Spokane Journal of Business

Estates & Elders founder follows heart with advocacy

Ballantyne’s law career founded after helping mom navigate dementia care

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It has never bothered Jennifer Ballantyne that she was the oldest student in her graduating class at Gonzaga University School of Law.

For this elder law attorney who eventually founded Estates & Elders Law PLLC, age is something to be honored, not marginalized.

Ballantyne was 57 when she headed back to class in 2011 for the first time since earning a degree in journalism from Ohio State University in 1974. While at GU, she immersed herself in the school’s legal assistance program and worked part-time for a local law firm. She received her diploma in 2014 and passed the Washington state bar exam the following year.

“I was an unusual student,” Ballantyne says of her time at Gonzaga. “Any free time I had, I was networking and building relationships with elder law attorneys I could collaborate with.”

Ballantyne’s life shift was prompted by her mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in 2001 at the age of 71. Ballantyne put a career in software sales on partial pause to help her mom navigate the maze of long-term care and estate planning.  She intervened after discovering her mom “was in a financial mess.” The experience was a wake-up call.

Ballantyne oversaw her mother’s care for six years, learning valuable lessons that would bode her well in the future, she says. Her mom died in 2006.

Because of her experience as an elder care giver, Ballantyne says, “I can relate to my clients’ worries.”

After being accepted to Gonzaga Law, Ballantyne and her husband, Gary, moved to Spokane from the Dallas area. Her time with the GU legal assistance program allowed Ballantyne to cut her teeth in a demanding field. 

By 2016, after two years with a Spokane law firm, she was ready to embark on her own. 

Estates & Elders Law PLLC began in a downtown Spokane executive suite and moved to Liberty Lake in July of 2017, where her office currently is located in the Liberty Lake Portal building, at 23403 E. Mission.

“I wanted to serve a broader section of clients than I was serving with my previous firm,” Ballantyne says. “I was also in a unique position. I didn’t have to make a handsome living. My husband was getting ready to retire, and I had more flexibility and time. I just wanted to be a lawyer. I have a heart for this business.”

With Estates & Elders, Ballantyne focuses on estate planning, including wills, trusts, powers of attorney, and health care directives as well as helping clients apply for and secure Medicaid benefits, particularly related to long-term care. She places a priority on helping people age in place.

“There are just a handful of attorneys that do Medicaid,” Ballantyne says. “I find that work the most rewarding.”

Ballantyne also tackles probate work, helping family members settle estates after a loved one has passed.

“I have compassion for the tough stuff that comes with aging—illness, death, loss of spouse, concerns about having enough money,” Ballantyne says. “It takes a level of maturity but also a level of compassion to address these issues.”

Ballantyne estimates she has served nearly 1,000 families over the past five years. She adds that business has increased since COVID-19 as people are more attuned to their own mortality. Estates & Elders’ revenue doubled between 2019 and 2020.

The pandemic also has brought a shift to more virtual meetings for Ballantyne, who had been accustomed to making house calls “like an old-fashioned doctor.”

“I never aspired to running a business, but being an attorney,” Ballantyne says. “From the day I opened the doors, I’ve always been able to cover expenses and take money out. I can tell you I appreciate so much more the stress of running a business.”

Over the years, Ballantyne has brought on several employees, including an associate attorney and an office assistant. These days, though, her husband is the firm’s only other employee, handling client communications, manning the phones, taking care of billing, and monitoring the finances.

“He’s a quick study,” Ballantyne says of Gary, who worked in high-tech management before retirement. “His business skills and customer-service skills have been invaluable.”

Spending more time with a blended family of three kids and eight grandchildren in three states has nudged Ballantyne to scale back the business lately, taking care of existing clients who come to the firm with new matters.

“I’ve never aspired to retirement,” she says. “I need to have an intellectual challenge every day, and I also need to be helping people. I can’t imagine giving this work up as long as I can help someone.”

Ballantyne is active with causes like the Gonzaga Elder Law Clinic, Senior Action Network of Eastern Washington, and the local branch of the Alzheimer’s Association, where she runs legal-financial workshops and care-partner conferences. She is also on a committee working to make Washington state more dementia friendly, meaning safe, respectful, and supportive of people with the disease, their families, and caregivers.

An adept networker, Ballantyne regularly connects with a variety of entities that serve seniors, including long-term placement companies, in-home care agencies, long-term care facilities, and insurance companies.

Holly Cavanaugh, a home care liaison with Liberty Lake-based Home Care Assistance, describes Ballantyne as “a brilliant, empathetic lawyer.”

Cavanaugh adds, “She’s someone with amazing integrity and character who I can count on to bring peace of mind to families. If she can’t help, she finds someone who can.”

While Ballantyne’s age may have set her apart in GU Law’s graduating class of 150 just over seven years ago, the birthdate on her driver’s license has translated into an asset while working with others in their golden years.

“I’m a contemporary,” she says. “I’m on Social Security. I’m on Medicare. For me, it’s about building a relationship and building trust. People can relate to my experience. I also try to stay in my lane. My interests really haven’t changed since I started in this field.”

As for the rewards of practicing elder law, Ballantyne says it’s more about intangible dividends.

“It’s not a very lucrative area of law, but every day feels good,” she says. “It’s far exceeded my expectations. Going in, I was focused on what I was going to give people. I do give a lot, but I get a lot back, not just from the clients, but from their families.”

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