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U of M law students provide 'Peace of Mind' for seniors

When best-selling author Stieg Larsson died in 2004, his estate wasn’t worth much: his three novels that have created such a stir around the world — one of his books sells every 10 seconds — had just been delivered to the publisher. But as Larsson’s wealth has grown, so has a family squabble over inheritance issues that would rival the spellbinding suspense in any of Larsson’s trilogy.

It is a problem that is common, but one that can be prevented with proper planning. Four University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law students are doing their part to put to rest stresses that come before and after death.

As Durham Scholars, third-year law students Nathaniel Terrell, Adraine Harris, Austin Scofield and Andrew Pate are providing free legal services to area senior citizens as part of the “Peace of Mind for Seniors” project, funded by the H.W. Durham Foundation. The four students were chosen by Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS), which is administering the project, because of the students’ grades and commitment to the well-being of senior citizens.

Law students advise Orange Mound seniors on last will and testaments as well as advance care plans.
Law students advise Orange Mound seniors on last will and testaments as well as advance care plans.
“The goal of the program is to help stabilize the families of seniors and ultimately the communities they live in by making sure seniors are able to express their wishes clearly for not only the distribution of their property (after death), but also for their medical care should they become incapable of making the necessary medical decisions themselves,” said Terrell, a native of Manchester, Tenn.

“Nothing in life is harder than uncertainty regarding what our loved ones wanted and the family struggles that often ensue over how to handle the situation after a loved one dies. By having an instructional document that their loved one signed, it allows these families to remove the burden of having to choose during a difficult time.”

Terrell said that each month, the four Durham Scholars as well as MALS staff members and local volunteer attorneys go into the community and provide free legal assistance to area senior citizens. They focus primarily on offering advanced care plans and other medical directives as well as setting up basic last wills and testaments.

“Our involvement in last year’s clinic really showed us that seniors are an underserved population and in need of these types of legal documents and services,” said attorney Kristen Wright of Bass, Berry & Sims. “It’s very important that seniors understand their legal rights and the importance of communicating their wishes to their loved ones in writing. The documents we helped prepare will provide comfort and assurance to the seniors and their families during difficult times.”

Linda Seely, MALS director of pro bono projects, said that law students are required by the ABA law school accreditation committee to be provided with meaningful opportunities to do pro bono work.

“MALS has a contract with the Aging Commission of the Mid-South to provide services to the elderly and vulnerable populations in our community and it just seemed like a perfect fit for everyone,” said Seely.

Kevin Smith, dean of the School of Law, added, “The project is an excellent opportunity for these four lawyers-in-training to assist members of the community while gaining valuable practical experience. Everyone will benefit.”

Harris said she had positive experiences with all the seniors she met.

“They are extremely grateful for the services that we provide and appreciate what we are doing for them.”

Terrell said the program has been an invaluable experience not only for the senior citizens, but for the Durham Scholars as well.

“Participating in this program has provided myself and the rest of the students with an invaluable opportunity to go out into the community and interact with real people who have real legal issues. This provides a nice contrast to the often abstract and theoretical world of the law school classroom. Plus there is also the reward of getting to see how the services we will provide as legal professionals really touch the lives of those we serve.”

— by Greg Russell

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