In 2006, Ariane divorced her husband, who, before and during their marriage, had racked up over $74,000 in tax debt to the IRS. After their divorce, her ex-husband’s whereabouts became completely unknown, so the IRS went after her for the entire debt.

At the time of the divorce, her attorney neglected to ask her if there was any tax debt in the union, although in the state of California, “when you divorce someone… you don’t divorce the tax debt,” according to Ariane. In the years following the divorce, Ariane tried and failed to deal with the IRS, and she was consistently denied her Federal Tax Refund. This was especially challenging to her, as she was working to put her two children through school, and her ex-husband did not pay any child support. “He fell off the map,” she recalled. She attempted to utilize the resources of Legal Self-Help at the San Francisco Superior Court, but was disappointed with the results. “They want you to stand in line for an hour for someone to tell you what to do” she recounts, “it’s an overwhelming in a place where you’re already frustrated.”

She brought her case to Jeff, one of Open Door Legal’s staff attorneys. Jeff performed legal research on innocent spouse laws, and helped her document how she had been paying his tax debt for years. He presented this to the court, and was then able to bring on board another attorney, with whom Ariane worked to put together another document saying that she completed her contribution.

Without the aid of Open Door Legal, she would not have been able to prepare the paperwork necessary to go to court and remove her ex-husband’s tax debt. Jeff helped Ariane navigate the challenging arena of legal writing, where one misplaced word can cause one to lose his or her case. “Jeff knows what he’s doing,” Ariane commented. In January 2014, Ariane received a court judgment legally freeing her from her ex-husband’s tax debt. She was thrilled with the outcome of her case.

Client’s name and/or photo was changed at her request to protect her identity.

Skills

Posted on

May 5, 2015

Ever since childhood, our co-founder Adrian has been dedicated to reducing poverty.

He studied systemic poverty in college and went to work in the field for a few years. Eventually, he had a thesis that legal aid was the most cost-effective way to address poverty in America. He wrote up a business plan and used it to apply to law school. 

The idea was to create the country’s first system of universal access to civil legal representation that ensures everyone can obtain timely, competent legal help for any legal issue, regardless of ability to pay. That had never been done before in the history of the United States.

In law school, he met Virginia, our Programs Director. Together, they co-founded the organization, two weeks after Adrian passed the bar.

When we opened we put a sign in the window, and with just that marketing and almost no other outreach we were overwhelmed with requests for help from people with good cases who had been turned away everywhere else.

Our first year we had revenue of $35,000. We would hand shred documents because a shredder was too expensive. Despite the financial challenges, we were able to work on over 280 cases in everything from housing law to family law to consumer law in the first year alone.

The hours were extreme, the pay was low, and the learning curve was steep. Still, we persisted. We knew that almost everyone we helped was not able to receive services anywhere else. Eventually, we attracted the interest of funders. We tripled our revenue for several years in a row. In 2015, we won the Bay Area Google Impact Challenge, which enabled us to expand even more. In 2019, we secured additional funding from the city that allowed us to open two new centers in the Excelsior and Western Addition.

As of 2020, our staff has grown to 27 full-time employees. We’ve shown that universal access is possible. Now, we plan to scale city-wide, make San Francisco the first city in the country’s history to have universal access to legal help, and become a model for national replication.