members of the military, the elderly. the disabled and domestic violence victims. Individual states and counties set these rules, so if you think you might qualify, the best thing you can do is call legal aid in your area and inquire.
If you don’t qualify for legal aid, you might have other options. Many legal aid services provide “do-it-yourself” clinics to help you handle your own case. Some states have pro bono directories, where private practice attorneys register to take on a few cases per year free of charge. These lawyers generally don’t have income requirements for helping people, but because they only handle a small portion of divorces this way, you’re more likely to have success if your particular circumstance pulls at an attorney’s heartstrings and makes him want to get involved. You can also call individual attorneys to try to find one who might be willing to work with you regarding his fees. The American Bar Association recommends that all attorneys do some pro bono work every year. Some law schools also offer free or low-cost assistance in association with their local courts.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.