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Pro bono estate planning campaign helps low-income city residents

Olivia R. Holcombe-Volke, right, a partner at Elville and Associates in Columbia, works with a client at a June 18 homeowners’ clinic held by the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. (The Daily Record / Julia Arbutus)

Olivia R. Holcombe-Volke, right, a partner at Elville and Associates in Columbia, works with a client at a June 18 homeowners’ clinic held by the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. (The Daily Record / Julia Arbutus)

As people get older, they often have conversations with family members about the future — but they usually don’t have any plans in writing, say lawyers and staff with the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.

To encourage people to put their plans down on paper, MVLS has launched a joint campaign with the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development to help Baltimore city residents with estate planning. Called “Homeowner: My Home, My Deed, My Legacy,” the campaign aims to educate the public about the deed recording process, as well as about the importance of wills and health care directives and steps to avoid probate.

Probate – the often time-consuming and costly legal process of “proving” a will as the true last testament of the deceased — determines how assets will be distributed to the deceased’s designated heirs.

The primary focus of the homeowners’ initiative is to help Baltimore city residents keep their homes, said John Kern, the advanced planning project coordinator for MVLS. Kern said many people live in a home for years but do not hold the deed to the property, a situation that can pose problems for heirs.

According to a 2017 study conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, only 42 percent of adults in the United States have estate planning documents. The survey, which polled more than 1,000 people, produced “unsurprising” results, said experts, who added that an “aversion to end-of-life planning is not only rooted in fear but also procrastination.”

Residents of Baltimore city are likewise unprepared, said Susan Francis, deputy director of MVLS.

“The majority of clients we see don’t have estate planning documents in place,” Francis said.

To help Baltimore residents with estate planning, MVLS is holding four clinics – one each in the four quadrants of the city — to provide pro bono clients with in-person help. While the homeowner campaign is primarily concerned with home ownership and deed recording, clients at each clinic are provided full legal representation throughout the entirety of the estate planning process.

Carol Gilbert, assistant secretary of the Division of Neighborhood Revitalization for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, said the initiative complements Gov. Larry Hogan’s Project C.O.R.E. – or Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise — initiative, which aims to revitalize Baltimore city.

“By helping people secure their deeds, we’re helping to keep them secure in their homes and give them legal access to rehabilitation funding in the future,” Gilbert said.

A June 18 homeowners’ clinic at the Arch Social Club on Pennsylvania Avenue attracted about 20 people, from first-time homeowners to residents trying to figure out how to set up a will. It was MVLS’ second pro bono legal clinic, coming three months after its first clinic, which drew 21 pro bono clients.

“We’re trying to give people stability around their homes,” said Alex Montanio, a health care and litigation attorney at Gordon Feinblatt LLC and a member of MVLS’ board of directors who is in her third year of volunteering with the nonprofit organization.

Montanio does not specialize in estates, nor do most of the clinics’ volunteer attorneys. Even Francis, who launched the homeowners’ campaign, does not have a background in estate planning. But the need for help was clear.

“We have to keep people in their houses,” Francis said. “It seemed crazy to wait until they came to us with their problems.”

MVLS will hold two more homeowners’ clinics in Baltimore this year. The first will be offered on Aug. 15 from 3 to 7 p.m. at the 29th Street Community Center (300 E. 29th St.). The second will be held Oct. 3 from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Southeast Anchor Library (3601 Eastern Ave.). Homeowners can check the status of their deeds at www.myhomemydeed.org or call 443-451-4066.