In an effort to increase awareness of the powerful, essential role civil legal services play in our community, the A2J Dispatch will feature an A2J Stories segment, highlighting the stories and work of one of Maryland’s civil legal services organizations. We will dig deeper into the issues faced by Marylanders and how civil legal aid makes a positive difference.

The Legal Nightmare of a Friendly Loan

It seemed like a fair deal, in the beginning; perhaps, even a miracle. Tom* had just suffered a debilitating stroke and could not afford the essential repairs to his home, but a generous friend was going to loan him the cash. There would be some conditions, of course – Tom’s friend requested an interest in the property – but that seemed reasonable to the senior Baltimore resident; didn’t every bank require some collateral?

Tom happily signed the documents his friend presented, grateful for the loan opportunity that would allow him to fix the property he had inherited from his mother.  

Then the trap swung shut.

The “friend” soon began to show abusive behaviors, harassing Tom and threatening to take control of the property. Frustrated by the loss of power over his own home, and confused about how to get out of this upsetting situation, Tom contacted Senior Legal Services (SLS) in Baltimore City.

SLS, a joint project of the Bar Association of Baltimore City and the Baltimore Bar Foundation, Inc., provides a multitude of services to older Baltimore residents. The organization assists with estate planning, housing and consumer issues, and intervention in abusive and manipulative situations.

Speaking with an attorney brought a shocking revelation for Tom: he hadn’t given his “friend” a mere $7,000 interest in his home to secure a loan. He had signed documents awarding this person a remainder interest in the property of over $300,000.

Tom’s only asset was in the hands of a manipulative abuser.

SLS attorneys were determined, however, that Tom would no longer be victimized by his predatory friend. Undoing the web of deception required precise, professional legal assistance, explained Viola Woolums, Director of SLS. “An SLS attorney prepared a new deed to the home to make sure that the abuser’s interest was fully extinguished,” she said. Tom “regained control of his home, which is his only asset, and now has the freedom to do with it as he wishes.”

Stories like Tom’s highlight the critical role lawyers play in ensuring the most vulnerable Marylanders have access to the civil justice system – and protecting the interests of justice as a whole. Without an attorney to investigate and, in many cases, “translate” legal documents, gross injustices can fester.

“We also assist many seniors who are unable to read in understanding the legal notices they receive, either because they are blind or illiterate,” Woolums said, describing how one blind client nearly lost their home at a tax sale last year because they were unable to read legal notices that were mailed to them. The aide who normally performed such tasks as reading mail had stopped visiting due to the pandemic. SLS attorneys again came to the rescue, advocating for the senior homeowner and resolving the tax sale situation.

Woolums noted that her organization is small, and often relies on pro bono attorneys to help serve clients’ needs. She encouraged interested attorneys to visit to learn about volunteer opportunities.