This article previously appeared in the May 2018 MSBA Bar Bulletin: https://www.msba.org/content/uploads/sites/7/2018/05/May-2018-Bar-Bulletin-MSBA-Final.pdf
Wills on Wheels: Baltimore estate planning program for low-income seniors expands to Prince George’s County
In the past three years, Pro Bono Resource Center (PBRC) and Senior Legal Services of Baltimore City have trained over 100 attorneys to provide wills, powers of attorney, and advance medical directives to low-income seniors. These attorneys have provided roughly 750 estate planning documents for seniors through PBRC’s legal clinics in Baltimore.
Now, thanks to a recent funding award from the Leonard & Helen R. Stulman Charitable Foundation, PBRC will work with Community Legal Services of Prince George’s County (CLS) to pass the model on, significantly expanding the reach of the program.
Across Maryland, many low-income people reach the end of life without legal documents in place. This means that state law may determine what happens to their health care and property, and who can speak for them in their final days.
“Sometimes people assume that low-income seniors don’t have any need for estate planning,” says attorney Margaret Henn, who directs PBRC’s Home Preservation Project. “But that’s not the case. Seniors frequently find themselves unable to age in place or get adequate support services if they do not set up a power of attorney, and family members who have moved in to care for an aging parent can also find themselves homeless if the parent dies without a will.”
The Baltimore clinics have been active since March 2016, with PBRC training and coordinating the volunteer lawyers, and with Senior Legal Services (SLS) sending lawyers as mentors and to handle unusual issues that might arise. Two years in, PBRC and SLS have it down to an art.
Training is usually the first step an attorney makes to get involved. Attorneys can sign up on PBRC’s training website, www.probonomd.org/training. The CLE-style training, called Estate Planning Basics for Low-Income Clients, can be taken online, and is free, in return for making a pro bono commitment to help two low-income seniors with estate plans.
Volunteers appreciate the training, both as a path to meaningful pro bono service, and as valuable continuing education in an area of law relevant to many practices.
Demand for these services is high – the clinic has a wait list of potential sites. PBRC schedules the clinics primarily in churches and civic spaces in low-income neighborhoods. Churches, seniors, and interested volunteers all reach out to PBRC.
Over time, potential clients and volunteers from outside Baltimore City have started inquiring, but until now, the project has only been funded for work in Baltimore City. Now, that’s changing.
“For years, the organizations helping low-income seniors in Prince George’s County have identified estate planning as a real need,” says Jessica Quincosa, executive director of Community Legal Services of Prince George’s County. “We were eager to offer these services, and this is a model that can make a big difference here.” The Stulman Foundation funding allows PBRC and CLS to start work in Prince George’s County in July 2018.
PBRC will train local volunteers, and for the first eighteen months, will work closely with CLS for planning and logistics. After that initial period, administration of the Prince George’s County program will pass primarily to CLS.
As the pro bono arm of the Maryland State Bar Association, PBRC has long been known as a vital link between private attorneys who wish to volunteer, and service providers whose clients need help. PBRC trains and supports the attorneys, and refers them to providers who put them to work.
The classic “train, refer, and support” role is the one for which PBRC is best known, and PBRC still provides many trainings that enable attorneys to jump into the work of its many partner organizations.
However, the estate planning clinic demonstrates another type of service PBRC performs for direct service providers: testing innovative or timely service models; documenting and refining; and ultimately passing the model on so other providers can implement it with their own clients.
Low-income clients who attend the clinics benefit from free, one-on-one brief legal services right in their community. At the same time, PBRC’s clinics provide extended service-learning opportunities and mentoring for the volunteers, who often branch out to accept pro bono cases from other direct service providers.
Through such programs, PBRC simultaneously supports and connects attorneys, direct service providers, and clients in need of legal help. Together, PBRC and CLS look forward to using this approach to bring “Wills on Wheels” to low-income seniors in Prince George’s County later this year.