man smiling.

Navigating justice for the elderly

Christopher Phillips ’20 remembers one client as clear as yesterday. She was a transgender woman in her 60s, and she wanted to execute a legal name change. She had a complicated history and limited resources and had a difficult time securing legal representation. For four long years she tried to navigate the legal system by herself.

Within two months after she called Phillips, the name change was accomplished. 

That was a quick fix for a clear barrier to justice. And it’s emblematic of the kinds of cases Phillips handles as a staff attorney with the Center for Elder Law & Justice, Buffalo’s go-to resource agency for low-income elderly people.

In high school and college, he volunteered at assisted living facilities and discovered that he loved being with elders.  “I met some pretty cool people there,” he says. “All these older adults have stories that need to be told and often no one to hear them.”

Now, as part of the center’s Guardianship Unit, Phillips works with other attorneys and social services professionals to act as guardians for vulnerable older adults—those who aren’t able to meet their own needs. “Many times, these are situations where individuals have been victimized or financially exploited,” he says. “We manage their property and personal needs, make medical decisions, determine where they’ll live and help them apply for benefits. We attempt to step into their shoes, and in a sense become them legally.” The unit has roughly 100 guardianship cases at any given time.  

What sets Phillips apart, though, is his work on behalf of elderly LGBTQ+ clients through the center’s Aging with Pride Project. He provides civil legal services on a broad spectrum of issues to clients from throughout Western New York. 

“Many older LGBTQ+ adults faced discrimination throughout their lives, and they still do,” he says. “A lot of them have had longtime domestic partners for 30 or 40 years, but they’re not married because that wasn’t an option for them. Often that creates difficulties as they face the end of their lives. Their inheritance rights are affected—instead of their property passing to these domestic partners, it goes to family members perhaps from whom they’re estranged. 

“Also, many of them are what I call ‘solo agers.’ They don’t have a big biological family around them, but they might have a family of choice. They’ve built friendships with other LGBTQ+ adults, and they may want those people to make decisions for them through a power of attorney or health care proxy, or they may want to provide for those people in a last will and testament. Much of what I do is discussing these issues with older adults.”

Phillips adds that many older LGBTQ+ people are reticent to seek out legal counsel. “They don’t know what they’ll face with when they reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity,” he says. So a service designed with their needs in mind helps overcome that hurdle. Phillips often connects with clients through his volunteer work with the advocacy group Niagara Pride.

Sometimes justice comes in broad societal strokes, but Phillips says there’s deep satisfaction in making the system work on a smaller scale. “A lot of our clients haven’t been heard before, and it’s a privilege to be able to hear their stories,” he says. “It’s so meaningful to be able to effect change for just one person’s life. Being able to provide representation to individuals who ordinarily who would never have the opportunity to speak to an attorney is the privilege of a lifetime.”