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VIP in Action Published March 26, 2024

VIP and Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia Expand Estate Planning

This month’s pro bono spotlight shines not on a volunteer, but on a nonprofit that partners with VIP to serve dozens of low-income homeowners each year: Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia. VIP and Habitat Philadelphia have two joint estate planning clinics under our belts, and registration is now open for the third on April 18.

VIP’s partnership with Habitat Philadelphia, which began with an innovative pro bono clinic in 2022, is a natural match. Both agencies make it their mission to preserve homeownership and family wealth in Philly. VIP does so by training legal volunteers to fix title issues and create estate plans; Habitat Philadelphia, among other activities, builds and repairs homes in partnership with families earning up to 80% of the Area Median Income.

“Part of our mission is to keep people in the homes they own and to create new homeownership opportunities,” said Carrie Rathmann, Habitat Philadelphia’s Director of Strategic Partnerships. In sections of the city like Sharswood, where disinvestment and displacement have taken their toll for generations, estate planning keeps families in the neighborhoods they call home.

“There’s more to a neighborhood than just the physical structures. None of it is sustainable if the people aren’t sustained,” said Carrie.

That fact underpins VIP’s estate planning program, which aims to prevent the displacement, blight, and deepened poverty that too often result from tangled titles. Over half of Philly residents own their homes, but comparatively few homeowners – especially in lower income brackets – have valid wills dictating who will care for their homes after their death.

“Carrie and Habitat were really creative and patient partners,” said Lindsay Schoonmaker, VIP Supervising Attorney. “We held info sessions for Habitat homeowners and their neighbors in Sharswood. Then we trained volunteer attorneys to have introductory conversations with their clients: what is a will, what might happen if you don’t have a will.”

Those conversations are the first step in our two-part estate planning clinic model, which we have replicated twice since the initial event in 2022. Following the first meeting, clients and volunteers have about a month to draft documents, consider important decisions, and make necessary revisions. At the second meeting, clients execute their documents and leave with fully-formed estate plans that protect their legacies.

“Pro bono work is often reactive. It was great to work with Habitat to do something proactive,” said Lindsay.

Over four dozen Philly families now have estate plans thanks to the partnership. That number is sure to grow. VIP and Habitat Philadelphia will hold another clinic in Wynnefield on April 18. RSVP here to add your own efforts to this fruitful work.

Portions of this post are based on an episode of the “Pursuing Justice” podcast from Practising Law Institute, “Protecting Philly Homeowners,” which features Carrie, Lindsay, two VIP clients, and a volunteer attorney. Listen for free here.