The Birth of a Mission

In 2000, I was the owner of a small, general practice law firm in my hometown of Phoenix, New York. I was the father of four children, one of whom was born six weeks premature in October of 2000. Due to those complications, my son was unable to go to daycare, so we made the decision that my wife, a working registered nurse would, without warning, become a stay-at-home mom. Suddenly, I was the sole financial supporter of my wife and four children, all under nine years of age.

In late 2001, my mother-in-law and her sister came to me for help. Their father, Bob (my wife’s grandfather) had just passed away. Their mother, Catherine (my wife’s grandmother) was in a nursing home. They wanted me to assist them in determining whether or not Catherine was eligible for Medicaid benefits in order to help ease the financial burden of long-term care.  Like many people, they assumed that just because I was a lawyer, I would be proficient in any area of the law.

As an attorney, I also assumed that I could handle the matter.  After all, I had taken some continuing education classes on Medicaid.  I had even joined a national group of Medicaid attorneys.  At that time I was, in fact, trying to integrate Medicaid law into my practice. I thought that I had a pretty good grasp of the subject.

With this background I took on the task of helping my wife’s family. I quickly discovered that although I had taken classes on Medicaid, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to actually getting a private pay nursing home resident qualified for Medicaid benefits.

This was not a case on which I could afford to make a mistake; my client was my mother-in-law and her sister, who was also my wife’s aunt. I quickly decided that it was in their best interest  to find an attorney who focused his practice on Medicaid. When I found someone I could trust, I referred my mother-in-law and her sister to him.

Frankly, I was embarrassed. Here I was, an attorney admitted to the bar, and I was unable to help my family in their time of need. I had mistakenly believed that any attorney ought to be able to take on any case that walked through the door. It was humbling and humiliating to have to tell my wife and her family that I could not help them.

During this same period of time, the defining moment of the new century had occurred: the attacks on the World Trade Center. On the week of September 11th, I had started a custody trial. I was representing two young boys in a custody matter between their parents. Both parents were good people, and their boys loved each of them. They wanted to spend as much time as they could with each parent.  However, the parents had come to a point where they wanted to hurt one another by depriving the other of their children.

Court began as usual on the morning of 9/11, even as the world tried to figure out what we had just seen. At noon, the court took its standard lunch break. When we returned, the doors were locked, by the order of the New York state office of Court Administration.

My wife and I sat together on the couch for much of the weekend, watching history unfold, and just being thankful that all of our loved ones were safe and sound. We shared with each other our feelings of parental dread as we wondered what the world had become for our children, all while taking every opportunity to hold them and tell them that we loved them.

When the courts re-opened, I returned for the continuation of the that custody trial.  I was certain that these parents would have resolved their differences in light what had just happened. I could not believe that the two “adults” went right back to fighting about their children, instead of coming to a resolution.

While 9/11 wasn’t the sole impetus for changing my professional direction, as I had been becoming increasingly frustrated with my law practice for a while, it was the tipping point. After that, I decided that I needed to get out of family law.  My professional mission is to help people like my mother-in-law save their family homes and life savings from the costs of long-term care.

It was then that the idea of Safe Harbor Wills & Trusts was born.

In my upcoming posts, I hope to share how an idea borne from frustration, embarrassment and helplessness became a unique and growing law practice, now known as Safe Harbor Wills and Trusts.

When you need someone to help you with an elder law emergency, Medicaid, writing a will, probate, estate administration, guardianship, asset protection or creating a trust, call our offices in Syracuse or Watertown. We are here to help.