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End-of-life planning helps bring peace to Tampa Bay seniors during the coronavirus pandemic

A St. Petersburg legal aid clinic is getting more funding to help seniors prepare legal documents in the unknown of COVID-19.
Robin Stover, deputy director and attorney for Gulfcoast Legal Services, helps a client with end-of-life legal planning on July 13 in St. Petersburg. Legal aid is receiving more funding for end of life planning services for seniors because of the coronavirus.
Robin Stover, deputy director and attorney for Gulfcoast Legal Services, helps a client with end-of-life legal planning on July 13 in St. Petersburg. Legal aid is receiving more funding for end of life planning services for seniors because of the coronavirus. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jul. 20, 2020
Updated Jul. 20, 2020

Nicholas De Stefano has been working on his end-of-life plans for more than a year, but he paused while making the final decisions at his Thursday appointment at Gulfcoast Legal Services in downtown St. Petersburg.

His son will get his motorcycle and some paintings. His daughter, the Nintendo. But now, the 76-year-old had to make it all legal. Deep in thought, De Stefano twirled his ring.

Who will best care for his last wishes? On whom should he bestow power of attorney?

His advisor, Elizabeth Hauper, a staff attorney at Gulfcoast, waited as he reviewed the documents she prepared.

In the midst of a pandemic, the future doesn’t feel guaranteed. Making life and end-of-life plans is a good step to take, said Robin Stover, financial stability and housing managing attorney with the agency.

Since their office reopened after the state-mandated shutdown, more seniors than ever are seeking help with what the agency calls simply “life planning,” Stover said. This year, the center has received $50,000 in grants and other donations to help low-income residents with its services, which also include help with child support, divorces, domestic violence, filing taxes, human trafficking and citizenship.

“They knew that we were going to need to do more of it because of COVID,” she said, adding that legal aid serves the most vulnerable people in the community. “It’s truly the last line of defense for many people.”

End-of-life planning typically wouldn’t fall into the center’s critical mission, Stover said, but it’s become more in demand during the pandemic. Some people might not have a lot of money to leave, but they might have a home they want to pass on. By keeping these in the family, the center is helping to protect other vulnerable people, too, she said.

In-person service is required to execute the documents, so Gulfcoast was not able to finalize end-of-life plans for a few months, Stover said. Still, the center’s staff worked on 151 plans, mostly for seniors, from February 1 to July 14, wrote Tammy Greer, executive director of Gulfcoast Legal Services.

However, the growth in demand for these services hasn’t been consistent across Tampa Bay.

Bay Area Legal Services in Pasco County hasn’t seen an uptick as a result of the pandemic, according to managing attorney Guilene Theodore. Most of the office’s cases have been about domestic violence, housing and benefits issues, she said.

And while the Hillsborough County office hasn’t seen a growing demand, the pandemic prompted them to offer online seminars this summer about life planning, according to Nancy Lugo, a staff attorney for Bay Area Legal Services. The office received additional funding through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to provide COVID-19 related services.

In addition to being dreary, end-of-life plans can be confusing.

A 75-year-old man arrived at the St. Petersburg office of Gulfcoast Legal Services on Monday, carrying thick binders of his life’s records — certificates of achievement, military commendations, academic honors. He has always been prepared, he said, and he wants to be prepared at the end of his life, too, even though he’s in good health.

Stover walked him through the details. Does he want someone to make his end-of-life decisions? Should he entrust someone with his estate?

“What do you want to do with your property, your dishes, your furniture?” she asked.

Stover and her colleagues help clients assemble the needed documents, including a durable power of attorney, designation of health care surrogate, living will, and last will and testament. Some people don’t want all of them, she said, but she explains each document’s purpose.

“A power of attorney is for your financial affairs, so that you authorize that person to act for you in case something happens to you,” she told the client on Monday.

He doesn’t have a spouse or children to carry out his wishes, so Stover sent him home to ask his trusted friend to make his decisions if a health problem arises.

Stover and her client sat separated by plastic shields across the long conference table, both wearing masks. When she finishes drafting his wishes at his next appointment, she will tuck his documents into a blue folder for him to take home.

That, she told him, will make them easy to find for a loved one if the need arises.

Pinellas and Manatee County residents should call Gulfcoast Legal Services at 800-230-5920 for more information. Services are free for eligible individuals.

Hillsborough and Pasco County seniors should call Bay Area Legal Services at 800-625-2257 for more information.

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