Warner, bar associations, students help out veterans by drafting wills, estate documents


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Nearly everyone appreciates the need to help veterans, who have given so much for others, in any way necessary, but virtually no one feels that more strongly than other veterans.

On January 26, a large group of attorneys and law students, many of them veterans themselves, gathered for the second step in Wills for Veterans, a project of Warner Norcross + Judd, the Federal Bar Association, and the relatively new Veterans Bar Association.

WMU-Cooley Law School supplied the students to help meet the immense need revealed when an intake session was held in November of last year at the Salvation Army Kroc Center.

More than 100 wills were drafted in January, and the plan is to have final drafts sent to the veterans by the end of February after vetting by estate and trust planning attorneys, including Warner’s well-respected Michael Van Haren.

Says Warner partner Brian Lennon, a Marine Corps veteran who spearheaded the project for Warner, about Wills for Veterans, “It was heartening to see the great response, but then again, to know that there’s such a great need is kind of disheartening.”

But as Lennon points out, veterans are likely not much different than the general population in terms of lacking the ‘Big 3’ documents – wills, powers of attorney, and patient advocate designations. It is estimated that 60% of people in the U.S. are lacking a will.

Lennon, a white collar criminal defense attorney at Warner who was formerly an award-winning attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, was a co-founder of the Grand Rapids Veterans Bar Association. The acting president of that bar association is another of the founders, Ed Perdue of Dickinson Wright.

According to Lennon, “After a while we decided we wanted to do something more substantive, and Wills for Veterans arose when we heard that the Federal Bar Association was asking lawyers to consider assisting with wills and durable powers of attorney.” When Sharon Turek, the Federal Public Defender for the Western District of Michigan, was president last year, she obtained some money to fund the project.

They got the word out through Grand Rapids veterans organizations, the Kroc Center, social media, and, after they had engaged students from WMU-Cooley, through student veterans groups.

The student connection was arranged, through Grand Rapids campus Dean Tracey Brame, and by Aaron Cook, the staff attorney at the Access to Justice Clinic.

Cook says, “I’m a veteran myself so I always try to be active in things going on in the Grand Rapids legal community or are otherwise veteran-related. And we always try to get students involved in projects where they can be in front of actual clients. So when things like this pop up, we really latch onto them. It’s really good to get our students involved in collaborating with  practicing lawyers.”

So Cook sent out an email prior to the Nov. 1 intake, and the responses just kept rolling in. When all was said and done, 28 students participated that day, and more than a dozen assisted with the January will-drafting held at Warner.

One of them was Kevin Dennis, another veteran with 16 years in the Army and Navy. Says Dennis, “We were really excited at WMU-Cooley to be invited to work on this. We were able to undergo training with professionals at Warner, which has a great reputation for being an upstanding firm, one that allows its members to reach out to the community.

“Being a veteran, this was very near and dear to my heart, and even after I leave WMU-Cooley, which is very supportive, I’ll be seeking opportunities to do something similar  to further our community of veterans,” Dennis says.

He added that the WMU-Cooley student Veterans Association President Kyle Decloux, who participated in the January 26 event, was instrumental in setting it up.  “Warner ran this well; it was really nicely organized,” said Decloux.

Lennon complimented the law students, saying, “The enthusiasm of the Western Michigan Cooley Law School student volunteers to assist has made this process especially meaningful.”

Other attorneys participated, including from Rhoades McKee and the federal prosecutors’ office. Lennon has been reaching out to additional trust and estate attorneys for the review of the draft documents, which will be available to the veterans for changes and revisions before they are executed. Warner attorneys will also help some of the veterans with more complicated estates to create appropriate planning documents.

Lennon said there is a good likelihood there will be other Wills for Veterans events, since it went so well. “Saturday’s drafting was a mass event over here at Warner. Both the students and Warner associates volunteered their time that day, and it was successful despite the almost overwhelming demand,” he said. “I can’t say enough about the volunteers.

“As lawyers, this is our way to offer something tangible and valuable to say thank you to the men and women who have served our country.”