Hannelore Vallotton, 68, is like dozens of other county seniors who each year need legal assistance but cannot afford lawyer fees that can run over $100 an hour.
So last year, when the Columbia resident needed some legal advice on estate planning, she called the Sixty Plus Legal Program. The program -- a joint project of the Howard County and Maryland bar associations-- provides initial legal screenings at no charge to seniors who qualify. It requires that clients be at least 60 years old, in need of legal services and income eligible. An individual's annual income must not exceed $14,000; couples with an annual income of $18,000 or under also qualify. Appointments are made through the county's Office on Aging.
"There's a heavy demand [for legal services]," said Lou Prebil, information specialist with the Office on Aging and coordinator of the Sixty Plus Legal Program. Although he says the program deals mostly with wills, power of attorney and living wills, other legal advice is sought on such matters as financial concerns and landlord-tenant problems.
After meeting with a lawyer, qualified seniors decide whether to use the program. Legal work is provided at a cost of $25 per document or $35 for a pair of documents for a couple. If a problem is more complex, an additional fee of $25 per hour will be charged. "Normal costs for documents can range from $100 to several hundred dollars depending on the size of the estate," Mr. Prebil said.
A staff of 20 attorneys, some with experience in laws affecting the elderly, volunteer for the approximately 60 clients seen annually through the program, he said.
Ronald L. Spahn, a 53-year-old attorney with the Spahn, Harvis, Greenberg & Broida legal firm in Columbia, says he has been with the Sixty Plus Legal Program for about eight years. Twice a year on a rotating basis with other attorneys, he advises clients at the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia. Appointments are arranged for the third Tuesday of every month.
Mr. Spahn said that after the initial meeting, he sends clients a draft for their review of the matters they discussed. If the draft is approved, the client goes to Mr. Spahn's office for a "signing."
"It's usually 1 1/2 hours after everything is done," he said. "They usually like to sit and talk about it for a while. . . . I try to personalize my service to them." The cost for his time, he says, is about $50; the normal charge is $225.
"It's very gratifying," he said. "They come in very apprehensive, and we hope we can put their minds at rest."
After meeting with Mr. Spahn, Mrs. Vallotton was pleased with the outcome.
"There were things I didn't know," she said. "He told me information about the power of attorney and about filing papers at the Orphans Court. He told me about my deed and I didn't realize that my children were co-owners, too.
"I appreciate the time that he spent with me for no charge."