The Law: Aid for War Wives

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When the family's 1958 Ford began wheezing its last, Mrs. Virginia Fobair of Tampa, Fla., tried first to sell it, then to give it away. Hemmed in by legalisms, she finally donated it to an elementary-school carnival where, for only a dime, customers could swing a hammer at Mrs. Fobair's "frustration car." Mrs. Evelyn Grubb of Colonial Heights, Va., applied twice for a BankAmericard; both times the company replied that her husband's signature was required on the application. Mrs. Phyllis Kline and her husband, also of Tampa, owned an interest in a nearby orange grove that Mrs. Kline wanted to put on the market. But since the name of her husband, Air Force Lieut. Colonel Robert Kline, was on the title, she could not negotiate a sale.

The three women share a common problem: the agony of having their husbands missing in action or prisoners of war in Southeast Asia is compounded by frustrating legal tangles in their daily lives. They and the other wives run into a variety of restraints. Summer camps sometimes will not accept a child without the father's written approval. An insurance company held up payment for property destroyed in a fire. Colonel Kline gave his wife some legal power to deal with his property before he went to Viet Nam, but it proved not to be broad enough.

Legal Remedy. This month the Young Lawyers Section of the American Bar Association started a service to aid the 1,600 families of P.O.W.s and M.I.A.s across the country. Walter S. McLin, a Leesburg, Fla., attorney and chairman of the A.B.A. program, has announced that the Young Lawyers will provide legal assistance to families, lobby for remedial state legislation, and distribute materials on the wives' legal problems to state bar associations.

After hearing repeated pleas from a number of wives last year, including his sister-in-law, Mrs. Frankie Ford, whose husband has been missing in action since 1968, McLin researched the problems. He found that Florida laws provided for situations in which a spouse is dead, mentally incompetent or absent by his own volition. There was no category for absent U.S. servicemen. As a result, wives who wanted to transact important family business were often helpless if their husbands had full or partial title to the property involved.

Cooperative Capitals. Responding to McLin's prodding, the Florida legislature has amended the state conservatorship law to allow P.O.W. and M.I.A. wives the power of attorney to sell property. For values under $5,000, the wife need only submit written notice to a judge for routine review. For amounts over $5,000, the legislature granted similar rights but authorized the state circuit court to supervise the proceedings in detail. That way the husband's interests would be protected in major transactions, such as the sale of a house.

Texas followed Florida's example, and McLin is keeping close tabs on the calendars of all state legislative sessions in hopes that his A.B.A. colleagues will be able to collar sympathetic legislators on behalf of the wives. With remedial legislation and first-rate legal assistance, at least one problem of the families will have been eliminated.