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Attorneys give hospice patients peace of mind

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Although a will may be described as “simple,” for patients in hospice care having a completed will and knowing their wishes are recorded in a legal document can bring a peace that makes the word “simple” seem like a misnomer.

Some hospice patients are said to be so relieved to know their affairs are in order that within hours of signing the legal forms, they pass away. And the attorneys providing the legal assistance say the work brings rewards they had not anticipated.

estle-karen-wishard-15col.jpg Rev. Karen Estle, spiritual advisor at Wishard Health Services, with a patient in the Palliative Care Unit. She helps pair volunteer attorneys with hospice patients who need legal assistance. (Submitted photo)

Diane Sargeant, attorney at Cox Sargeant & Burns P.C., said helping the hospice patients teaches her lessons in life and death.

“It just reminds me how precious life is, how much we need to stop and think about that every day rather than getting wrapped up in tasks,” she said.

Sargeant does her volunteer work through the Indianapolis Bar Association’s Hospice Program. This pro bono effort pairs volunteer attorneys with hospice patients to handle legal matters such as a will, power of attorney, or health care directive.

Typically, the volunteer attorneys travel to one of the hospitals in the Indianapolis area and meet with the patients. Usually, the lawyers will draft and file documents related to end-of-life issues, but sometimes they just answer general questions. Patients may be worried their debt will get passed along to their children. In one instance, a man was concerned that his felony conviction would prevent him from being buried where he wanted.

These attorney-client relationships are limited to the patients themselves. Other family matters are outside the scope of this work.

Because the need for these lawyers may arise at any time, the program schedules the volunteers to be “on call” for a few weeks each year.

Diana Moers, coordinator of the IBA’s Hospice Program, described herself as the dispatcher. When she gets a referral from a social worker at a hospital, she contacts the attorneys on call and makes the assignment.

“I don’t stop until I get somebody who says, ‘Yeah, I can help that person,’” Moers said.

The program is especially attractive to attorneys who practice in elder law or wills and estates. Sargeant noted that as an estate planning and administration specialist, she does not have a tremendous number of opportunities to do pro bono work that uses her technical skills. Helping hospice patients allows her to combine her knowledge with her desire to volunteer.

“It’s become personally rewarding for me,” she said. “The clients I’ve worked with have been so grateful for the work I do for them. It’s been very touching.”

Serving as the coordinator fits well for Moers, an attorney in the Office of the Secretary of State’s Securities Division. Her job keeps her tied to her office all day, but through the hospice program she is able to perform pro bono work.

“It feels good to know when somebody needs help they can just reach out and someone will come in a day or two at the most,” Moers said, adding the patient can then focus on being with family.

Larry Lawhead, partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP serving in the corporate department, not only volunteers in the IBA’s Hospice Program but also will be educating other attorneys as part of a CLE “End of Life Care and Probate 101.”

“Everybody has the same fears,” Lawhead said. “Obviously, we don’t have the ability to do complex planning for them, but we provide peace of mind for people.”

When he works with those in hospice care, Lawhead is most concerned about making sure they are competent to understand what they are doing and that they are not signing papers under pressure from family members or other individuals.

He always tries to meet the patient in person and discuss what legal issues need to be addressed. After going to his office to draft the documents, he returns to visit the patient again and complete the work.

wilhelm Wilhelm

Before the individual signs, Lawhead will have any family members leave the room. The patient can ask questions, bring up concerns or make changes privately with the attorney without worrying what others may think or do.

When the volunteer lawyers walk into the room, Rev. Karen Estle has seen the hospice patients sit a little straighter and be very respectful. They are often surprised that someone so important has come to see them.

Estle, spiritual advisor with the Palliative Care Team at Wishard Health Services, has worked with the IBA’s Hospice Program since its beginning. The program, she said, has made a “tremendous difference.” Before the attorneys were available, the staff would struggle to find a way to help these patients with their legal needs.

Now she fills out a referral form and passes it along to the IBA. When the attorneys arrive at the hospital, Estle meets them at the front desk and then escorts them through the labyrinth hallways to the Palliative Care Unit.

Along the way, she will talk to them. Once in a while, an attorney may be overcome with memories of family members who have died, so Estle will walk the lawyer around the corner and provide a shoulder to lean on.

Among the attorneys she has greeted at the entrance is Michael Wilhelm, an elder law attorney at DeFur Voran LLP in Fishers.

“I like that the people that we’re serving are in true need of pro bono services,” he said.

Wilhelm often arrives at the hospital with the documents prepared and ready for a signature. He knows the process can become very emotional, so he always tries to make a personal connection to help the patient through the situation.

Taking time is necessary, Estle said. The attorneys cannot just hand a form to a patient with instructions to fill it out. They have to sit with the patient, maybe cry for a minute, and then get the task done.

For one woman, battling terminal cancer, Wilhelm made a call to her house. He had prepared a will which the neighbors came over to witness.

“We did what we could for her given the circumstances,” he said, “but it was very tough.”•

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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