On a recent Tuesday afternoon, several law students gathered in a law firm in Concord. Their professor, Pamela Zimba, herself a practicing elder law attorney, fielded questions from the students. But instead of beginning a lecture or exploring theoretical issues of the law, they discussed the real problems of clients—seniors in Contra Costa County who had come to the program for help, surrounded by the bustle of a law practice.
This day, and others like it, is the culmination of a joint project by Contra Costa Senior Legal Services (CCSLS), a private nonprofit located in Concord, and John F. Kennedy University College of Law (JFKU) Legal Clinic for Elders. This new service, the Pro Bono Wills Clinic, provides free simple wills, Advance Health Care Directives and Durable Powers of Attorney to low-income residents ages 60 and over. Though still evolving, this program promises to help provide vital legal services to those in need.
Contra Costa’s Aging Population
In Contra Costa, as in the rest of the nation, we have an aging population that increasingly lacks the resources to meet their basic needs, including the need for legal services. According to the California Department of Aging, between 1950 and 2000, the number of older adults increased 194 percent, and is predicted to grow to 13.9 million by 2050.
In Contra Costa, approximately 14 percent of the population is 65 years and over. These people need legal services such as wills and planning for incapacity, but many cannot afford them. A recent measure of the economic well-being of Contra Costa’s seniors indicates that thousands are falling through the cracks. The Elder Index, which attempts to provide a better assessment than the Federal Poverty Guidelines for measuring the economic health of elders, shows that a single person ages 65 or over needs at least $26,249 to live in Contra Costa.
Meanwhile, the median Social Security payment is only $12,523 and nearly 75 percent of single recipients of Social Security have no other source of income. So thousands of our county’s seniors have less than half of the income they need to meet their basic needs, much less their needs for legal services. Yet many seniors need legal assistance and counseling regarding matters such as whether to give a relative or friend a Durable Power of Attorney, how to plan for potential incapacity with an Advance Health Care Directive, and whether they need a will or revocable trust and what to include in these various documents.
These services, and the documents prepared, can mean the difference between a senior having the ability to maintain some control over his or her finances and health care, and losing that ability. Often, if a senior has not made these legal decisions, there is no choice if/when the senior needs assistance. In such instances, a family member is forced to petition the court for a conservatorship, which is a very costly and complicated process.
Contra Costa Senior Legal Services
CCSLS was established in 1976 to address the legal needs of seniors. Its mission is to provide free legal services to Contra Costa seniors, especially to those with the greatest economic and social need. The program evolved to include three main services: direct services by staff attorneys, coordination of pro bono clinics and education and outreach. Direct services are provided by staff attorneys at the Concord office.
The most common legal issues confronting clients are housing, consumer debt and financial elder abuse. CCSLS also provides legal services through its coordination of over 16 Consult-An-Attorney and Free Wills clinics at senior centers throughout the county. Many members of the Contra Costa County Bar Association are familiar with this program, as they have been volunteers. A list of our current volunteers can be found on the organization’s website at www.ccsls.org. With the assistance of those pro bono attorneys, CCSLS has provided hundreds of free wills, legal information and advice to thousands of seniors over nearly four decades. Now, thanks to the new collaboration with JFKU, there is a new clinic available in Concord.
The New Clinic
JFKU College of Law also has deep roots in the community, having been established 50 years ago in Martinez as a nonprofit, private college for working men and women. Graduates of JFKU College of Law have been active members of the local bar, serving on the board of the CCCBA, working closely with the Contra Costa Superior Court, and volunteering with CCSLS and other nonprofits dedicated to serving the disadvantaged in Contra Costa.
Located in Pleasant Hill, JFKU conducts its Legal Clinic for Elders in which students enroll in the clinic and are registered as certified law students, which allows them to provide legal services to seniors under the tutelage of their supervising attorney. Early last year, CCSLS and JFKU decided that a joint program could provide opportunities to each organization as well as to low-income seniors. This planning resulted in the formation of the new wills clinic, which began as a pilot project in September 2014.
The wills clinic met throughout the fall and winter, and was so popular that it was continued into the spring. The collaboration was a win-win for everyone—students got the opportunity to confront real world issues in the realm of elder law and estate planning, and CCSLS was able to leverage its resources to reach more seniors. And finally, clients of CCSLS received access to legal services they could not otherwise afford.
The challenges facing low income seniors and their need for legal services cannot be overstated. JFKU and CCSLS hope that their wills clinic is a small step towards finding a solution.
Verna Haas is the Executive Director of Contra Costa Senior Legal Services.