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Service Members Urged to Attend to Legal Affairs Long Before Deployment

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 18, 2003 – American service members have deployed to locales across the globe for months at a time since the advent of the war against global terrorism.

Therefore, it's important military members vigilantly ensure a constant state of legal readiness, Capt. Brian K. Keller, a Marine Corps lawyer, asserted during an interview with American Forces Press Service.

Keller is the officer in charge of the Marine legal assistance office at Henderson Hall, Va. He maintained that service members should "take some time," long before a deployment becomes a possibility, to consult a military attorney for evaluation of their legal readiness, including the usual suspects -- wills and powers of attorney - but also the laundry list of other issues.

Military legal assistance attorneys can help service members complete that list, but once deployment comes into view, Keller noted, it often is too late to attend to the myriad of appointments, paperwork and actions needed to ensure legal readiness.

The military provides free legal assistance to service members and their dependents, Keller pointed out. Legal assistance attorneys handle traditional transactions like arranging wills and powers of attorney. They can also counsel service members on a wide range of topics, including insurance matters, consumer and civil law issues, court hearings and child-support obligations.

Powers of attorney, Keller noted, are powerful legal documents that authorize a designated representative to conduct specific transactions in the name of the absentee.

Yet, a general power of attorney without limits, he cautioned, may give holders "unlimited powers to do whatever they wanted to with your assets."

Depending on the situation, authorizing general powers of attorney can "be a terrible thing to do," Keller pointed out. Instances of misuse of powers of attorney, he noted, have been known to occur during and after deployments. Therefore, he recommended that powers of attorney should be limited "to about a one-year time span," and should be given sparingly and only to trustworthy and financially responsible individuals.

When deployed overseas, Keller noted that service members would find it's difficult to revoke powers of attorney. To effectively revoke powers of attorney, he explained, "You not only have to give the revocation to the holder," but also to anyone that may rely on the power of attorney such as businesses, banks or mortgage lenders.

To mitigate possible misuse of powers of attorney, Keller said it's a good idea "to have a special power of attorney that's limited to a certain amount of time" and that spells out exactly what the holder is authorized to do.

For example, he noted, powers of attorney can be written to only authorize the issuance of checks in specific amounts and to pay specific bills.

A will, Keller noted, is another important legal document that service members should periodically review and update as needed, typically due to circumstances such as new members to the family, divorce, changes in assets and other factors.

Divorced or separated service members with child support payments or other financial obligations should ensure that such monies continue to be provided to the appropriate agency or person, to include during periods of deployment, he added.

If child support obligations will become exceedingly financially burdensome or impossible to meet during deployment, service members must request a decrease of the court-ordered amount well before deployment, Keller pointed out. Waiting too long, he noted, may waive any possibility of a decrease.

All in all, keeping up with legal affairs especially before being deployed benefits both individual service members and military readiness, Keller emphasized.

Service members with their legal affairs in disarray and hard pressed to effectively tackle those problems often become overwhelmed and consequently "can't do their jobs appropriately," Keller noted.

And in the long run "they'll incur more financial damage," Keller pointed out, "if they don't set up preventative (legal) measures beforehand."

The need for service members to attend to legal readiness issues is no less important than carrying the proper homeowner's or automobile insurance policies, Keller said.

Because "there's no way the military can verify each service member's legal readiness," he pointed out, "the onus of (legal) preparedness" falls on the individual (service member) and his or her family.

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