Martha C. Brown has seen a lot of change in the elder law practice during her nearly four-decade career. For one thing, her practice now has a name.
“I didn’t know I was doing elder law when I was doing it,” she said.
Brown began her legal career with a bit of “wandering,” she said. After graduating from the University of Vermont, she worked for a legal services agency in Topeka, Kansas, as a paralegal. The lawyers there encouraged her to try law school. She enrolled at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and though she said she felt a bit out of place among “people with strong personalities that had a plan,” she earned her law degree in 1981.
Brown returned to St. Louis, where she grew up, and joined the firm of Gunn & Gunn. Her practice included probate, trust and estate and guardianship issues, and increasingly she found herself counseling clients on the intricacies of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security law. It wasn’t easy.
“I got involved in these areas of law I knew nothing about,” she said. “At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information out there. You had to read the federal statutes.”
It turned out that there were others out there in her position, which she discovered through the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. She would go on to help found a Missouri chapter of the group in 1998. Those resources helped her and similar attorneys to put together resources where the federal rules and guidelines change frequently.
“It’s not an area of law for people who dabble,” she said.
Unlike many practices, elder law usually doesn’t involve a discrete problem requiring a legal solution. Instead, it often involves a range of interrelated issues that can stretch well into the future.
“As you do elder law, it kind of morphs into special-needs law,” Brown said.
For example, she described a case she had some 20 years ago involving a woman who was the sole shareholder of a closely held corporation that had a few hundred employees.
“A lot of estate planning had been done to minimize taxes,” Brown said. “But nobody had really thought through what they were going to do if mom developed dementia.”
When that happened, the woman became incapacitated, to the point that she was “going around to neighbors eating out of trash cans,” Brown said. The family didn’t know what to do. Brown was able to guide them through the crisis, establishing a guardianship that helped craft a life for the woman.
“She was able to have a more meaningful life, and she was no longer eating out of people’s trash cans and being somewhat abused by caregivers,” Brown said.
Through time, the practice has changed. On one hand, as people live longer they have a greater chance of becoming incapacitated in their later years.
“When I was a child, if somebody lived to be 90 it was just amazing,” she said. “Now a lot of people live to be 90.”
On the other hand, families these days are more willing than they once were to talk to a lawyer about issues of mental decline.
“There’s more acceptance and less of a stigma for people to come in and say they’re diagnosed” with dementia, she said. “It used to be kind of a secret.”
Having carved out an unplanned practice in an area of law that is heavy on planning, Brown said she’s enjoyed it very much.
“I never had a day I didn’t want to go to work as an elder law attorney,” she said.