Military personnel who are deploying, currently serving or who have just returned often face a plethora of civilian legal issues they must navigate.
In 2007, Thomas M. Cooley Law School recognized the common legal challenges military service members face and developed its Service to Soldiers: Legal Assistance Referral Program. The statewide program provides pro bono legal assistance to service members of E5 rank or below who are deploying, currently deployed or who have returned from deployment in the last six months.
Heather Spielmaker, director of Cooley Law School’s Center for Ethics, Service and Professionalism, said that the biggest legal issues for which service members seek assistance are in the areas of family law, creditor/debtor law and wills and powers of attorney.
“The most common, of course, is family law issues,” she said. “A good example would be a service member leaves for a seven- or 12-month deployment, and when they return, the marriage has dissolved and they need assistance with divorce.”
She noted that creditor/debtor legal issues began to increase in 2011 and have become prominent.
“There are two federal acts that apply to deployed service members. One is called the Service Members Civil Relief Act, and the other is called the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.”
She said that these acts allow for service members to receive a reduced interest rate on their credit cards while they are deployed and can withdraw from car leases or housing leases due to deployment. Attorneys often are asked to assist in cases where these acts are not being upheld.
Finally, many deploying troops seek help with wills and powers of attorney.
Spielmaker noted that attorneys have assisted with more than 4,500 wills and powers of attorney for deploying troops.
Initially, the program worked exclusively with soldiers from a Marine reserve unit in Michigan, but it quickly expanded as more and more requests for assistance came from the Michigan National Guard.
“By 2013, we have placed more than 600 cases,” Spielmaker said. “We have more than 200 attorneys across the state who are willing to do pro bono work on behalf of returning troops.”
Many Cooley Law students volunteer their time with the program. The program also is connected with JAG officers, although service members do not need to be referred by a JAG officer to receive assistance.
“The program is bigger than anyone ever expected it to be,” Spielmaker said.
Both Spielmaker and her assistant, Kathleen Lawrence, have received Legion of Merit awards from the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs for their work with the program.
Spielmaker received her award in 2010 and Lawrence received hers this month.
The Michigan National Guard estimated the program’s value so far at $2.8 million for the services performed.
Spielmaker has been asked to assist other states with setting up similar pro bono assistance programs for veterans since Michigan’s program is the second largest program of its kind in the country.
“The largest is the American Bar Association (program),” she said. “It has a military pro bono project, but it’s a little bit harder for the troops to access because they need to be referred by a JAG officer and not all service members want to tell JAG officers about their problems.”
In addition to the assistance the program provides service members, it has also published, in partnership with the Michigan State Bar Foundation, the “Michigan Judges Guide to the Service Members Civil Relief Act,” and will be publishing the “Michigan Judges Guide to Military Family Law Matters.”
These guidebooks have been and will be sent to all Michigan judges.
“A lot goes into handling a family law issue for a service member,” Spielmaker said. “For instance, what parts of their income can you consider when figuring out spousal or child support? What if the custody changes while they are deployed? Should it revert back when they get back? Can it change while they are deployed? How do you divide pension benefits if somebody is divorcing someone who has a military pension coming?
“All of those issues are going to be tackled in our book.”
Spielmaker said that the Service to Soldiers program is the most popular pro bono program offered through Cooley.