Where there’s a will, there’s a way to help Woodlands first responders

State legislators are joining forces with local lawyers to bring back a good thing.

State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, have co-authored and filed Texas Senate Bill 148 in the 83rd session of the Texas Legislature.

The bill introduces legislation in support of the local “Wills for Heroes” program, an effort created by The Woodlands Bar Association to provide legal documents and estate planning for local first responders. Since the bill was introduced, state Representatives Steve Toth, Brandon Creighton and Cecil Bell, all of Montgomery County, have indicated they will support it in the House.

The Woodlands Township got on board during its Jan. 17 meeting, adopting a resolution in support of the bill.

Chairman Bruce Tough said the Township admires the bar association’s efforts.

“This resolution by The Woodlands Township affirms our strong support of this program and is evidence of our gratitude for our public safety heroes and their honorable service to our community and, most importantly, provides all of us an opportunity to say thank you,” he said.

Using their legal skills

Attorney James Stilwell said lawyers in The Woodlands wanted to use their unique skill set to do something special for public servants.

“We were looking at different kinds of community services to do,” he said. “One thing we felt very strongly about was helping our first responders.”

After 9/11, members of The Woodlands Bar Association learned that several first responders had not filed wills.

The bar association developed “Wills for Heroes,” a community service project to provide free wills and other legal services to first responders in Montgomery County.

The Woodlands Bar Association started by picking an agency, speaking with the department head and working down the list of employees to see who needed help.

Volunteer attorneys were then matched with a first responder in need.

Other lawyers and paralegals from the firm, Martin & Stilwell, have joined the cause, as have several members of The Woodlands Bar Association.

The complimentary estate planning services provided simple wills, powers of attorney and directive to physicians (sometimes called ‘living wills’).

The first year, attorneys worked with members of The Woodlands Fire Department.

Stilwell estimates the bar association has created more than 1,000 free wills through this program.

In 2011, the district attorney became concerned that the Wills for Heroes program might violate the gifts to public servants legal restrictions, Stilwell said.

“Because we attempting to do a good thing, we didn’t want to put our first responders or volunteer attorneys at risk,” he said. “We partially discontinued the program.”

Lawyers shifted their attention to veterans. While Stilwell said this is an equally worthy cause, he explained that many in military service are provided with basic wills.

Plus, there were more first responders the bar association wanted to help. The lawyers met with the district attorney’s office, researched other bar associations in different states and consulted with state legislators.

“We ultimately came to the conclusion that the best solution would be to get a ninth exemption to the gifts to public servants law,” Stilwell said.

He said there are eight exemptions – but none that covered the Wills for Heroes Program.

Williams is leading the effort.

“Since I believe the Wills for Heroes program was a great program, which provided an excellent service, I have filed SB 148 in an effort to again allow first responders to receive complimentary estate planning services through a program or clinic of a local bar association or the State Bar of Texas,” he said.

“For added protection, SB 148 also requires the receiving public servant to have approval from the head of the employing agency.”

Members of The Woodlands Bar Association are waiting and hoping for a positive outcome.

Stilwell said from this point it’s no different than any other legislation going through the Legislature.