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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 Wentworth found pamphlets out of date, and sample petitions were so complicated that figuring out how to complete them is difficult.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. Am I the only one who sees that the City is essentially giving away the MSA site AND giving millions to build new buildings on the site when this site would be the perfect place for the Justice Complex? Across from City-County, check; keeping it centrally located, check, etc. It's my understanding that the GM site must be purchased by the City from Motors Liquidation Company. STOP WASTING WHAT WE ALREADY HAVE AND OUR TAX DOLLARS! The Ballard Administration has not been known for it's common sense...never voted for him and never will!

  2. This guy sounds like the classic molester/manipulator.

  3. Louis D. Brandeis was born in 1856. At 9 years of age it would have been 1865. The Brandeis family did not own slaves. My source Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin L. Urofsky.

  4. My name is Matthew Lucas Major, I recently went through a jury trial in Bloomington , In. It was the week of Feb 19-21. Although I have been incarcerated since August 5, 2014. The reason I 'am writing to you sir is on the 21 of February the jury came in with a very excessive and wrongful verdict of guilty on 6 child molesting charges against my daughter who was 9 at the time I was accused. I also had 2 other Felonies one of Intimidation and 1 of Sexual Vicarious Gratification. Judge Marc Kellam on the second day of trial gave me a not guilty on those 2 felonies. The jury was sent out during that time and when brought back Judge Kellam told them to not concern themselves with the 2 Felonies that he ruled on them. They were told to not let evidence they had already heard influence there verdicts. I never in my life touched any child sexually and definitely not with my own daughter. When I was arrested Detective Shawn Karr told me I would be convicted guilty just on my daughters word even without evidence. That's just what happened. my public defender did me so wrong he never once proved to the court and jury all the lies the child told, and Jeremy Noel my public defender could of proven the lies easily. The stories in Serenity's depositions and Forensic interview changed and were not consistent as Prosecutor Darcie Fawcett claimed they were. Yet my attorney never mentioned that. The facts that the child accused me of full penetration in her vagina and rectum was proven lies. Doctor Roberta Hibbard of Riley hospital in Indianapolis confirmed Serenity's hymen intact, no scars, no tearing, no signs of rape to her. Yet my attorney didn't use that knowledge . the DNA was all in my favor. I tell you I will spend my entire life in prison going through rape and beatings etc. even Judge Kellam abused his authority by telling the jurors to listen and believe what the prosecutors side in evidence like my daughters testimony. In one interview with the detectives my daughter got flustered with her mom and said on camera " I'm saying what you told me to mom"!! Yet Mr. Noel said nor did anything to even resemble a defense attorney. Judge Kellam allowed edited version of a taped conversation between the child and her mother. Also Judge Kellam allowed the Prosecutor too bring in to my case a knife found under my seat, the knife wasn't part of my case. She was allowed by my attorney and the judge to put a huge picture of it on the screen and huge picture of my naked privates in a full courtroom and open court. Ms. Fawcett says to jury see how easy Mr. Major could reach the knife and cut his Childs throat. Even though I had no weapons charge against these cases. This gave the jurors prejudice thought against me thinking I threatened her with that knife and how scared she would of been knowing i could get it and kill her. On my sentencing court March 19, 2014 my public defender told Judge Kellam he wish to resign from being my attorney and wished for the court to give me outside council to file a error to trial or appeal. We were denied. Now after openly knowing my public defender don't want to represent me he has to. Well when as parents we make our kids clean a room when they really don't wish to, well the child will but don't mean she will do a good job, that's where I'm at with Mr. Noel. please dont ignore mine and my families pleas for your help . we have all the legal proof you could need to prove Im innocent. Please dont make my spend years in prison innocent when you can fix this wrong. Im not saying Im a perfect man or that I was a perfect dad to my 2 children none of us are. Ive made some bad choices in life and I paid for them. But I didnt ever touch or rape my daughter . I love my children with all my heart. And now through needing attention and a ex-wife who told my granny several times she wish she could put me in prison to get me out of their lives. Well my ex finally accomplished her goal. Sad part is she is destroying our daughter with all this horrific lies and things she taught my daughter to say. My daughter will need therapist to ever hope for a chance of a normal life after what she had done to her by her mom and their side of the family. My daughter told everyone even on stand she had a dream months before i supposedly molested her in this dream I was molesting her and when I finally did it matched her dream perfectly. She admitted to watching movies about little girls being molested and watching U-Tube videos about child molesting all before it happened supposedly to her. Doesn't that sound very unusual that a non molested 9 yr old would need to know so much about being molested? The only reason I could think a 9 year old would need so much information is to be prepared to know what to say and be able to say how it felt what took place etc.. So when questioned by authorities she would be prepared. And there again sir if a parent is pre grooming a 9 year old child she would need intimate details . Like telling her daughter about a couple moles on my private area. The child admitted to sneaking my cell and looking many many times at nudes of me and my girlfriend even one where my penis was entering my girlfriends vagina. In that picture my moles are obvious. Yet when prosecutor showed everyone in court my privates and pictures of the moles she said the only way the child would know about them is if she saw them for herself. My attorney once again said nothing about the pictures my child saw. Or could a ex-wife be able to describe my moles to help her case against getting rid of me? I beg you help me. This is my very existence. Ive lost everything , a good job, a wonderful girlfriend, my freedom, but worse thing Ive lost is my children. They were my reason to get up every morning and strive to be better. The wonderful bond I had with my Serenity is gone. After this I would be afraid to even hug her for fear of what next can they do to me. I'm not afraid to tell you I sit here in this cell and try to hold back my tears. Everyone knows you cant show weakness in prison. My life has already been threatened here at Wabash Valley Prison. After only 3 days of arrival. I was tricked into signing a waiver now Im in G Block General Population with 6 child molesting felony charges. Mrs. Hart as a 18 year old I almost died hooked to machines in hospital almost 1 month and now I know that fear was childish compared to this . I cant help but put emotions in this, after all Mrs. Hart Im human and God help Me I never been more afraid in my life. I didnt hurt my little girl I didnt touch her sexually. As much as it shreds me and fills my mind what Im facing I worry more about my mom and granny because of their great love for me mam they are suffering so deeply. I aint done this things but my loved ones suffering right along beside me and If you take my case you will be in essence freeing them also. I sent momma this letter and asked her to email it to you. I'm scared I have been done so unjustly by our legal system and I need you to fix this and give me freedom. I ask you please don't just ignore my pleas. Here in America its nice to be able to trust our legal justice system, well they destroyed my and my loved ones trust in our justice system . And I'm trusting in You !!! My entire family is suffering this nightmare with me. My 77 year old granny had a stroke and isn't doing so well. My single mother that raised 3 kids alone is dying from Lupus and since my arrest has stayed so sick and weary. Our lives torn to peices by a government I was taught I could trust in. my momma has tried so many innocent project and wrongfully accused and cant get anywhere. please please help me. A quote from the late Nelson Mandela: To be free is not merely to cast off ones chains, But to live in a way that respects and enhances The Freedom Of Others. I have Faith in you and your clinic to cast my chains off and give me freedom I do deserve as a wrongfully accused Man, son, brother, father, friend. Matthew Major DOC# 246179 Cause # : 53c02-1308-FA-000779 God Bless you. Please contact me with your decision so I know you made a life changing decision for me , just please at least write me so I know you care enough about your citizens to respond to cries for your help. You can speak openly with my mother Charlotte Spain (828) 476-0406: 71 Lakeview Dr. Canton, NC 28716 Thank You Matthew Major I know yall get thousands of request and inmates claiming innocence, and each person who are innocent deserve to have organizations like yours willing to fight for them and I give yall so much Thanks and I thank God everyday yall are out there caring enough to help free the innocents. Since discovering firsthand how easily lives and families can be destroyed by Poor Defense attorneys not doing their job . And Prosecutors allowed to do as they please in court

  5. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

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