At one time or another, virtually all Texans will need legal assistance. Whether it’s for estate planning or legal issues related to housing, employment, government benefits, adoption or divorce, most Texans will need professional legal services at some point.
Though the Texas legal aid system faces funding challenges, low-income individuals and families may have the opportunity to get help through our state’s legal aid system for civil legal issues, and for criminal issues, they have the right to a state-provided attorney if they cannot afford legal counsel. On the other end of the spectrum, wealthy individuals are more likely to be able to afford to pay an attorney when legal services are needed.
However, middle-income Texans frequently have difficulty paying for a lawyer, especially when unexpected situations arise. For example, there are nearly 3.9 million Texas households with incomes between $35,000 and $99,999. It’s this group that is most likely to face financial difficulties when an attorney’s help is needed.
Middle-income families need to plan ahead for legal expenses. The State Bar of Texas and the state Legislature created a nonprofit entity 40 years ago to help address this issue. Texas Legal (formerly called Texas Legal Protection Plan) is a low-cost insurance plan for legal services that is provided by many Texas employers. Individuals and families can also insure themselves with a policy purchased directly from Texas Legal.
Here’s how it works: A network of attorneys who are part of the Texas Legal participating attorneys panel can be accessed by members as needed—and the cost of one year’s premium is about equal to one hour of an attorney’s time if paying directly, without the benefit of insurance.
Of course, legal insurance is not the only answer to being prepared for unexpected legal needs. Another approach might be to set aside some money each month to have available for legal needs as they arise.
What might some of these legal needs be? According to a study by the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University, 2014 was the second-best year ever in Texas for home sales volume. However, many Texans may not realize that the home-buying process is complicated and filled with hidden risk. Entering a housing contract, obtaining financing and closing are all legal situations that cost time and money. Having a lawyer to help guide you through the process will better protect your finances in the long run.
Estate planning is another common legal need and should be revisited from time to time as a family’s situation changes. Wills should be kept up to date, and all adults should consider a durable and medical power of attorney to ensure that your wishes will be taken under consideration if you are not able to speak on your own behalf.
Family issues, including divorce and adoption, are also common legal challenges. And, after a divorce is final, other issues can arise such as child support, custody and visitation rights. Those who are thinking of remarrying may have to revisit these issues again if families are combined.
Planning ahead for unexpected legal needs—similar to the way most Texans plan ahead for medical needs—will provide peace of mind and will ensure that you and your family will be protected financially when the time comes for legal assistance.
Janna Clarke is chair of the Texas Legal board of directors. She is of counsel to Broude, Smith & Jennings, P.C.