Attorneys give hospice patients peace of mind

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Indiana Lawyer Focus

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.”•


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  2. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  3. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.

  4. rensselaer imdiana is doing same thing to children from the judge to attorney and dfs staff they need to be investigated as well

  5. Sex offenders are victims twice, once when they are molested as kids, and again when they repeat the behavior, you never see money spent on helping them do you. That's why this circle continues