Elder Law "Rock Star" Charlie Sabatino Retires

Elder Law The Great Resignation has claimed a giant in the field of elder law. 

After 37 years at the American Bar Association's Commission on Law and Aging -- many of those years as its beloved director -- Charles Sabatino retired on January 30, 2022.

It is hard to imagine the field of elder law over the past nearly four decades without Charlie Sabatino. Naomi Karp, who worked with him for 17 of those years as Staff Attorney at the Commission, called Sabatino “our rock star.”

There are of course the matchless professional affiliations and credentials: a Fellow and past president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (2001-02); longtime chair of NAELA’s public policy committee; conference organizer and speaker; prolific author; adjunct professor of law and aging at the Georgetown University Law Center from 1987 to 2020. Prior to joining the ABA, Sabatino was the elder law project attorney of the Arlington, Virginia, branch of Legal Services of Northern Virginia.

Behind the titles and memberships are decades of tenacious effort advancing equity for older adults and educating the legal community about safeguarding dignity at the end of life.  Sabatino’s impact on the field of aging and the law has been immense. 

In his role at the ABA, Sabatino became one of the nation’s foremost experts on health care decision-making and advance planning, writing and speaking extensively on these topics.  Erica Wood, the ABA Commission’s assistant director from 1980 to 2020, recounts in a tribute that Sabatino was amazingly innovative in spreading the word about the importance of planning.

“Charlie’s tool kits and guides on advance planning – and even a smartphone app – have changed the landscape,” Wood wrote.

She recalled that he persuaded the legendary actress Helen Hayes to star in a 19-minute video on the importance of advance care planning, titled “In Your Hands: The Tools for Preserving Personal Autonomy.”  Hayes died shortly after filming, and Wood says Sabatino was able to get Hayes’s son to add a poignant epilogue describing how comforting it was for him to have her directive when needed. (See the video in two parts on YouTube here and here.)  

As NAELA's Public Policy Chair, Sabatino was on the front lines of countless federal legislative battles, including beating back perennial attempts to block grant Medicaid, defending the ability of the elderly to qualify for Medicaid by transferring assets, challenging the financial wisdom of estate recovery programs, and shielding seniors from inappropriate deferred annuities.

As the ABA Commission’s director, Sabatino was a dream boss, judging by the outpouring of tributes to him from current and former staff members.  Here’s just a sampling of comments:

  • “He was always kind to his staff, fair, flexible, upbeat, accessible, and could see the humor in many situations."
  • “He is open to new ideas, isn’t quick to judge, and an expert at handling adversarial and seemingly high-stakes conversations with grace, kindness, and fairness.”
  • “Charlie works with each person’s strengths to bring out their best.”
  • [When the pandemic struck] “he shifted and adjusted, and the work continued at its high standard and the meetings and conferences went on Zoom as if he had planned it all along. And he always kept his droll sense of humor throughout it all.”
  • “Charlie was an absolute joy to work with.”

(To read all the tributes, click here and here.)

Reacting to the news of Sabatino’s retirement, ElderLawAnswers founder and president Harry Margolis said: “I was delighted and dismayed to learn that Charlie has retired from the ABA Commission, delighted for him but dismayed for the cause of using the law to better the lives of seniors in the United States. Charlie will be sorely missed. (I'm also dismayed to learn that he was fighting the good fight for 37 years, which means that we're all getting older.)”

Happily, Sabatino’s official retirement doesn’t mean the field is completely bereft of his vast knowledge and wise, caring counsel.  In a note to friends and colleagues, he wrote: “I don’t plan on leaving the field of aging and the law, but I do want to slow down, free up much more personal time to spend with family, and re-engage in long-ignored personal interests.”