Wills, and a Way

COVID-19 didn’t stop a pro bono program for first responders; it expanded it

Published in 2021 San Diego Super Lawyers Magazine

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Wills for Heroes program for Paul D. Woodard, the chair of its San Diego chapter, is when young families come in. He gets to interact with the kids while helping their parents prepare for the possibility that something might happen to one or both of them. If both parents are gone, who should be the guardian? Who do they want to raise their children?

“The kids,” he adds, “show you what’s at stake.”

Wills for Heroes started in the aftermath of 9/11 to help first responders (police, firefighters, paramedics) prepare end-of-life documents (wills, durable powers of attorney, health care directives) free of charge. Back then, Woodard was still in high school. He remembers visiting the World Trade Center several weeks before 9/11 on a trip with his family. “I have a photo of myself in front of the towers,” he says.

It wasn’t until 2016 that he got involved in the program. “My sister is a police officer in Wisconsin,” says Woodward. “It’s been important for me to give back to those individuals—and all the other first responders who put their lives on the line in the service of the public.”

In normal years, the San Diego chapter holds two live events, in the spring and the fall, with 20 to 30 attorneys volunteering their time. It’s mostly word-of-mouth for both the volunteers and the responders. Woodward, for example, tells his connection with the San Diego Police department, “Hey, the program is happening again,” and they tell their sergeants, who tell frontline officers. “If we have some slots open, that will usually fill us up,” Woodward says. “Otherwise, we advertise through the San Diego Bar Association.”

An on-site notary finalizes everything. First responders leave “knowing that if something were to happen to them in the line of duty, they have something in place,” Woodard says. 

Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic may have stopped the live events but it didn’t stop the program, which expanded in significant ways. More than twice as many attorneys got involved, Woodard estimates, because the program wasn’t limited to a single day. “We would match an attorney with a first responder and then set up a Zoom call when schedules fit,” he says.

The program also expanded who it helped. “We opened it up to nurses, doctors, any kind of frontline health care worker,” he says. “Hearing the stories about frontline workers coming in contact with COVID and dying from COVID, and knowing these people are putting their lives on the line …” He pauses. “And if they don’t have these documents in place then, you know, if they go into coma, there’s nothing the family could do.”

Woodard, an ERISA attorney at Butterfield Schechter, estimates that in two months they helped more than 140 people in the San Diego area. Overall, the Wills for Heroes program has provided more than 75,000 free end-of-life documents for first responders.

How to Get Involved

Wills for Heroes is always looking for attorneys who have “more than a basic level of knowledge of preparing a will,” Woodard says. “And if they need assistance, we will pair them with an older attorney and have them go through the process several times.” To get involved, contact Woodard at: [email protected]

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