Local Young Lawyers Provide Estate Planning Services to Those on the Front Lines
Alexander P. Ryan is an assistant editor of The Affiliate and practices with the Groom Law Group in Washington, D.C.
As lawyers, it is not part of our traditional job description to rescue someone from a burning building or respond to an emergency call for help during the middle of the night. As active citizens in our communities, however, it is likely that we know someone who has performed such heroic measures. We may have even been the direct beneficiaries of these acts ourselves.
The American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (ABA YLD) recognizes that, in one way or another, we all benefit from the efforts of firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians, and other first responders in our communities. Unfortunately, although these responders put themselves at risk in nearly everything they do, many first responders do not have basic estate plans to protect their families in the event of their untimely death. That is why, for the 2007–2008 bar year, the ABA YLD has selected the “Wills for Heroes” program as its public service project. The program brings volunteer attorneys and first responders together to provide free wills, living wills, and healthcare and financial powers of attorney to these individuals and their spouses or domestic partners.
Like all great ideas, the “Wills for Heroes” program started with a simple vision: Anthony Hayes, a law partner with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP, in Columbia, South Carolina, wanted to lend a hand after the events of September 11, 2001. After learning from his local fire department about the need for free estate planning services, Hayes began developing the “Wills for Heroes” program, initially in South Carolina. The program caught on, and, to date, has prepared over 2,500 wills in South Carolina alone. In August 2004, Jeffrey Jacobson, an attorney in Tucson, Arizona, brought the “Wills for Heroes” program to the State Bar of Arizona Young Lawyers Division. To date, the Arizona YLD has prepared more than 3,400 wills in the state. Hayes and Jacobson’s vision ultimately led to the creation of the Wills for Heroes Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization, in 2006. The Foundation does not, itself, provide services directly to first responders. Rather, it works with various bar organizations to establish the “Wills for Heroes” program in individual locations. According to Jacobson, “Like any new nonprofit corporation, the Wills for Heroes Foundation is working for the greater good on a shoestring budget.” And despite budgetary constraints, a lot of good has been done to date. Hayes says that, nationwide, the program has helped more than 7,000 first responders.
This year, by working with the Wills for Heroes Foundation, the ABA YLD has helped to streamline the process for local young lawyer organizations and law firms to implement the program. A number of preparatory steps need to be taken to implement the program on the local level; the process typically takes about six months. Generally, an affiliate spends the first one to two months obtaining the necessary approval from its bar association and submitting the necessary forms to the ABA YLD. Next, the affiliate’s leaders spend two to three months creating the basic estate planning documents that will be needed at the actual “Wills for Heroes” event. During this time, the affiliate’s leaders must also locate a first responder group in their community for whom the estate planning services can be provided. The last couple of months are spent conducting a “test run” or preview of the upcoming “Wills for Heroes” event, making any necessary changes, and, finally, implementing the event itself. Although multiple components are involved to implement the program, the ABA YLD has a number of resources that it can make available to affiliate leaders.
For emergency first responders, the process starts with completing an estate planning questionnaire ahead of the “Wills for Heroes” event. By doing so, many of the basic questions involved in crafting an estate plan are addressed ahead of time. The first responders then arrive at the location where the event is held and are paired with volunteer attorneys who assist in creating their estate plans. The attorneys review the questionnaires with the first responders and enter the responses into computers loaded with the software that designs the estate plans. The process takes about an hour. At the end, the attorney prints out the first responders’ documents for signature and notarization. All of these services are provided at no cost to the first responders.
The “Wills for Heroes” program has already been very successful at the local level. For example, this past October, the Young Lawyers Section of the Chicago Bar Association (CBA YLS) rolled out the “Wills for Heroes” program at Station 24, a fire station in Hoffman Estates, a suburb of Chicago. This event was initiated by Bill Oberts, Chair of the CBA YLS, and was implemented by YLS Special Project Coordinators Sal Cicero and Maureen Duffy, with help from the Wills for Heroes Foundation. “I regularly represent firefighters and police officers,” says Oberts. “When I learned of the program, I thought it was a great way to give back to those who risk their lives for our benefit on a daily basis.”
Justin Goldstein, Chair of the ABA YLD, recognizes that implementing the program has had its share of challenges. “We have seen growing pains given the unprecedented interest in the program and the finite human and other resources the Division and [the Wills for Heroes Foundation] have,” he says. For example, because estate planning laws differ from state to state, the Chicago YLS had to set up a committee of estate planning experts to be sure that the template documents used for the event were accurate and in compliance with Illinois estate planning laws. According to Goldstein, these are all “nice problems to be dealing with,” and the challenges are certainly worth the reward.
In addition, Cicero says that the Chicago YLS faced some challenges in finding a fire department that wanted to participate in the “Wills for Heroes” program. The YLS’ initial attempts to bring the program to other fire departments were met with some wariness, but the Hoffman Estates Fire Department eventually signed on with assistance from the Wills for Heroes Foundation. Ultimately, the event was a great success. According to Cicero, “The first responders were a joy to work with, and there was a very positive vibe in the room.”
Indeed, other first responder departments across the country are eager to implement Wills for Heroes. According to Jeff Jacobson, in Arizona, “We have a steady list of thirty departments waiting for an event, from small town volunteer fire departments to the U.S. Border Patrol. This not only speaks to the need in the first responder community, but also to the response to our program and the way that it is implemented.”