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Alumnus Paul Edger leaning over the shoulder of two attendees at the Wills for Heroes event while they all look at a laptop

Widener Law Commonwealth Students Create Wills for Heroes

Widener University Commonwealth Law School students are making a big difference to local heroes as they provide pro-bono estate planning services through the Pennsylvania Wills for Heroes program.

Run and organized by the Pennsylvania Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, and sponsored by the law school’s Spirit of Service Association, Wills for Heroes provides wills, living wills, and financial powers of attorney to active and retired first responders and their spouses. All services are offered completely free of charge.

Pennsylvania statewide coordinator and law school alumnus Paul Edger ’11 was key in bringing Wills for Heroes back to campus after the pandemic shuttered operations. Widener Law Commonwealth was the first Pennsylvania law school to host a Wills for Heroes event in 2010, and thanks to Edger, the first post-COVID event host in Pennsylvania in spring 2022.

One of the students set on revamping the Spirit of Service Association and Widener’s Wills for Heroes events is Keri Nace, a part-time student in her fourth and final year of law school. With over 20 years as an emergency responder, along with service at youth bereavement camps and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Nace knows firsthand how difficult end-of-life decisions can be.

“It’s amazing how much of a mess things can be when you’re not prepared,” she said. “We hope that Wills for Heroes events encourage people to act proactively instead of reactively.”

The students in the Spirit of Service Association have diverse backgrounds and legal interests, but they’re all passionate about giving back.

Some, like third-year law student Rachel McLean, have family in the military and have held internships in military law. Others, like Gretchen Fullmer, a 2L, got involved to satisfy pro bono hours and ended up enjoying the hands-on experience so much, they joined the leadership council known as the Command Staff.

For 2L Sarah Burke, getting involved with Wills for Heroes has meant fulfilling a mission to her family.

“My grandfather is a Vietnam veteran, and it took him decades to get his benefits and feel taken care of when he returned home,” she said. “That’s always bothered me but participating in these events is changing that for the next generation.”

In 2023, the former nationwide Wills for Heroes foundation ceased operations, allowing the states to organize the events at the statewide level. Since assuming operational control this year,  Edger and his fellow state coordinators have been working to modernize the language of the estate packages to ensure compliance with Pennsylvania laws, purchase laptops for events, and increase efficiency to ensure Wills for Heroes events run smoothly. Volunteers do not need any expertise to participate in thee events. In two hours, both students and attorneys are trained on the software necessary to create a fully-executed estate package, as well as learn the basics of Pennsylvania estate practice.

Working alongside experienced attorneys and notaries, Widener students have served over 100 individuals and families during the past three Wills for Heroes events, saving tens of thousands of dollars for clients.

“There’s nothing like having that real-world experience of sitting down with a client to talk about difficult, emotional subjects like end-of-life decisions,” Edger said. “Students get an opportunity to really be a lawyer; they’re going to remember these moments as they enter the legal profession and hopefully continue volunteering as a licensed attorney.”

Real-World Service
The Command Staff agrees that their Wills for Heroes experiences have deeply impacted their learning. McLean had taken a wills and estate planning course before volunteering at an event but found the experience of sitting down with a client in person to be an exciting next step.

“The attorney I worked with was able to assist me with questions, but I got to apply what I learned from studying case books to real clients across a wide range of ages, backgrounds and goals,” she said.

Burke agreed, adding that she especially enjoyed working beside the Widener alums who come back to Wills for Heroes events as professionals.

“People don’t forget about Widener and this program when they graduate,” she noted.

That is certainly true of Edger, and his work is only getting started. As of this year, Wills for Heroes has ceased operation at a federal level. With that closure, some states have dropped the program altogether, but Pennsylvania’s team won’t allow that. Instead, Pennsylvania is a leading example on how to operate the program, and the Wills for Heroes team is advising other states on how to transition their programs.

“Widener students have been the boots on the ground making sure we can continue hosting these events and growing,” he said. “I’m their support at the statewide level, but they do all the work on the local level, truly making Widener proud.”

Giving Peace of Mind
For 3L Paige Connors, participating in Wills for Heroes is a deeply personal experience. As an experienced emergency medical technician with many loved ones in the military, as well as others serving as police officers, firefighters, detectives, and emergency medical services providers, Connors understands the importance of what Wills for Heroes provides.

“Serving the entirety of the community of folks who put their lives on the line in one way or another is extremely meaningful to me,” she said.

Providing that service to individuals and families who might have not known, wanted to face, or been able to afford estate planning services is a huge sigh of relief, she described.

Nace recalls one couple she served at a Wills for Heroes event, both emergency services professionals, one facing a terminal diagnosis. They hadn’t done any end-of-life planning yet, but at the event, they were able to get everything in order for themselves and their children.

“Giving someone that peace of mind is the best feeling,” she concluded. “Every day in military and first response work, we face circumstances out of our control, and end-of-life planning can feel the same way. This is one thing we can help people control.” 


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