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Free legal help the subject of Community Center presentation


Area senior citizens were surprised to learn yesterday that they have a place to turn for free legal help.

Shelldon Skelcher, an attorney out of Scottsbluff with Legal Aid of Nebraska, spoke with seniors at the Cheyenne County Community Center about their rights and the services his firm provides.

"We're the organization for individuals who don't have another place to turn legally," Skelcher said.

He advises all those who can afford their own legal help to pay for a lawyer, but understands that isn't possible for everyone.

"There's a certain portion of the population that just can't afford that," Skelcher said.

He informed those present about his organization's elder access line, which provides legal advice and services to Nebraska residents over the age of 60. Questions posed to this line are answered by paralegals with expertise in elder law. Those at the eldercare hotline can help with issues concerning Medicare and Medicaid, simple wills, power of attorney and consumer protection in addition to any other legal advice. The elder access line provides a more direct line to a person than the standard access line.

Nebraska Legal Aid's vision is, "To promote justice, dignity, hope and self-sufficiency through quality civil legal aid for those who have nowhere else to turn."

More broadly this agency, which will celebrate its 50th birthday this year, provides all low income Nebraskans with help in regards to divorce, welfare benefits, eviction, domestic abuse and bankruptcy.

"We are the largest law firm in the state of Nebraska," Skelcher said. "We serve almost one sixth of the population of Nebraska. We serve low income people."

Many of those present at the CCCC were surprised that they could obtain legal aid for free.

"We're here for nothing," Skelcher said. "We don't charge anything. We get all court costs waived if at all possible."

Legal Aid of Nebraska receives some federal and state funding but is primarily funded by other attorneys, who donate money and court fees.

This organization raises awareness of tenant rights.

"We do take cases where people have their heat shut off, their water shut off, their electricity shut off," Skelcher said.

Shutting off a person's utilities is not legal, Skelcher informed the crowd.

"We're primarily concerned first about food," Skelcher said.

Skelcher often deals with cases related to food stamps. In one case Skelcher's organization helped an 83-year-old woman who was in the program. Her roof was damaged in a hail storm, so her insurance provided a check to fix the damage. The incident occurred in the fall but the contractor she chose couldn't fix it until spring. She deposited the funds for the roof in a separate bank account but her food stamps were cut off because she had too much money.

Skelcher's firm first tried to work this matter out with the agencies involved, but when they wouldn't budge, he took them to court on the woman's behalf.

"It's those type of things that we approach," Skelcher said. "That's kind of what we do. We help people deal with bureaucracy."

Another senior assisted by Legal Aid of Nebraska was having issues with the VA because all his records were burnt in a fire in the 1970s. Skelcher's firm is currently in the process of taking care of this for him.

Skelcher informed the crowd that it's no longer legal to garnish a person's Social Security payments.

"If you get somebody who tries to garnish you, we defend you in court," Skelcher said. "You're allowed to have up to $2,500 in your checking account. You're allowed to have a vehicle and your personal items. We can protect all of that and we do that on a regular basis all the time."

This firm doesn't seek attorney's fees, unlike others.

"We're not here to replace other attorneys," Skelcher said. "If you can afford an attorney, get an attorney but we won't collect any of those fees."

The firm also deals with bankruptcies due to medical bills.

As recently as five years ago about half of bankruptcies Skelcher dealt with were due to irresponsibility and the other half were due to medical bills. Skelcher said this has recently changed. Now, around 98 percent are due to medical bills.

The firm has experts in many areas of law.

"We've got a pretty good network," Skelcher said.

Legal Aid of Nebraska provides assistance to any resident who makes up to 125 percent of the poverty line. Expenses such as medical insurance are taken into account as well.

"Even if you're outside the income guidelines, these people get calls all the time," Skelcher said. "They know exactly where to send you."

Many of those at the CCCC found Skelcher's presentation useful.

"I definitely learned new things," Sue Preston said.

Preston claimed she knew there was free legal help out there 25 years ago, when she was going through a divorce but didn't understand how to go about getting it.

"I didn't know it was as extensive and excellent as it is now," Preston said.

Virginia Gregory said she thought the information provided was very helpful. Gregory was adopted and tried many years ago to track down information about her biological family. She was told the records were closed and she would have to get a lawyer to unseal them, which would cost a hefty sum. She decided to give up.

"I didn't know this was available," Gregory said.

Because the elderly are more susceptible to scams and being taken advantage of, Legal Aid of Nebraska provides a necessary service to seniors, Skelcher said. Skelcher advises those who are considering a reverse mortgage to deal with banks they know and to check with Nebraska Legal Aid before going through with anything.

"This is something we need to know," Mary LeFavour said. "Especially the elderly need someone to rely on that will pull for you."


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