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UT law students help draft wills for Valley homeowners

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Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2013 9:00 am

SAN JUAN — Law students met with low-income Rio Grande Valley residents last week to help protect what’s often a family’s most important asset: the home.

The University of Texas at Austin law students, supervised by licensed lawyers, got their first taste of pro-bono work at two sessions hosted at La Unión del Pueblo Entero, a community organization. At least 120 property owners signed up for the clinics in San Juan, organizers said.

Tina Fernandez, director of pro-bono programs with the UT Austin William Wayne Justice Center, said 80 percent of the legal needs of low-income individuals go unmet.

For many who attended, the family home was the person’s most valuable asset.

“In terms of being able to build wealth across generations, being able to protect that single asset and pass it to their family when they’re gone without any encumbrances — that’s really, really important,” Fernandez said.

Without a legal will a home will go into probate, a drawn-out process in court.

“What ends up happening is because there is no clear owner, then there’s nobody to pay the property taxes,” Fernandez said. “There’s nobody to do the upkeep on the property and a lot of times the properties end up being lost.”

Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid hosted the local workshops.

“We’ve been coming down for the last four years and every time we come down there’s more need than what we can do in a week’s time,” Fernandez said.

Siena Magallanes, a UT law school freshman from Brownsville, was one of more than 40 college students using her winter break to help.

She said the clients were always grateful, making the work emotional at times. It was also an important moment to acknowledge how crucial pro-bono work is to what lawyers do, she said.

“I love being from the Valley,” Magallanes said. “I love everything about it and the opportunity to come back and help some of the people that really need it is really meaningful.”

Diana Sloss, an Edinburg resident, said she found out about the clinic at a local food bank where she picks up items for her mother.

 “You’re a baby boomer. You’re retired. The way the economy is, you know, it’s like ‘OK, am I going to go through $500, $600 to make my will? I’m going to make that expenditure?” she said.

The retired state worker said it’s important to her to be prepared. She is unmarried and doesn’t want her multiple siblings to wind up in a legal battle over her assets, she said. “Nobody’s going to benefit from that, except maybe the government down the road.”

Jacqueline Armendariz covers law enforcement, courts and general assignments for The Monitor. She can be reached at jarmendariz@themonitor.com and (956) 683-4434.

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