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Diversity of perspective is the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys’ superpower, according to Rajiv Nagaich.

We Are Better Together

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Diversity of perspective is NAELA’s superpower. Let’s make the most of it.

Twenty-three years ago, I met my future father-in-law in a nursing home. That was the first time I had set foot in a nursing home, and it was also the day I had my life in America turned upside down.

At the time I was working as a manager at Allstate Insurance, happily climbing the corporate ladder. I had no concept of what a nursing home was. Bill, my father-in-law, was dealing with advancing Alzheimer’s-related issues that could not be easily managed at home. So, at the advice of his doctor, my future mother-in-law, Vivian, reluctantly placed him in a nursing home.

 The day I met him, Bill had lost his speech and could not communicate verbally, but he saw his daughter and busted out the biggest of grins. It was a happy moment for Bill, though very bewildering to me. After about two hours into the visit, we were leaving, but Bill clung to his daughter thinking that she was there to take him home. Jamie, my future wife, was in tears. A worker, noticing this commotion, came running and tapped Bill on his shoulder to distract him, so we could enter the key code for the exit door and leave without Bill escaping the room.

I felt encouraged and empowered by many colleagues at NAELA who had different perspectives bout cases, about billing, about how to run a practice, and about all the ways that the scope of elder law might change to better meet the needs of our clients.

As if living in the nursing home was not enough of a trauma, in a few years Bill’s retirement nest egg was spent on the nursing home care he was forced to endure. He qualified for Medicaid, and it paid for his care. However, if Bill had stayed at home, he would have been much happier, and the cost of his care would have been much less than the cost of the nursing home.

But I knew none of these answers at the time. The only thought I could form at that moment was this: “How does the richest country take care of their old people when they can no longer care for themselves?” That was the turning point that had me eventually leave my Allstate job, start law school, and graduate with the goal to develop a solution that would help clients stay away from nursing homes, not become a burden on loves ones, or lose assets to uncovered care costs.

Bill, unfortunately, died in the nursing home while I was still in law school. I just did not have enough knowledge of how the system worked, and his team of professionals (a lawyer, an insurance agent, a financial planner, and various doctors) were of no help in my quest to find a way to bring him home.

Vivian lived another six years after Bill’s passing. She died of kidney cancer that had metastasized to the bones — she was incontinent, not ambulatory, and unable to care for herself for many months. As happened with Bill, she could have spent some time in a care facility. But unlike Bill, Vivian got to take her last breath sleeping on the same pillow she always had, surrounded by her family. And not for one single day did we look to Medicaid to help us. This outcome was possible because of the knowledge I had gained as an elder law attorney, and developed a planning solution designed specifically to help people avoid institutional care in times of incapacity that I call LifePlanning.

That is what brings me to this article. The perspectives of my community of colleagues at NAELA helped guide and inspire me as I developed my own unique perspective on the practice of elder law.

What is LifePlanning? For 23 years now I have been championing the same message: it is not a lack of laws, knowledge, or skills that put many Americans in a situation similar to Bill; rather, it is a lack of proper planning. Many consumers engage in fragmented planning — they go to lawyers, financial planners, insurance agents, CPAs, doctors, realtors, and mortgage brokers. Each professional has a viewpoint, which generally is not coordinated with the others, or matched with the goal’s consumers have in life. Research establishes that a large majority of Americans want to be able to live out their lives at home, yet only 30% achieve that goal.

 My dealings with Bill and Vivian — and recognizing that there are many more like them — motivated me to develop a solution to help clients avoid the undesired outcomes that most older adults deal with. LifePlanning allows a client to look at all aspects of retirement life with one person (an elder law attorney) and develop a comprehensive plan that is built around their goals instead of commercial interests. Along the way, I have documented many successes of clients able to stay away from institutional care, without becoming a burden to loved ones, and being able to shield assets from uncovered long-term care costs — one being my professor from Seattle University, Professor Shelly Frankel, and another being my mentor turned partner, elder law attorney Preston Johnson. Here is a brief glimpse of the NAELA attorneys who helped me along the way.

Here is a brief glimpse of the NAELA attorneys who helped me along the way

One was Preston Johnson2 in Seattle, my first mentor, who took a chance on me. I was an eager law student with a passion for elder law and was willing to do anything to get my foot in the door. Preston cracked that door open and invited me in. One of the most impactful things he did was to introduce me to NAELA and to NAELA attorneys at state and national conferences. Preston taught me that collaboration was the key to success as an elder law attorney. He opened up his library, allowed me to sit in some client meetings, and so much more. Most importantly, he introduced me to many NAELA members I would not have sought to know without his introduction.

There was Margaret Phelan from Vancouver, Washington. I had been practicing law for a few years and I was just starting to talk publicly about how the experience of my in-laws had prompted my mid-career pivot into the practice of elder law. Margaret heard me tell this story at a state Unprogrammed event. After the presentation, she came to me and said, “Rajiv, you need to take this as far as you can. This is what lawyer’s ought to be focused on.” Her words meant the world to me.

Jim Brown, a fellow elder law attorney in Washington state, showed up to all my presentations. To this day, I don’t know why, but I found it encouraging. Today he’s a professor who teaches at Seattle University and someone other elder law attorneys follow.

My influencers weren’t just in the Pacific Northwest. One, Tim Takacs, was in Tennessee. He had written an article for NAELA that talked about offering care coordination services in an elder law firm. That article — and the relationship I developed with Tim — changed the trajectory of my elder law practice. He introduced the thought of the multi-disciplinary practice of law as a more efficient service to consumers over legal solutions in isolation. Tim encouraged me every step of the way, even when my ideas diverged from his.

There was Julie Oosterhout in Florida, a leading elder law voice in NAELA when I started. “People don’t come to you for Medicaid education, they come to you to have a problem solved,” she told me after letting me observe her practice in operation for an entire day. That became the deliverable that is at the heart of LifePlanning.

Lee Holmes from Oklahoma taught me critically important lessons about how much to charge for my services. He helped me understand how to value my services in the marketplace. To this day I use that system.

 And there are many more: Ron Landsman, Craig Reeves, Franklin Drazen, Vinnie Cassiano, Mic McGuire, Howie Krooks, Ruth Phelps…. The list is endless, but it only has one name — NAELA.

Better Together: Share Your Story

How has the NAELA community influenced you and allowed you to grow as an elder and special needs law attorney? If you would like to share your story in NAELA News, contact NAELA Publisher Susan Simolunas at

 I felt encouraged and empowered by many colleagues at NAELA who had different perspectives about cases, about billing, about how to run a practice, and about all the ways that the scope of elder law might change to better meet the needs of our clients. Every one of these perspectives influenced me. Had I not met these attorneys, I would not be the person I am today, nor would I have been able to develop my own unique perspective on the practice of elder law. The diversity of perspectives is NAELA’s superpower.

“Age on” fellow NAELAans!

Need assistance planning for your successful retirement? Give us a call! 1.877.762.4464

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