Estate Planning Clinic

Estate Planning Project Hiring a Clinical Instructor

The Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School has an immediate opening for a Clinical Instructor. The position, which is available either as a full-time position or a part-time position, is within the Estate Planning Project of the Veterans Legal Clinic. The Estate Planning Project—through which Harvard Law students also receive hands-on training in lawyering skills—provides free legal representation to low-income disabled veterans on matters such as wills, powers of attorneys, healthcare proxies, living wills, trusts, special needs trusts, guardianships, conservatorships, and probate of estates. The goal of the Project’s representation is to help each veteran attain the maximum degree of control over financial, health, and family decision making. Many of the Project’s clients have multiple service-connected disabilities and/or face chronic or terminal illnesses.

The Clinical Instructor will oversee the Project’s docket, maintain community and pro bono partnerships, represent clients, and train and supervise law students who enroll in the Veterans Legal Clinic and who seek to develop skills in estate planning practice. The position represents a unique opportunity to work in a dynamic public interest law office within Harvard Law School’s clinical program.

Applications must be submitted via Harvard’s Human Resources website. The full posting and online application portal can be found here (Position ID# 46658BR).

 

Student Reflections on Working at LSC

In two recent posts on the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs’ Blog, former Estate Planning clinic students Stephanie Jimenez and Travis Leverett discuss their experiences working on estate planning issues. Read both Stephanie’s post, “Empowering clients through the Estate Planning Project” and Travis’ post, “A reflection on my semester with the Estate Planning Project“.

In addition, former  Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic  students Suria Bahadue and Alison Burton share their experiences with family and domestic violence issues in the following posts: “Out of the classroom and into the courtroom” by Suria Bahadue and “A sense of community and a chance to represent clients in court” by Alison Burton.

Clinic students present legal workshops for veterans

LSC clinic student, Carys Johnson, presents to veterans about estate planning

LSC clinic student, Carys Johnson, presents to veterans about estate planning

On Monday, November 9, 2015, the Legal Services Center opened its doors to veterans from our community to serve dinner and provide a series of legal workshops on a range of topics relevant to veterans.  Twelve Harvard Law students from the Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic presented legal information and tips to attendees about estate planning, Ch. 115 state veterans benefits, VA benefits, and Social Security benefits.  Approximately 30 local veterans and family members attended the event.

Rebecca Rattner, a second-year student in the clinic, worked with her fellow students to present about benefits available to veterans at the state level.

“I thought it was a really useful activity to engage the community and provide them with information about their rights and practical suggestions for how to advocate for themselves,”

Ms. Rattner said.

Staff from Boston and Bedford VA healthcare facilities helped to coordinate the event.

Peoples Law School at LSCThe event was part of a series of community legal education events known as the Peoples Law School, through which LSC staff and students periodically present legal workshops to community members.  The next Peoples Law School event will be held in Spring 2016.  For more details, you can contact us by email.

 

The Legal Services Center takes People’s Law School on the road in service to veterans

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LSC’s Julie McCormack (Dis-Lit) and Dana Montalto (Vet) with VA Bedford Compensated Work Therapy staff Will Hatley and Mary Lee Losordo after their presentation on November 5th.

The now annual Legal Services Center (LSC) People’s Law School of community legal education workshops facilitated by LSC staff and clinical law students has proven to be hugely popular, attended by almost 200 people over the past 2 years.  And so popular that Will Hatley, Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) Program Coordinator at the Bedford Veterans Administration (VA) proposed that LSC take the program on the road, bringing workshops specifically tailored to the needs of the veterans served through the CWT program directly to them on-site at the Bedford VA.  Julie McCormack, senior clinical instructor and director of the Disability Litigation Clinic at LSC, enthusiastically accepted the challenge and recruited not only LSC instructors and clinical students in presenting workshops, but also reached out to recruit presenters in areas not served by LSC.  She and her LSC colleagues were ultimately joined by instructors and law students from the Tenant Advocacy Project and Prisoner Legal Assistance Project student practice organizations and the Judicial Process in Community Courts Clinic.

Over the course of several weeks and 5 workshops, veterans and their case managers at the Bedford VA were advised of their legal rights and the process by which these rights could be exercised in several key areas of direct impact.  On October 29th, Toby Merrill and her student Alison Sher ‘15 from the LSC’s Project on Predatory Student Lending presented first on credit issues including bankruptcy and predatory student loans, many of which are specifically marketed to veterans.  Toby and Ali discussed the means by which these unfair loans can be challenged, discharged or otherwise eliminated.

On November 5th, Julie McCormack presented on Social Security disability programs, other programs for low-income and/or disabled veterans and their families, and the financial implications in these programs of wages and other forms of income and how to respond.  Dana Montalto of LSC’s Veteran’s Legal Clinic presented on Discharge Upgrades, the benefits of upgrading and the process by which an upgrade can be requested.  Julie also met with veterans privately, responding to individual questions and providing advice and follow-up in their individual cases.

va peoples law school fam law clinic

LSC’s Nnena Odim and Stephanie Davidson with Family Law clinical students Isabel Klosterman ’16 and Mara Ludmer ’15 after their presentation on November 12th.

On November 12th, Nnena Odim and Stephanie Davidson of LSC’s Family Law Clinic, their clinical students Isabel Klosterman ’16 and Mara Ludmer ’15, and Tamara Kolz Griffin of the Estate Planning Project of LSC’s Veteran’s Legal Clinic, and her student, Hillary Preston ’15, presented on family law and probate court issues, including divorce, child custody and child support, separations, restraining orders, conservatorships, guardianships and probating estates.  Tamara Kolz Griffin and her clinical students, Amanda Klopp ’16 and Carolyn Ruiz ’16, from the Estate Planning Project of the Veteran’s Legal Clinic followed up on November 13th with a workshop specifically dealing with wills, trusts and other estate planning tools helpful to veterans and their families, and met one-on-one with several prospective clients on their individual cases.

Finally, on November 19th, the Hon. John Cratsley (ret.) of HLS’s Judicial Process in Community Courts Clinic and David Hanyok ’15 (with HLS’s Prison Legal Assistance Project) presented on criminal record sealing and other issues.  Both handled a variety of questions from veterans as well as program staff and met one-on-one with veterans interested in discussing their record sealing options, providing forms for obtaining a CORI, for fee waivers, and for applying to seal a record. They also answered numerous questions which sometimes raised other criminal justice issues of concern to veterans.  Their session was followed by Marcia Peters of HLS’s Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP) and Zoe Brennan-Krohn ‘15 (of both TAP and LSC’s Disability Litigation Clinic) who presented on the process to appeal public housing denials based solely on having a criminal record.  They took on similar challenging questions.

Each of the workshops were attended by 30 to 50 veterans and case managers.  The attendees participated eagerly with questions and personal observations, sharing knowledge and experiences.  Will Hatley generously recognized each of the presenters with personal certificates of appreciation.  He and many of the attendees urged that the workshops be repeated and even expanded in the spring, pointing to the obvious need for this kind of community legal education among folks facing complex legal, social and personal challenges as they transition from military service to civilian life.  And although taking the time from clinical teaching and providing services to current clients and students presents resource and other constraints, LSC and their partners are more than willing to try to answer the call.

Estate Planning Clinic Secures Survivor’s Benefits for Same-Sex Spouse

A year after Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) was found unconstitutional and almost four years after the Estate Planning Clinic of the Legal Services Center accepted the matter for representation, the Estate Planning Clinic has succeeded in helping a same-sex surviving spouse become entitled to survivor’s benefits.

Norman J. Laurin and his late husband, Danny R. Wood, were legally married when Wood passed away in March 2010. When Laurin tried to collect survivor benefits on Wood’s ERISA-mandated pension, the pension management company refused to recognize the marriage. The company, PBGC, denied Laurin’s claim on the grounds that as a federal agency, Section 3 of DOMA which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, prevented PBGC from providing a qualified preretirement survivor annuity (“QPSA”) to Laurin, as preretirement survivor annuities are only payable to surviving spouses and a QPSA was the only benefit available to Laurin according to the PBGC since no retirement benefits had begun prior to Wood’s death.  Essentially, PBGC said that since the federal government didn’t recognize Laurin’s and Wood’s marriage, despite the fact that Massachusetts recognized their marriage, Laurin would receive nothing by way of benefits from Wood’s 35 years with his company.  In addition, PBGC stated that since Wood had not completed an application for retirement benefits before his death, which would have allowed any beneficiary to succeed to such benefits upon his subsequent death, Laurin would not be entitled to any retirement benefits of any kind from Wood’s service with his company.  Unwilling to accept this result, Laurin wished to appeal PBGC’s decision

When the Estate Planning Clinic took the case in 2010 and when PBGC finally issued its final determination denying Laurin benefits, it was impossible to know if DOMA would be found unconstitutional. Accordingly, Tamara Kolz Griffin, Clinical Instructor at the Estate Planning Clinic, and her students presented both procedural and constitutional arguments in their appeal brief to PBGC in an attempt to secure benefits for Laurin on any grounds possible.  While securing benefits based upon the unconstitutionality of DOMA would have more far-reaching effects for other similarly situated same-sex couples, successfully attacking the procedural mistake by PBGC in sending Wood’s requested retirement application to the wrong address, thereby thwarting his attempt to apply for retirement benefits prior to his death, could secure benefits for Laurin without recognizing his marriage to Wood.

In drafting the appeal, the Estate Planning Clinic first contended that PBGC failed to mail a requested application for benefits to the correct address. Were it not for the mistake, Wood could have timely filed his application, which would have resulted in Laurin’s ability to receive such benefits upon Wood’s death as Wood’s named beneficiary. Second, the Clinic contended that DOMA was unconstitutional, and that as the legally recognized same-sex spouse of Wood under Massachusetts law, Laurin should be entitled to the qualified preretirement survivor’s annuity as the surviving spouse.  The Clinic set forth both arguments to improve the chance of success on the merits for Laurin.

“Constitutionality is an exciting issue. It’s sexy, and everyone wants to be on the cutting edge, so it’s easy to just want to focus on that one issue. But as exciting and interesting as it is, you have to do what’s right for your client,” Kolz Griffin said.

For the client, the right thing was to not just focus on the constitutional question but to attack PBGC’s determination on any and all available grounds.

The appeal, submitted in 2012, was still pending when Windsor v. U.S. was decided in June 2013, striking down Section 3 of DOMA as unconstitutional. But the Estate Planning Clinic’s work was not yet done. As PBGC deliberated on how to apply the Windsor decision to its pre-existing cases, students at the Clinic remained vigilant, regularly checking in with the company for updates, pushing forward in the process, and keeping the client informed.  The process was protracted because in the absence of guidance, PBGC did not know how to process the requested benefits to which Laurin should be entitled.

Finally, in July 2014, PBGC issued a corrected benefit determination recognizing Laurin as the surviving spouse of Wood and extending benefits to him. The reissued benefit determination extended a qualified preretirement survivor annuity to Laurin with interest retroactive to Wood’s date of death.  The anticipated value of such decision is estimated to be approximately $100,000.  When informed of PBGC’s final decision, Laurin was “shocked but delighted,” Kolz Griffin said.  It had been a long road, but justice had prevailed.

But the client was not the only person to benefit from the case. Eight students worked with Laurin, ferreting out legal issues, finding support for the arguments, drafting the appeal brief, and strategizing about procedural matters. In the process, students learned first-hand about dealing with issues like constitutionality and first impression.  Students also learned that perseverance can be just as important as a strong legal argument in a matter that extended over four years before reaching its final resolution.

“We couldn’t have done it without the students,” Kolz Griffin said. “Their contributions were so incredibly valuable, not just because of the many hours they contributed and the commitment they made, but also because of the valuable perspective they contributed on how the tasks and goals should be accomplished.”

Ultimately, the Clinic hopes that winning Laurin’s case can help other same-sex spouses gain the benefits they rightfully deserve as well.

“It’s always gratifying to take cases that have the potential for a positive result for not just the client but also the community, allowing us to achieve a greater impact with each case we take. By serving one client who is representative of many, we achieve a greater good with each success,” Kolz Griffin said.

-Ellis Liang