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Fri., Oct. 4, 2013

Editorial: Washington Vets Will Clinic a great service

There’s a mini-industry of attorneys and estate planners advising veterans on pensions and other benefits. Counsel on the distribution of assets unrelated to military service is apparently much less easy to come by.

A pioneering effort by a coalition of local groups may be a great start toward changing that.

Last year, 85 veterans walked out of a Washington Vets Will Clinic with documents that will tell their survivors how their assets should be divided. In case of their incapacity, powers of attorney and medical directives will inform family and doctors how far they should go administering their financial affairs, and medical care that might extend, but diminish, their last days.

The catalyst for the clinic’s formation was Army OneSource, which rallied the Spokane Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, American Red Cross, Gonzaga University School of Law, Spokane Veterans Center and the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs.

Many soldiers, sailors and airmen sign rudimentary wills when they are in the service, but clinic Chairman Jacob Brennan says those plans cannot be amended once they are discharged or retire. Like everyone else, their circumstances will change, and their estate plans should, too.

The clinic has preregistered 155 for a second session Saturday, and more would participate if more resources were available to meet new demand created in part by a Tuesday Spokesman-Review story.

Brennan says another clinic is scheduled Oct. 26 in Wenatchee, and discussions are under way for others in Walla Walla, Yakima and the Tri-Cities. Seattle would be another possibility.

There are no veteran estate planning clinics on the West Side, which means the services are beyond the reach of most of Washington’s 600,000 veterans. If vets fit the profile of most Americans when it comes to estate planning, about one-half have provided no guidance to their heirs, trustees or the probate courts.

The default is distribution according to Washington law, which could end up enriching folks the deceased might have crossed the street to avoid.

Admittedly, these are, as Brennan says, “form-driven” plans. That is, most of the documents are off-the-shelf paperwork with a few blank spaces and openings for addressing each client’s unique circumstances. But they can designate the recipients of highly personal assets, from photos to pets to homes to season tickets, and those are the choices that often give the most comfort to the veteran and their families.

To keep it simple, the service is restricted to those with less than $500,000 in assets. If that sounds like a lot, consider that in Seattle that could represent a modest home purchased 20 years ago.

And no matter how basic the finished products may be, each one saves a veteran of relatively modest means $500 to $1,000.

With so much need for this service among veterans, one-day clinics are unlikely to ever reach everyone. But the clinics deserve credit for serving those who served.

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