Need a little free legal advice?Today, the Tarrant County Bar Association is hosting its ninth annual People's Law School at Texas Wesleyan School of Law. The public is invited to listen to experts discuss topics ranging from small-claims court to elder law.The 50-minute sessions are taught by lawyers, judges and other local experts, said Cindy Rankin, director of membership and lawyer referral services for the bar association."Lawyers sometimes get a bad rap," she said. "This is a public service we provide the community."Seventy people have signed up, but there is room for more and walk-ins are welcome, Rankin said.The most popular session is on wills and trusts, Rankin said, followed by the session on elder law and guardianship.The elder-law session includes a copy of the bar association's fifth edition of the Elder Law Handbook (also available for free by calling the association at 817-338-4092 or visiting www.tarrantbar.org)."The question we most often have is, 'Can we avoid a guardianship?'" said Cynthia Williams, a Bedford attorney who teaches the course on elder law and guardianship."With a durable power of attorney, medical power of attorney and declaration of guardianship, you shouldn't need a guardianship."Forms are available on the Internet but should be filled out before a medical need arises, Williams said."The most important message is to plan ahead," she said. "People are scared to face the facts, but your chances of becoming disabled are greater as you age."Having those forms in place can save the cost of a guardianship, which generally costs more than $3,000 to create, Williams said.And the forms shouldn't be filled out just by the elderly or those who are hospitalized, she said."You should fill out these forms as soon as you leave the house at age 18," she said."If you fill out the medical power of attorney form in the hospital and you are moved to another hospital, it will not be valid."Another expensive document that most people in Texas can avoid is a living trust, which is not necessary for most estates because of the probate process, Williams said.The People's Law program will also offer a session on probate.Family law -- mostly divorce cases -- is another popular session, Rankin said."So many people are representing themselves in divorce proceedings now," she said."We discuss the pros and cons of pro se" (being your own advocate instead of having legal representation).One downside of representing yourself is that online divorce forms in Texas do not include a place to list 401(k) assets, she said."There are forms available out there, but they don't address that," she said. "You could lose your part of that account just because there was no place on the form for it."The small-claims session covers how and where to file claims, time limits and other details outlined by Justice of the Peace Russell Casey of Precinct 3 in Southlake. Small-claims court does not require an attorney so those interested in pursuing a case must learn the details.Other topics will include expunction, or how to clear a criminal record; the benefits and pitfalls of social media from a legal perspective; and Veterans Court, established in 2010 to handle some criminal cases filed against former military members, said Courtney Young, program manager for Tarrant County Veterans Court."Texas is the only state to establish a court like this, to my knowledge," Young said.The legislation was spearheaded by state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.The court takes pending cases against veterans who have served in combat and have a mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder or an addiction brought on by their service, Young said.The program won't take cases involving charges of murder, rape, theft or endangering a child or elderly person, he said.The most common case in Veterans Court is driving while intoxicated, Young said.If the veteran qualifies, a Tarrant County civil judge can order him or her into the program, which includes eight to 24 months of treatment for mental illness and monthly progress reports before the judge.Once the program is completed, the case is dismissed and the veteran's record can be expunged.More than 6,000 veterans have been referred to the program locally, but only 82 have qualified, Young said.Forty-four vets have graduated from the program and seven were sent back to civil court, he said.Similar courts have been established in Dallas, Collin and Denton counties, as well as in the Houston, Austin, El Paso and San Antonio areas.The Tarrant County Bar Association also offers LegalLine, a free call-in service from 6 to 8 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursdays.For free legal advice, call during those hours at 817-335-1239.The association has a lawyer referral service where the public can receive 30 minutes of consultation for just $20.The service can be reached from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at 817-336-4101 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.Teresa McUsic's column appears Saturdays.TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net
People's Law School
Nine 50-minute sessions cover wills and trusts, the district attorney's office, family law, elder law/guardianships, expunctions, Veterans Court, probate, small-claims court and social media
Noon-4 p.m. today
Texas Wesleyan School of Law, 1515 Commerce St., Fort Worth
Free. Walk-ins welcome.