Legal Assistance Frequently Asked Questions
Legal assistance enhances the readiness and welfare of active duty and reserve members of the Armed Forces by providing quality legal services regarding personal civil legal matters to eligible persons, and by educating eligible persons regarding their personal legal rights and responsibilities. Legal assistance accomplishes its mission by direct client assistance services and a vigorous preventive law program that educates and informs the military community through a variety of creative and stimulating outreach efforts.
A legal assistance attorney is a military judge advocate or civilian attorney who is duly licensed to practice law before the courts of one or more state and federal jurisdictions, and is authorized by the Judge Advocate General to perform legal assistance functions. He or she represents the interests of the individual client concerning personal civil legal matters by advising the client, and in limited instances, directly advocating for the client.
Yes. Information and files pertaining to legal assistance clients are private and privileged under law and applicable professional rules and guidelines. The information and documents contained in a client's file will not be disclosed to anyone by the attorney providing legal assistance, except upon the express specific permission of the client or when the attorney determines that disclosure is authorized or required by law or applicable rules of professional conduct. The unauthorized release of confidential client information cannot be made lawful by order of superior military authority.
The services provided through the Navy Legal Assistance Program are free to eligible personnel. However, clients are required to pay for all costs associated with their case, such as court costs or agency fees if applicable.
Eligibility for legal assistance varies somewhat among the military services. Generally, Navy legal assistance is available to the following:
- Members of the armed forces on active duty (including members of a reserve component).
- Following release from active duty orders for 30 days or more, members of reserve components are eligible for legal assistance for a period beginning on the date of release from active duty and continuing for a period equal to twice the length of the period served on those active duty orders.
- Retired military personnel.
- Dependents (spouses and minor children) of those listed above, and those who died on active duty, who are entitled to a military identification card.
- Any inactive Reserve personnel consistent with mobilization readiness needs.
- DOD civilian employees who are U.S. citizens and not local hire employees
and their dependents deploying to or in a theater of operations for more than 30 days may receive wills and powers of attorney.
- DOD civilian employees who are U.S. citizens and not local hire employees assigned outside the United States and its territories, including their dependents residing with them employees.
- Non-DOD civilian employees and contractors may be eligible for limited services in rare cases when serving overseas.
Advice and/or service regarding the following matters are normally available at legal assistance offices:
- Wills with and without testamentary trusts.
- General estate planning advice.
- Domestic relations advice, including divorce, legal separation, annulment, custody, and paternity.
- Adoption and name changes advice.
- Immigration and naturalization advice.
- Nonsupport and indebtedness including, communication, correspondence and negotiations with another party or lawyer.
- Consumer Fraud and Abuse advice, including identity theft.
- Powers of Attorney and Notary services.
- Basic tax advice and assistance on Federal, State, and local taxes.
- Landlord-tenant relations, including tenant advice concerning review of personal leases and communication and correspondence.
- Small Claims Civil suits, including preparation of correspondence and certain documents. However, advice and document preparation will not be provided in cases where civilian counsel has been retained. In-court representation is precluded except through the expanded legal assistance program, the availability of which varies among the services.
- Military Rights and Benefits, including Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) advice and assistance.
- Under the Exceptional Family Member Program, education issues related to the Individuals With Disabilities Act and a free and appropriate public education.
Legal assistance attorneys are prohibited from the following acts:
- Legal assistance attorneys do not advise opposing parties on the same issue.
- Representation of opposing parties or interests: Each service has varying procedures. Generally, if two or more eligible persons with conflicting interests seek advice from the same legal assistance office on the same matter, the party first establishing an attorney-client relationship will be provided representation. This rule applies even if the conflicted party who will not be able to receive legal assistance is the military service member. Every effort will be made to refer the party with a conflicting interest to another source of free legal assistance or, if no such source is available, to a private civilian attorney via a county bar association or state bar association referral service. Legal assistance attorneys may not direct you to a specific civilian attorney.
- Legal assistance attorneys do not provide advice on private business ventures.
- Legal assistance attorneys do not provide advice on issues or interests in conflict with, or opposed to, the interests of the United States.
- Proceedings involving the United States: Legal assistance attorneys are prohibited from representing or advising an individual in a matter in which the United States has a direct and substantial interest, whether or not the Government's position is adverse to that of the individual.
- Legal assistance attorneys do not provide advice or assistance in official military matters. Legal advice concerning official military matters is outside the scope of the legal assistance program. However, command services judge advocates may advise commanders and other members on official military matters in their capacity as military attorneys representing the best interests of their particular service.
- Legal assistance attorneys do not represent service members or their dependents in family court.
- Legal assistance attorneys do not provide advice on military justice matters. Legal assistance duties are separate and apart from responsibilities of trial counsel, defense counsel, or others involved in processing courts-martial, non-judicial punishments, administrative boards or proceedings, and investigations. Members accused or suspected of offenses or conduct that may result in disciplinary or judicial proceedings under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or processing for administrative discharges, will be referred to a defense counsel.
- Legal assistance attorneys do not provide advice to third parties.
- Advice to third parties is prohibited: The privileged attorney-client relationship requires personal and private communication between the attorney and client.
No. Divorce is a state matter, not a military or federal matter; therefore, you will need to seek local counsel in the jurisdiction where you intend to file your divorce case. Since state laws vary, a Navy attorney can give you general advice about separation and divorce procedures, about custody and visitation rights and obligations, and advise you on how to find an attorney who can represent you. In some instances the Navy may be able to help active duty personnel locate a pro bono (free) attorney if you meet the income eligibility requirements.
Navy legal assistance has an Expanded Legal Assistance Program (ELAP), which, in very limited instances, allows attorneys from authorized legal assistance offices to provide in-court representation to eligible active duty military personnel and dependents who could not otherwise afford legal representation. In-court representation is not guaranteed due to limited resources. The client must pay all fees and costs connected with an ELAP case. Because of the time involved and the limited resources available, cases chosen for ELAP usually must have a foreseeable impact beyond the individual being represented; e.g., systematic landlord abuse of service members and consumer scams that specifically target service members.
Ordinarily, no. However, under limited circumstances according to the local office’s policy, an attorney may be able to represent you in certain matters. Even if they are unable to represent you in court, legal assistance attorneys can advise you on the specifics of your case, assist in helping you find counsel, or prepare you to represent yourself in small claims court.
Yes. If you own an S Corporation, own a working farm (or a share in a working farm), or you have the need for a revocable or irrevocable living trust, a Navy attorney will not be able to prepare a will for you. Due to the complexity of these issues it is advisable for you to seek expert private civilian counsel to assist in your estate planning. In addition, if you have extensive assets, there may be a limit to the services the Navy legal assistance office can provide. The decision on whether a Navy legal assistance attorney can help with your estate planning needs can be ascertained after the first meeting with a Navy attorney.
A "power of attorney" gives another person (called your "agent" or "attorney-in-fact") the legal authority to act in your place and on your behalf in your absence. Every act your agent does within the authority granted in the document is legally binding upon you.
A power of attorney is usually given by someone who will be unable to be present at a particular time and/or place when important transactions must be conducted. The scope of a power of attorney may be very broad or very narrow, depending on your needs. There are basically two types of power of attorney:
- General Financial Power of Attorney: This power of attorney grants your agent the power to do the things you could do yourself with respect to your financial matters, such as deposit and withdraw money from accounts, pay bills, set up autopay accounts, obtain loans, pay taxes, etc.
- Special Power of Attorney: A special, or limited, power of attorney authorizes your agent to do a certain specified act, such as ship household goods, sell an automobile, or buy or sell a house.
You should never grant any power of attorney unless you have absolute trust and confidence in the person to whom you are granting it. A power of attorney is subject to abuse of your trust. You should not grant a power of attorney, particularly a general financial power of attorney, unless the circumstances require it and your agent is a person whom you are certain will make wise and honest use of the power. When executing a general financial power of attorney, remember that the agent will not be limited by your judgment concerning the appropriateness of any transaction. In nearly every instance, granting a special power of attorney is not only a sounder business practice, but also a protection against error in judgment or outright dishonesty. If a special power of attorney can possibly accomplish your needs, it is advisable to give it rather than the general financial power of attorney. When deciding which type of power of attorney to grant, remember that it is extremely difficult to revoke a general power of attorney.
- Power of Attorney Durability Clause: Normally a power of attorney becomes null and void if you become disabled. A "durable" power of attorney will allow your agent to continue to act even if you become disabled. Whether your power of attorney needs a durability clause depends on its nature and purpose, the amount of time needed, the degree of trust between you and your agent, and your age and health.
- Power of Attorney Revocation: The authority granted in your power of attorney ends with the death of either you or your agent. The power also terminates at the expiration of the time stated or may be revoked by providing notice to your agent that you are revoking the power. Revocation will take effect as soon as it is communicated to the agent and to all persons who may have dealt with the agent in reliance on the power of attorney. It is advisable to recover all copies of the document and destroy them so no further use of the power may be made. If the power of attorney has been recorded as part of the public records (for example, with respect to real estate transactions), a properly acknowledged revocation must be recorded to ensure the revocation of the power of attorney is made effective. If you have previously executed a power of attorney which has served its purpose, retrieve it. If you cannot get it back, consult a legal assistance office concerning the steps necessary to affect its revocation.
Those persons who are about to become physically separated from their property or their affairs and whose property or affairs will be needing attention or management during their absence, may need a power of attorney. Also, parents who are leaving their children with a guardian will need a special power of attorney. The document should grant no power greater than that which is needed under the circumstances. A power of attorney should be given for a limited time only. Powers of attorney are written for no more than one year.
You should bring a completed will worksheet. You will need a separate completed worksheet for yourself, as well as for your spouse if your spouse will also have a will prepared. Couples receiving wills must also provide a signed Joint Representation Conflict of Interest Waiver. At the appointment, you will review all of your information with the attorney, and you will have the opportunity to ask questions. You will usually have a second appointment to review and execute the will and any other ancillary documents you and the attorney decide you need for your estate plan. The will worksheet lists other documents you may need to bring to your appointment, such as life insurance policies and deeds to any real estate you own and copies of divorce decrees and support agreements.
Attorney ethics rules sometimes prevent a particular legal assistance office from providing legal services to individuals. If your legal assistance office notifies you that you cannot be seen in that office, you will receive information on how to obtain an appointment from an alternate legal assistance office. Those eligible for Navy legal assistance can make appointments with sister service legal assistance offices as well. To locate the nearest legal assistance office, visit the Armed Forces Legal Services Locator.
If your question requires the application or interpretation of the law, it will require a lawyer for the answer. When non-lawyers provide legal advice it is called the unauthorized practice of law. The unauthorized practice of law is prohibited by professional ethics and in many states is a criminal act; therefore, non-lawyer legal officers, paralegals, legalmen, independent duty legalmen, and legal clerks are prohibited from providing legal advice. Non-lawyer legal officers, paralegals, legalmen, independent duty legalmen, and legal clerks may assist attorneys, but they may not provide legal advice or provide services that call for the professional judgment of an attorney. Non-lawyer personnel may provide assistance not requiring the attention of an attorney, such as notarizations and the preparation of routine powers of attorney using attorney-approved forms.
The legal assistance program promotes increased readiness of active duty and reserve members and enhances the morale and quality of life for military personnel, family members, and other eligible clients through the provision of in-office attorney advice, aid, referral services, and vigorous preventive law activities.
The authority to establish and operate the Armed Forces' Legal Assistance Program, as a necessary and proper incidence of accomplishing the Armed Forces mission, has been provided continuously since 1943 by various means including Secretarial directive, Federal regulation (32 C.F.R. pt. 727), and Federal statute (10 U.S.C. § 1044). Legal assistance is provided subject to the availability of staff legal resources. 10 U.S.C. § 1044(a).
Navy legal assistance attorneys do not handle criminal matters, including adverse administrative issues such as Articles 15 and discharge actions. If you are a service member, please visit your local Defense Service Office. If you are a civilian, you will need to seek assistance from a private civilian attorney experienced in criminal law. Contact your local county bar association for a referral to a competent civilian attorney.
Navy Victims’ Legal Counsel are specially trained military attorneys who may provide legal assistance services to victims of sexual assault. Visit the Victims’ Legal Counsel page for more information.
While not directly tied to legal assistance, you will be assigned a Disability Evaluation Attorney who specializes in the Formal Physical Evaluation Board process. You will be contacted by the Navy counsel assigned to your case, who can discuss your case in detail, provide advice, and represent you at the formal hearing.
If you know you are facing medical processing (you have received informal findings from the PEB, for example), you can still discuss your case with a Navy attorney. Please contact (202) 685-7180 to be directed to an IPEB attorney.