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Attorneys use pro bono tax work to fill the gap

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Almost immediately after taking her seat on the Indiana Tax Court, Judge Martha Blood Wentworth saw the problem.

Flowing into her court were numerous pro se litigants who ended up getting their cases bounced because they had made a procedural error. They either did not have resources to hire an attorney or the amount of money at stake was too low to make getting a lawyer cost beneficial.
 

Martha Wentworth Wentworth

Adding to the dilemma were the materials available to help pro se litigants. Wentworth found pamphlets out of date, and sample petitions were so complicated that figuring out how to complete them is difficult.

That the pro se litigants made errors in presenting their cases is not surprising. However, while the motion to dismiss was warranted, the judge worried the individuals who got their cases tossed were going to lose respect for the government.

“You shouldn’t be barred from access to the court because of a procedural problem,” Wentworth said, adding just getting to her court

is an expensive and time-consuming proposition. “We need to have a full, robust system where people feel that they had their day in court.”

As chair of the Indiana Pro Bono Commission, Wentworth is drawing special attention to the need for pro bono tax assistance. She wants to make more and better information accessible to pro se litigants and possibly update some of the court rules, for example in the small claims provision, to make the process easier.

In addition, the judge wants to make legal counsel available for individuals who need help. She proposes assigning tax attorneys as mentors to law students or young attorneys which would increase the pool of available pro bono counsel. Moreover, a mentor program would provide the students and new attorneys with a chance to learn from experienced lawyers.

“I’m on a mission,” she said.

Every aspect of life

Many agree with Wentworth that there is a gap in pro bono services for tax issues. Joshua Abel, executive director of the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, attributed the need to the economic recession which has depleted disposable income, making any kind of financial hit significant for families, as well as to the government tightening collection practices to cover revenue shortfalls.

Without assistance, Abel said people will get a bigger bill. In turn, they will then have less money to cover other household expenses like mortgages.

Determining the size of the need is difficult because much of the information is anecdotal. However, statistics from the Indiana Department of Revenue Tax Advocacy Office give some indication of how big the demand for help is.

Emerging from the worst of the recession, the tax advocacy office opened 3,055 new cases during fiscal year 2011. This is a sizable increase from the 2,738 cases created in fiscal year 2010 but the influx evaporated during fiscal year 2012 when 2,667 cases were created. These are typically cases that can’t be resolved through the normal collections process, such as hardship cases.

Tax problems are not just a headache for those with lower incomes. Tax questions arise when selling a company, closing a business or getting a divorce. It affects everybody in their personal lives.

“There is not anything you can do in life that doesn’t have a tax on it,” Wentworth said. “There is always a tax aspect no matter what.”


kerry blomquist Blomquist

At the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, tax issues are often tied to personal safety. Individuals suffering in abusive relationships may have an even harder time leaving because a looming tax liability could crush them financially, explained Kerry Hyatt Blomquist, legal counsel for the organization.

Abusers sometimes continue the abuse through the financial system by forging a spouse’s signature on an income tax form, or using false Social Security numbers or falsely claiming children as dependents. The resulting tax liability from such actions can be so daunting that some survivors are actually opting to stay with the abuser for financial protection.

For federal tax issues, the Internal Revenue Service is approachable but a solution might not come quickly, Blomquist said. And, while forms and instructions are available online, reading through the IRS literature can be overwhelming and intimidating.

The best practice, according to Blomquist, is to make sure the survivor’s advocate is giving attention to tax concerns as well as the other issues.

Providing help

Wentworth pointed to property taxes as being especially unforgiving and an area where people need the most help. Attorneys at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP saw that need up close when they offered special assistance for homeowners.

Brent Auberry, partner at the firm, and Judy Ferber, paralegal, put together the first Homeowners Property Tax Clinic in January (see story on Pg. 1). In a two-hour period, the team of attorney volunteers helped about 22 Marion County homeowners either get a resolution or get a promise that a resolution would be coming shortly.

Auberry said the clinic was inspired by Wentworth and by the attorneys wondering how they could use their tax knowledge for pro bono work. Looking at the monthly decisions from the Indiana Board of Tax Review, Auberry consistently sees a lot of pro se parties which led him to conclude people can use assistance in the tax field.

Not only is Auberry considering doing the clinic again at some point, he would like to see similar tax clinics offered in other counties. The attorney knows the need is there, and he is confident other tax attorneys are open to providing their services pro bono.

Blomquist, too, has found the lawyers she contacts are very willing to assist Coalition clients.

“It’s not a particularly difficult thing to find pro bono help,” she said. “If I’m working with a person in a horrible tax situation, I’m confident a lot of attorneys will step up to help.”

However, an infrastructure or an established system for getting pro bono tax assistance is not always in place, she continued. Connecting with lawyers who can help in these specific instances is really done through word of mouth.

In Marion County, Blomquist said, finding a tax attorney to ask for volunteer aid is not difficult. It becomes a much more formidable task in rural counties where the resources are not as deep.

To start filling that gap, the Indiana State Bar Association Pro Bono Committee is part of an effort to develop a continuing legal education program to train attorneys on specific tax topics. Lawyers can attend the CLE for free in exchange for subsequently taking a tax case pro bono. The class has been scheduled for June 21 in Indianapolis. In addition, it will be webcast so attorneys across Indiana can participate.


kuzma Kuzma

Abigail Kuzma, chair of the Indiana State Bar Association Pro Bono Committee, noted that having a pro bono attorney advising the individual makes the process easier not only for the individual but also for the opposition and the judge. Similar to what Wentworth sees in her courtroom, Kuzma believes people who do not get the legal tax help they need will slip through the cracks.

“I think this is one of the areas where we know there is a need,” she said.•

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  1. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  2. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  3. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  4. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  5. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

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