Preparing for the worst
By Jamie Thompson and Rachel Fretz, PoliceOne staff
Kevin Weeks, a motorcycle officer from Tempe, Arizona, had just finished his shift on September 28, 2006, and was heading home in the pre-dawn light when his bike hit construction debris and skidded out of control. Officer Weeks died later of his injuries. He was 28 years old.
Alan Weeks is embraced by a Tempe police officer, during funeral services for his son, Tempe Police Officer Kevin Weeks, during funeral services at Grace Community Church, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2006. (AP Photo/David Wallace, Pool)
But Officer Weeks is the exception. By contrast, the Phoenix PD, who lost a staggering three officers in the past four months, reports that none of these officers had a will — and in fact, despite the dangerous nature of the profession, approximately 80-90% of all first responders do not have a will.
But help is at hand for police officers and other first responders across the country. For the past six years, the Wills for Heroes program has been offering free legal help to emergency services personnel in writing their wills and other legal documents.
Co-founder Anthony Hayes said he was shocked after discovering the number of first responders without wills.
"I couldn't understand how somebody whose job involves literally putting their lives on the line didn't have something in place," he said.
Hayes launched the initiative in his home state of South Carolina in the wake of 9/11.
Having previously worked in the World Trade Center, the terrorist attacks had a particularly profound effect on the lawyer, a partner at major national law firm Nelson Mullins Riley.
He e-mailed the City of Columbia (S.C.) Fire Department, asking what lawyers could do to help it. After word came back that many of the firefighters did not have wills, Hayes decided to begin offering free estate planning services and launched the Wills for Heroes initiative.
Since its inception, more than 6,000 wills have been drafted at no charge for police officers, firefighters, EMTs and corrections officers. The cost of drafting a will would normally cost as much as $1,000.
Caryn Davis, sister of Tempe Police Officer Kevin Weeks, is comforted by Phoenix Police Officer Jeff Jakemer as they walk out of Grace Community Church after funeral services for her brother.(AP Photo/David Wallace, Pool)
"The foundation itself does not provide legal services; we are the facilitators to help each state get the program up and running. Our goal is to get lawyers and first responders together and make it happen."
The drafting procedure is relatively simple. The Wills for Heroes Foundation arranges for local attorneys to visit the department station, training facility or headquarters, armed with laptops and the relevant programs and legal documents.
Prior to the meeting, the first responder needs to complete an estate planning questionnaire in which they must indicate who they want to appoint as guardian for their children, who will be the executor of their will, and what their wishes are in case they are in a terminal condition, irreversible coma or persistent vegetative state.
At the meeting itself, the first responder meets with a volunteer attorney who inputs their information from the estate planning questionnaire. A customized application merges the first responder's information into the state-specific estate planning documents and creates a will, living will and powers of attorney.
The attorney reviews the draft estate planning documents with the first responder to make sure they understand and agree to the plan. Once the documents are finalized, they are signed, witnessed and notarized at the event so they are effective immediately. The whole process takes about 30 minutes.
Jeff Jacobson, who expanded the project with Hayes in 2004, making it a nationwide foundation, said that he believed there are two main reasons why so many first responders do not have wills.
"I think that most responders are heroes and are fearless," he said, "and to be these things, I think you have to have an emotional component that nothing is going to happen to you.
"These are the people running into the building when we are all running out or doing the 3 a.m. traffic stop, not knowing who or what is in the car. If you acknowledge the fact that something might happen to you, you might not run into that burning building."
In addition, Jacobson said he finds many young first responders believe that because of their age and lack of assets, there is no point in having a will.
"It may well be the case that you don't have anything, but it may not be true if something does happen to you," Jacobsen said, referring to memorial funds such as those set up in Charleston, S.C. after nine firefighters died in a furniture warehouse blaze.
In Phoenix, where firefighters Tarver and Carter died without leaving wills, more than 300 members of the fire department took part in a Wills for Heroes session earlier this year.
Firefighter Tarver died in 2001 after being trapped by debris during a raging fire at a west Phoenix shopping center, while Firefighter Carter collapsed during a lunch break in June and could not be revived by his colleagues.
"When you lose one of your firefighters it's bad enough, but when their things go into probate because they didn't have wills, it makes it even more trying and taxing for their families," Phoenix Fire Chief Bob Khan said.
"But when you're in the fire service, you can think you're unbeatable and don't always look down the road and think what could happen."
Khan said that he was delighted at the response of his department in completing wills at the Wills for Heroes session.
"As a fire chief, to go to the event and see young firefighters with baby strollers was very rewarding for me, to see them making sure their children and partners are taken care of," he said.
For more details on the Wills for Heroes Foundation or to arrange an event at your department, go to WillsforHeroes.org.
More resources: Your personal financial diary provided by Concerns of Police Survivors, Inc.