All too often, they died before they could make provisions for the heartbroken families they left behind.
"When you're 25 or 26 or 27, you're walking around feeling pretty invincible, thinking: It isn't going to happen to me," said Rogers Police Chief Jeff Beahen, who serves as president of the Law Enforcement Memorial Association of Minnesota. "Unfortunately, we've dealt with a number of deaths where they haven't had wills and things go to probate, and things get complicated."
That's where the Wills for Heroes program steps in.
Every week, attorneys and volunteers from the Minnesota State Bar Association head out to police and fire stations around the state, armed with stacks of estate documents, spreadsheets and thousands of dollars' worth of free legal advice.
To date, Minnesota's Wills for Heroes program has helped more than 8,958 first responders — law-enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, corrections officers — and their spouses prepare basic estate-planning documents such as wills, power-of-attorney documents and health care directives. The program is so popular that agencies book sessions years in advance. The attorneys expect to write their 10,000th will sometime in September.
It's the legal community's way of taking care of the people who take care of Minnesota. Although estate and trust attorney Susan Link, who runs the program with Andrea Bischoff, said that the idea of friendly lawyers was met at first with a certain amount of cross-armed skepticism from cops and deputies.
"Most of the lawyers they meet are defense lawyers. They really don't like us," Link said with laugh. "They're glaring at you and saying 'What do you really want?' They don't meet a lot of warm, fuzzy lawyers."
Wills for Heroes is about as warm and fuzzy as estate planning gets.
Last week, just two days before Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop, the volunteers were in Milaca, where more than a dozen local responders had signed up for estate-planning assistance.
The event drew not only members of Milaca's eight-person police department, but sheriff's deputies, firefighters, paramedics and Department of Natural Resources officers. Each met with an adviser for about an hour and walked out with about $1,500 worth of free legal advice and their affairs in order.
A last will and testament was the last thing on Jeff Shaw's mind when he was a young patrolman. The Milaca police liaison officer figured he didn't have enough possessions to make a will worthwhile — and even later on, when he was a married and a homeowner, he wasn't quite sure how to go about making arrangements.
"I mean, where do you start?" he said. For him, it started by signing up with Wills for Heroes. "It really is a relief, not only for myself but for my wife. It makes things so much easier."
Even officers with few assets can use legal help, if only to pick a beneficiary and set up their medical directive, said Link, an estate and trust attorney with the Minneapolis-based law firm of Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand.
"There's always something we can help them with, and we're happy to do it," she said.
Milaca Police Chief Todd Quaintance turned to Wills for Heroes after realizing that his will hadn't been updated since his now-grown children were small.
"I've been spreading the word," he said. He tells other officers: "It's something you need to think about and talk about and plan for. You need to take care of your families."
The Wills for Heroes program began in the shadow of Sept. 11, 2001. When the twin towers fell, 90 percent of the firefighters who ran into the burning buildings died without wills. Appalled that their families now faced months of tedious probate paperwork, a South Carolina attorney founded the first Wills for Heroes program, and the idea spread. Jim Crawford, former chief of the Golden Valley Police Department and founder of the Law Enforcement Memorial Association, heard about the program and pitched the idea to the Minnesota Bar.
The program held its first event in 2007, at the Lino Lakes Police Department, which had lost one of its own when 32-year-old officer Shawn Silvera was struck and killed by a fleeing suspect in 2005. For grieving families, having a will and other paperwork in order is a gift.
"They have so much on their plates, this is one thing they don't have to worry about,'' Beahen said. "The value of that … can't even be measured."