Over 30 first responders from around Southern Maryland traveled to the La Plata Town Hall on Saturday to take advantage of a free annual program offered by local attorneys to ensure their families will be taken care of in case something happens to them on the job.
This was the third year in a row that members of the Maryland State Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section volunteered its time to prepare wills, draft advance directives and designate powers of attorney for law enforcement, fire and emergency medical personnel as part of the national Wills for Heroes program.
Charles County Register of Wills Lorraine D. Hennessy (D) was also on hand to help the participants file their documents once they were drafted. Waldorf law firm Trollinger Law paid the $5 filing fees.
“Once they walk out of here today, they know that their will is protected, it’s safe, and they can go on and feel good that they accomplished ... something that’s always an uncomfortable topic for people to deal with,” Hennessy said.
Trollinger said that Maryland is one of a handful of states that don’t require attorneys to set aside a certain number of hours per year to volunteer their services.
Even so, most law firms and solo practices support and encourage volunteerism.
“It’s important to give your time outside of the office,” Trollinger said. “Our first responders do so much for us every day ... with little fanfare, it’s the least that we can do to give back, it’s just a little bit of time on a Saturday, to share our time with them, to lend our talents.”
La Plata Police Department Capt. Christopher Becker, who was the department’s liaison to this year’s event and gave each participating attorney a challenge coin bearing the police force’s shield and badge, said that he took advantage of the service himself last year and recommends it to all his officers.
“I think the biggest misconception is, ‘I don’t need that now, it’s not a big deal, I’ll get to that later,’” Becker said. “But the question that I switch back to them is, ‘In the line of work you’re in, something could happen today, what’s your plan for tomorrow?’ That’s why [they] need to come in here and ask these people those questions and they will address all those points.”
Becker said that the interest in the services was so great that every available time slot had been filled and the organizers had to create a waiting list.
The Wills for Heroes Foundation established the free service following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Wills for Heroes programs are active in 27 states.
Zak Shirley, an attorney who co-chairs the Maryland State Bar Association’s Wills for Heroes program, said that the association tries to do at least one program a month throughout the state.
Shirley said that young first responders often have difficulty coming to terms with the need to prepare a will.
“You have to look at the population that we’re serving,” Shirley said. “These are, in a lot of cases, brave young kids who are willing to put their lives on the line for the benefit of others, but they’re young so they’re not thinking about dying. They’re not thinking about estate planning.”
And even when they are thinking about such things, Shirley said, their schedules often make it difficult to find time to sit down with an attorney to discuss how to take care of them.
“They need somebody who’s going to come to them,” Shirley said. “It’s a population that needs the service, and that certainly deserves and has earned the service.”
Shirley said that the process does not end when the first responder signs their forms, gets them notarized and files them with Hennesy’s office.
“We say, ‘Look you’ve come here and you’ve done this, you’ve started this process, go out now while you’re in the mood, have the difficult conversations with your family members,’” Shirley said. “It’s important that this not just [be about] the filling the documents and signing them and filing them. It’s talking to your family, it’s letting them know about your wishes. It’s letting them know where these documents are so they can find them if they need them. And these are difficult conversations.”
Sharon Garner, who works with her husband Jeff at the Charles County Volunteer Rescue Squad, attended because they wanted to make sure their wills were up to date so that their adult son, who has special needs, would be taken care of should anything happen to them.
As first responders, Garner said, “How many people do we come in contact with [who] are in critical life situations that don’t have their final affairs in order? [It happens] daily.”
Garner said the importance of making sure her and her husband’s wills were in order was driven home to her after her father passed away.
“Even the things we thought were in order, here we are six months later ... and still finding things that are not the way they should be,” Garner said. “You think you’ve prepared, and you find out that you haven’t prepared. You just can’t prepare enough.”