By Franklin Drazen, CELA
Many of the elder law attorneys I know came to this field because they have taken care of older relatives. That’s not how it happened for me.
I was already an attorney when my journey started. My law practice involved estate planning and advising business owners on tax issues. I also led seminars. Some of the people who attended my seminars would come up to me afterwards and ask if I could help them with elder law issues. “My loved one needs nursing home care and we don’t know how to pay for it,” they would tell me. “We heard that Medicaid might help, but we don’t know where to start. We don’t want to lose the house.”
“I haven’t done a lot of that kind of work,” I would tell them.
They were insistent. “We've already been to three attorneys, and we think you could help us.”
People wanted to work with me even after I told them that it would take little longer and cost a little more. It would be slow going because I would be learning on the fly. I didn’t matter to these people. They were all desperate for help they hadn’t been able to find.
So, I started working with these families. Every situation was different, and each new case was like starting from scratch. During the process, they would tell me about what was going on with their loved ones in the hospital or the rehab center or the nursing home. They all had problems. I was able to help them find ways to pay for long-term care, but they needed much more than that. Some clients had problems finding care. Others had problems with caregivers. When the client’s condition deteriorated, which it almost always does in these cases, family caregivers didn’t know what to do next.
I had always wanted my law practice to be client-centered. I wanted my services to be delivered based on my clients’ needs instead of trying to fit their situations into my process. The more I worked with my clients on their legal issues, the more unmet needs I could see.
When I work with clients, I always ask them about their goals. No client has ever told me that they want to die in a nursing home, flat broke. No client has ever told me that their goal is to make life horrible for their children. Yet that’s what was happening for many of my clients. I could help them with their estate planning documents and help them access public benefits while protecting assets to the greatest extent possible, but that didn’t solve all their problems. In many cases, my clients hadn’t done any planning for the day when they might be incapacitated. They didn’t know they could. They wanted to leave a legacy for their kids, but they don't know how. They wanted to age at home, but they didn’t realize there was a way to plan for it..
When I started taking these elder law cases, I joined the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), and I went to tell their meetings. At one NAELA meeting, I heard people talking about an attorney from Tennessee who had developed a new approach to elder law that offered away for elder law attorneys to help their clients address these unmet needs. That attorney was Tim Takacs. Eventually, I heard Tim give a presentation at a NAELA meeting about his way of practicing elder law. “Elder law without care is an incomplete solution,” he said during his presentation.
It made perfect sense to me and many others. Later that day, Tim sat down with all of us at the bar and told us more about his approach. He had hired an elder care coordinator who was helping clients plan for and navigate through the challenges that caused so many problems for families. Clients loved the approach and Tim was making money providing it.
I was interested in implementing this practice model, but I couldn't afford to hire an elder care coordinator. Fortunately, the attorney who shared my office space was married to a nurse with hospice experience and a degree in public health. I told her about my interest in offering Life Care Planning, and she offered to serve as my elder care coordinator until I could find a permanent replacement. She ended up staying for three years.
Life Care Planning was the missing piece in my elder law practice. I’m grateful that I discovered it when I did—but my gratitude is nothing compared to that of my clients and their families.
Franklin Drazen is a Certified Elder Law Attorney and the founding member of Drazen Rubin Law, a Life Care Planning Law Firm in Milford, Connecticut.