Social Security Administration and Its COVID Related Plans

COVID-19 continues to guide the way we interact with government agencies. The Social Security Administration (SSA) offices remain closed to the public.  It is unknown when they will fully reopen. It is important that we remember that SSA’s field and hearing offices have rather small public areas.  These areas are often packed with vulnerable individuals. SSA is trying to develop procedures to protect its staff and the public.

SSA is encouraging the public to set up a personal “my Social Security” account.  This will allow you to check your earnings record, eligibility for benefits, your current benefits and even get a replacement Social Security card. Go to https://www.ssa.gov/myaccount/ to set up an account. You can apply for most benefits online. You can also file an appeal if you are denied benefits. Remember to keep proof of any on-line transaction (even if it is just taking a picture with your smart phone). One of the projects SSA is developing for the field offices is a mobile app. The app will let you check in for an appointment on your smart phone from your car. 

Social Security hearings are still being heard solely by telephone.  But, SSA has plans to go to video hearings using Microsoft Teams. Unrepresented individuals with an email address have started to get their hearing record by secure email rather than on a disc.  It is important to ask for the hearing record if you have a hearing scheduled and cannot get someone to represent you. This allows you to see the evidence SSA is using to deny or cut off your benefits.

SSA and its Inspector General is reminding the public to be on the alert for scams. Be very careful if you get an unwanted call from someone saying they are from the government. Do not give out personal information like your date of birth, social security number, place of birth, or mother’s maiden name. SSA will never call and threaten you with arrest or legal action, tell you that your social security number has been suspended, demand secrecy in handling a Social Security-related problem or ask for payment in exchange for services.

If you have any issues regarding your Social Security Benefits, you may apply for free legal services by calling the SCLS toll free number 888-346-5592 or apply online at https://sclegal.org/

15th Annual Neighbor Day

The 15th Annual Neighbor Day was a success in spite of the restrictions of COVID-19.  Generous donations, established sponsorships, and dedicated employees at the Charleston office of South Carolina Legal Services were determined to make this another successful year.  Due to COVID-19, a more creative and strategic approach was needed for this year’s community outreach project. Parents who previously attended Neighbor Day  were contacted via phone, email and mail.  They were given instructions on how to sign up and later schedule an appointment to pick up the items.  We were able to provide over 160 children including the children housed at the Carolina Youth Development Center with shoes, socks, school supplies, dental hygiene kits, and PPE supplies.  We also made a sizable shoe donation to The Lowcountry Orphan Relief.

COVID-19 didn’t stop our efforts of providing resources and much needed items for the people of our community.  We will continue to be a resource for our community and look forward to a COVID-19 Free Neighbor Day 2021. 

Evictions and Education

The McKinney-Vento Act provides valuable protections for families with children in school, who are facing eviction or homelessness. These services can be particularly beneficial during the pandemic, when more families may face eviction. The Act requires that public school entities ensure that homeless children have the same access to public education as other youth. The Act defines a student as homeless if he or she is staying in a shelter, motel, vehicle, trailer park, on the street or with relatives or friends. If a student falls within one of these categories, public schools have to provide the student with educational services. The services include transportation to the school the child was enrolled in before becoming homeless, if feasible, referral to other social and health services (e.g. shelters, mental health services, domestic violence agencies), enrollment in school of choice, enrollment in school without a permanent address and other services. Families may contact their school(s) to obtain contact information for the McKinney-Vento Act liaison who can assist with obtaining the benefits under this law.

The Importance of Being Prepared

Losing a loved one is hard, but it can be made harder by not being prepared. If you are over age 18 then you need a Will to simplify the probate process for your loved ones. There are lots of places that you can get a low-cost or free Will, so a simple Will does not have to break the bank. We recently did a presentation on Wills and other types of Advance Directives. You can watch this training here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=IdrDLq6_Ros&t=1s

We always strongly encourage you to meet with an attorney to execute a Will. Sure, there are lots of free programs on the internet that can help you do your own Will, but those programs do not contemplate your specific situation. Wills can be made complicated by things like blended families, adult children with disabilities, or minor children. This is why it is important to talk to a licensed attorney who has experience drafting a Will and can talk you thorough all the potential issues that can arise in a Will.

After you have your Will you need to make sure that the person you have named as a Personal Representative knows where your original Will is located. Your Personal Representative must take your original Will to probate court, with your death certificate, funeral program or obituary, and a copy of your paid funeral bill as soon as possible.

Probate courts have super-helpful staff. They can not give you legal advice, but they can tell you what forms the court needs completed and when they need them completed by. Most courts give you a checklist of what form is due and when you must submit it by.

The most important thing to remember is that an estate must be probated within 10 years of a person’s date of death. This means that if you wait 11 years to turn over a Will and open an estate, the court can not let you do that. I have seen cases where a person holds on to the Will not realizing it must be filed until years later. This can cause some serious heartache and headaches. If an estate is not opened within 10 years of a person’s date of death, a more formal action must be brought in the court called a Petition to Determine Heirs. This action can be quite expensive, because the court requires certified birth certificates, death certificates, funeral programs or obituaries, and all the potential heirs must be served with notice. The court also requires a hearing and the testimony of a disinterested witness who knew the person who passed away and knew who their family members are. Some probate courts even require that the petitioner pay for a court reporter for this hearing, which can also be very expensive.

So, it’s a good idea to be prepared. Many people handle the estates of their loved ones without an attorney. However, if you have recently lost a loved one and do not know where to turn, you can call and apply for our services at 1.888.346.5592 or apply online at www.sclegal.org.

SCLS Attorney’s Mission Reflection

At the start of this week, I needed to remind myself how important this job is. (Been there?) So I took some time to reflect on some of the ways we really help change people’s lives for the better. It helped.

Here are a few of the examples that renewed me with a sense of purpose:

  • Because of us, undocumented mothers — survivors of extreme poverty and domestic abuse — get to live and work in peace in the same country where her children were born. They get to drive their kids to soccer practice without the fear of being stopped by police, taken to jail, and deported.
  • Because of us, jealous, angry, unruly parents who want to hire a lawyer and take custody of their children out of spite, or pettiness, or a desire to get out of paying child support (and think they can do it because the other parent is poor), are met with a dose of reality. Those children then get to remain with the only good parent they have, and that parent gets to keep raising the children who are at the center of their universe.
  • Because of us, the Department of Employment and Workforce is made to understand that our client wasn’t actually at fault for being terminated from their job. As a result, that client gets to make their mortgage payment, and car payment, and utility bill with the benefits that would have otherwise been denied to them.

This is a job with serious implications for people who have no other option but us. Sometimes, the weight of that can make you feel overwhelmed, like treading water alone in the middle of a dark ocean. This week, it makes me feel connected to humanity.

This is truly what it means to work as a Staff Attorney with SCLS. Do you want to make a difference in the lives of people who so desperately need someone to be their voice? If you would like to have the same ability to connect to humanity and be a part of our mission, please visit our website at https://sclegal.org/employment to become a part of our team.

Putting Your Affairs in Order – Advanced Directives Documents You Need Prepared

Given the current pandemic, everyone is trying to make sure that they stay healthy.  You may be wearing a mask or being careful when you leave the house, but have you thought about making sure your loved ones know your wishes about your medical care?  You can communicate your desired treatment by signing certain advance directives: a Living Will; a Health Care Power of Attorney; and a Physician Order for Scope of Treatment (POST).

           A Living Will is a legal document that allows you to make medical decisions ahead of time about life-sustaining procedures in the event you are ever faced with a terminal illness or are in a permanent vegetative state.  You state whether or not you want life-sustaining procedures, such as artificial nutrition or hydration, withheld or used.  This is a statutory form available in South Carolina which means that it is available for free.  However, you should discuss the document with an attorney to make sure that it is properly executed and that you understand the choices you are making in the document.

            A Heath Care Power of Attorney is similar to a Living Will because it also covers decisions if you are terminally ill or in a vegetative state.  However, in a Health Care Power of Attorney you name someone as your agent to make health care decisions for you if you are unable to make them for yourself.  You do not need both a Living Will and a Health Care Power of Attorney.  You should decide which of these documents is best for you.  If you do not know which one you should proceed with or which document works best for your situation you should speak with an attorney to give you advice on the two types of documents.

A Physician Order for Scope of Treatment (POST) is a document that works along with other advance directives.  It is a medical order that you complete with your doctor that addresses key medical decisions about the care that you will receive at the end of your life. You should consider a POST document when you have been diagnosed with a serious illness and may be expected to lose capacity within 12 months.

            You should consider having an advance directive in place so that your family members will know your wishes about your medical care in a situation in which you might not be able to communicate with them.    The attorneys at South Carolina Legal Services can assist you with these documents. To apply for services call 888-346-5592 and speak with one of our In Take Staff.

Client Remains in Home with SCLS’ Help

Good always trumps evil, even in probate court.

Our client Jane lived in her mother’s house and cared for her during the last years of her mother’s life. Unfortunately, after the death of the mother, one of the sisters wanted Jane to get out of the house – even though all siblings were to equally own the house under the mother’s will. The sister filed motions with the Probate Court asking the Court to throw Jane out. Jane won those Court battles. The personal representative, the sister’s son, filed another action to evict Jane and to require her to accept an offer to sell her portion of the home.  Feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, Jane asked SCLS’ attorneys to help her stay in the home. At the hearing, the Probate Judge suggested a settlement to sell the property that included using a real estate agent.

Unfortunately, the personal representative did not abide by the terms of the Court’s approved agreement. SCLS’ staff uncovered that the property had been sold to the sister. The sale had gone forward with a realtor who did not list the property in public listings, ordered no signs to be placed in the yard, no showings, and no photos. Offers, including cash offers, were rejected in favor of the offer made by the sister.

SCLS’ attorneys requested an emergency hearing with the Probate Court because of the unfair way Jane had been treated.  This time the judge allowed Jane to select the realtor and required the home be listed in a manner consistent with real estate principles. Offers flowed in from the minute the listing hit the internet. A legitimate purchaser was sold the home.  Indeed, justice prevailed in that the purchaser agreed to allow Jane to rent the home from him. Our client stayed in the home!

Probate Court proceedings can be difficult as families try to work out issues with family care, property and other matters. This is a stressful time for families and regrettably often the emotions get in the way of reason. If you need help in any Probate matter, please call our Intake Office at 888-346-5592 to apply for free legal services. You may also apply for legal services online at https://www.lawhelp.org/sc/online-intake

Bankruptcy Court and COVID-19

Bankruptcy COVID clients that were awaiting hearings and those that have filed since March 2020 are benefiting from the Operating Orders and other changes that occurred in the Bankruptcy Court as Judges addressed safety and the economic hardship of debtors caused by COVID.

Hearings.  The dockets set for 341 Hearings (First Meetings of Creditors) and Confirmation Hearings were converted to telephonic hearings. Prior to COVID-19 SCLS clients traveled as far as 80 miles each way for hearings. The hearings set after March and continuing do not require internet or video, simply a working telephone. Clients and attorneys may dial in from wherever they are at a set time.

Plans. Chapter 13 Plans filed prior to March 13, 2020 can be extended from five to seven-year plans if related in some way to COVID. The Courts are liberally construing the cause of the hardships and approving amended plans.

Other Updates.

  • Chapter 13 Trustees have not filed Motions to Dismiss for Non-Payment since March; although this will resume this week with settlement options.
  • Trustees have not attempted to claim an interest in extra monies distributed during the crisis. In the past no tax refund was safe from their grasp.

To find out if you qualify for free bankruptcy representation, contact our Intake Office at 888-346-5592 or apply online at www.sclegal.org.

School Enrollment

It’s hard to believe that the summer is almost over. In August, most schools in South Carolina will start the process of enrolling students for the new school year. School enrollment can be difficult for many low-income parents and caretakers of children. School fees seem to increase every year and paying these fees can be a struggle to a family with a tight budget. If your family receives SNAP benefits, or your children qualify for free or reduced lunch, you can have your school enrollment fees waived. Some schools do this automatically every year, while other school parents need to ask about the waiver of these fees. Many schools will try to get you to agree to a payment plan, if you can afford that you can agree to it. But if you can not afford a payment plan speak up and tell the school that you can not afford it. Those fees can be waived.

The other big concern facing caretakers and parents this time of year is how to actually get students enrolled. Schools can ask for proof of residency, meaning proof of where you live. This can get complicated if you are staying with friends or maybe living in a motel, or shelter. Schools can not refuse to enroll your child if you live in a motel, shelter, or stay with friends or family. There is a federal law called McKinney Vento that allows children without fixed, adequate nighttime housing to be enrolled in school. Each school district has a McKinney Vento coordinator and you can ask to speak to this person to get your student enrolled.

Schools may also require proof of a child’s age to enroll them in school. The easiest way to do this is a birth certificate, but there are lots of legitimate reasons why a family may not be able to provide a child’s birth certificate. The school can not require you to provide a birth certificate if you have some other proof of the child’s age. Official documents that have a child’s age listed are medical records, or immunization records.

Sometimes children live with people other than their parents. If someone other than a custodial parent tries to enroll a child, they maybe told that the child cannot be enrolled without a custody order. Custody is a complicated and expensive legal process and filing for it may not be the right thing for your situation. You do not need a custody order if a child lives with you because of one of the following reasons:

  1. Parent or legal guardian is seriously ill or in jail.
  2. Parent or legal guardian has completely given up control of the child and does not support them, or visit with them.
  3. Parents have abused or neglected the child.
  4. Parents are mentally or physically ill and cannot care for or supervise the child.
  5. Parent is homeless, or the child is homeless.
  6. Parent has been deployed to military or active duty for more than 60 days and more than 70 miles away from their residence.

Instead of a custody order, you can enroll the child by using a School Enrollment Affidavit. The school can provide you one of these upon your request. Once the school district is presented with the affidavit, they must immediately enroll the child. If you are requesting a school enrollment affidavit, it is best to request them from the district office rather than the individual school. . If you need one of our attorneys to assist you with any of this process you may call our toll free number at 888-346-5592 or go on line at www.sclegal.org to apply for our services.

Unlawful Eviction Action

In May, our client was served with a 30-day notice to terminate her lease. Upon review of the client’s documents, she had a lease through September, and she did not wish to terminate her lease early. She had not received any notices of any lease violations, but was aware that a particular neighbor was making frivolous complaints about her to the police and to the property manager. I called the property manager and informed him they had no right to terminate the lease early, and my client wanted to stay through the term of her lease. He did not appreciate being told he could not do what he wanted to do, and eventually hung up.

Because the phone call did not go well, I decided to send the property manager a fax to summarize our phone conversation. In that letter, I informed him that if he sought to evict my client, I would ask for attorney’s fees and attach the letter as “Exhibit A.”

Fast forward a month. I received a call from our client – she had been served with an eviction action. We requested a hearing and prepared our defenses.

At the hearing, on cross-examination, I walked the property manager through the law and he ultimately agreed that the eviction was unlawful. He also acknowledged receiving my letter about attorney’s fees. The judge ruled in our favor, dismissing the eviction, and awarded us attorney’s fees in light of the property manager being put on notice that what he was doing was unlawful.

South Carolina Legal Services is a statewide law firm that provides civil legal services to protect the rights and represent the interests of low-income South Carolinians. To apply for free legal help, call 1-888-346-5593 or apply online at https://www.lawhelp.org/sc/online-intake.