The Elms College Wills for Local Heroes program “couldn’t have come at a better time” for Massachusetts State Trooper Nelson Zayas. The program, which provides first responders with free, attorney-supervised will services, helped Zayas with a task that had been on his mind: preparing his estate.
When Zayas, a father of three and a trooper for 13 years, lost his father suddenly earlier this year — Juan Zayas was the victim of a homicide in Springfield — he learned quickly how important estate planning is.
“Seeing the pain in the process we’re going through as a family now, trying to arrange everything — I don’t want to run into that,” Zayas said. “I can’t believe I’ve been in my career for as long as I have without having it. It’s a relief, a big relief [to have it done],” he said.
Elms College is the only school in the state to offer this service to first responders, said program director Caroline Murray, J.D., associate professor of paralegal and legal studies at the college.
“It’s a beautiful marriage, because the troopers get a free will, and my students get real-life experience,” she said.
The execution of the wills serves as the final exam for students in Murray’s Wills, Trusts, and Estates class, which included legal studies majors, a paralegal certificate student and an accounting major.
But it’s more than just an assignment: Law firms generally prefer to hire paralegals with experience, Murray pointed out, so students must earn such experience in the classroom, or through voluntary clinics or internship opportunities. “This event helps paralegal students gain the valuable experience they need by creating and executing wills under the supervision of an attorney,” Murray said.
Although the program has been providing wills for first responders such as firefighters for about a decade, this is the first time they have partnered with state troopers, Murray said.
Zayas and other troopers visited the Elms campus on Dec. 6 to officially sign their wills and meet the students who created them face-to-face.
“This is unbelievable, an unbelievable opportunity,” said Trooper Keller Williams, who, like Zayas and the other troopers who participated, is assigned to the Violent Fugitive Apprehension Section in Framingham.
Williams has been a state police officer for 11 years, and this was also his first experience creating a will.
“Shame on me too: I have two kids who are 17 and 14,” he said, adding that had the opportunity from Elms not come along, he wouldn’t yet have taken the initiative to create the will on his own.
The event is modeled after the Wills for Heroes Foundation, which originated after 9/11, when the lack of estate planning among most first responders became clear. The U.S. military offers soldiers free estate planning documents — especially wills — but local first responders must pay for their own, and they can be expensive, Murray said. “And, understandably, this is a topic most families do not want to think about, never mind discuss,” she added. Wills for Heroes was founded in 2007 to create and execute free wills for first responders. Attorneys from around the country volunteer to participate in these events.
[Image caption: Wills for Local Heroes program director Caroline Murray, J.D., with students in her Wills, Trusts, and Estates Class: legal studies major Nicklaus Cirillo ’17, Katie Shea ’18, paralegal certificate student Mercedes Malave ’17, legal studies major Jaime Morrow ’17, accounting major Nicolas Rienzo ’17, and legal studies major Kayla Pelletier ’17. Also pictured are Keller Williams and Kevin O’Toole, two of the troopers for whom the students prepared and executed wills under attorney supervision.]