After being overwhelmed with requests, a St. Pete law firm completed nearly 700 free living wills for Florida teachers

Gallagher and Associates had to turn out-of-state requests away.

click to enlarge Pinellas Safe School Rally in Largo, Florida on July 14, 2020. - Bryan Edward Creative
Bryan Edward Creative
Pinellas Safe School Rally in Largo, Florida on July 14, 2020.

In July, a St. Petersburg law firm announced it would begin providing free living wills to teachers “involuntarily forced to return to the classroom.” In just two months, the firm completed about 700 living wills for teachers across Florida.

Raytoyia Brooks, a Pinellas County business teacher at Lealman Innovation Academy, said she felt safer returning to school after completing her living will. “It made me feel a lot better knowing that my family would have that [living will] in case something happened to me,” Brooks explained.

 She is one of the millions of teachers who were forced to return to schools for in-person instruction at the start of the fall semester. 

Charles Gallagher, a Gallagher and Associates law firm partner, began this initiative in July after hearing a story on NPR about the experience of three Arizona teachers, who contracted coronavirus amid their return to school. 

Then, Florida’s Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran signed an executive order demanding that schools reopen five days a week for students, who want a brick-in-mortar experience. Gov. Ron DeSantis also recommended that all Florida schools re-open to full capacity

According to the Tampa Bay Times, since reopening, “More than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed among students and staff in the Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas county schools since students returned in late August.” Those numbers came across a four-district area with a combined enrollment of 411,598 (including 30%-40% of students learning remotely).

Gallagher was horrified for teachers, so he offered the best thing he thought he could—free living wills.

A living will—also known as an advanced directive—is a legal form that specifies what kind of medical care someone wants in the event that they become unable to communicate. Scenarios in which a living will becomes crucial include coma, terminal illness and life support. Without a living will, decisions on medical care including life-sustaining treatment, are left up to relatives, spouses and medical physicians, according to Harvard Health. Often, these people are unable to come to a consensus, sometimes leading to litigation.

In the beginning, Gallagher said his law firm was overwhelmed with requests. 

“There were days when that’s all we did,” he said. “I even set up my iPad over the weekend so I could get more done and so that the office didn’t get too bogged down.”

Due to a large amount of attention, the firm received requests from people outside of the Sunshine State but unfortunately could not help them because Gallagher is only eligible to practice law in Florida

Gallagher said he sent many teachers to nearby law firms if they were looking for regular wills to avoid the presumption that he was financially benefiting from teachers. 

Gallagher noted that the frequency of inquiries has recently tapered off. He said none of his clients have used their living will so far.

But, his firm was not the only one to run with the idea of assisting teachers with advanced directives.

Rachel Wilson, a Georgia lawyer, began offering free-living wills in July as well. She started after several friends of hers, who are teachers, expressed concerns over returning back to school. 

“Some of them had preexisting conditions and they were very concerned and so I started offering these friends of mine free legal services just to soothe their minds,” Wilson told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “The schools and or the school systems had not provided them any direction on where to get these things.”

Like Gallagher, she received requests from out of state, but Wilson was able to help them through the Five Wishes form, which is accepted in 43 states and Washington D.C. The do-it-yourself form allows people to dictate the same information as Florida’s advanced directive

Spanning from Orlando to Virginia, Wilson helped about 80 people complete their living wills. She said she also gave away over 400 of the 500 Five Wishes forms she bought.

Wilson urges everyone, not just teachers, to fill out an advanced directive. She referenced the lessons learned in the case of St. Petersburg resident Terri Schiavo.

In 1990, after suffering a heart attack at 26, Schiavo was in what doctors described to the New York Times as a “persistent vegetative state.” In 1998, her husband Michael Schiavo petitioned to have her feeding tube removed. Her parents disagreed, thrusting the family into years of court battles. In 2005, then-Pinellas County Judge George Greer ordered her feeding tube be removed for the third time; Schiavo died two weeks later from dehydration, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The widespread attention of the Schiavo case spurred awareness of the value of living wills, and even led to the creation of nonprofit organizations like Aging With Dignity.  

Wilson later commented on the important role educators and her mother’s influence had on her decision to begin giving away free living wills. 

“My mom worked in the school system for many years and we ask so much of teachers: their load is nearly unbearable on a regular basis and now we’re asking them to do even more with even less and most of them are doing it beautifully,” she said. “The least we can do is provide them with a little help in this department.”

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About The Author

Christopher Cann

Christopher is a current journalism student at the University of Florida. His past work can be seen at Ears to Feed, The Independent Florida Alligator and Cigar City Management. 

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