In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped the pro bono Wills for Heroes program make more of a difference than ever.
Wills for Heroes, which provides free basic estate-planning documents and guidance to first responders, is a partnership with the State Bar of Wisconsin’s pro bono division. Before the pandemic, it would hold in-person clinics on Saturdays, allowing volunteers to sit down with 36 clients at one time at the most and help them fill out necessary documents.
The program was on track to continue its more than 10 years of success, until March this year.
“We were running full speed ahead in 2020 doing two or three clinics a month,” said Kris Havlik, Wills for Heroes organizer and of counsel at Foley & Lardner’s Milwaukee office. “We had 10 clinics scheduled for March, April and May, and then COVID hit.”
With clinics canceled into the foreseeable future, Havlik began thinking about how to change the program to ensure it could continue providing help with estate planning.
“This was at a time when these first responders needed it most,” Havlik said. “Our EMTs were going out on a number of calls where they were transporting COVID patients to the hospital and the ER, so it was a critical time for them.”
The answer was to take Wills for Heroes virtual. Havlik reworked documents and set up a virtual pilot program that allowed volunteer lawyers and first responders to discuss estate-planning matters by phone, email or video.
Wills for Heroes went virtual in May. Havlik said volunteers have offered more than enough virtual clinics to replace all of the originally scheduled in-person clinics.
“They’re very grateful that we’re still able to provide the service to them even though it’s in a virtual way,” Havlik said. “They’re having a lot more time to absorb what their documents are saying and to ask questions, and I think that has been good, too.”
Besides giving first responders more time to think about their plans, the virtual format has allowed volunteers to help more people in more ways. Meeting online or by phone eliminates many of the time and travel constraints that come with meeting in-person. Havlik said the Department of Natural Resources’ enforcement division, with its employees scattered throughout the state, has been on beneficiary of the new format.
“I got an email from one of their people saying he’s been (working there) for 22 years and had never done an estate plan and finally decided to participate in the program,” Havlik said. “That’s kind of the thing I like to hear.”
Havlik said she was scheduling virtual meetings for first-responder agencies that had originally requested in-person clinics for fall of this year. With the definition of “hero” taking on a new meaning in 2020, she most likely won’t have trouble finding new participants.
“The national Wills for Heroes Foundation is now allowing states to expand their definition of first responder to include frontline COVID health care workers,” Havlik said. “I have been in contact with the State Bar to expand the program to include them as well and trying to work out the details at this point.”
Wills for Heroes has been helping Wisconsin first responders since 2009 and has held more than 400 clinics and assisted thousands of first responders and their families.Follow @WLJReporter