Many concerns and questions can arise as we grow older and approach the sunset years of life. Where will I live if I become too frail to take care of myself? Who will take care of me and help me make good decisions? How will I be able to pay for long-term care? How will I distribute my assets?
In the last decade or so, a new category of law has emerged that specializes in helping people answer these questions and learn their rights. Elder law focuses on providing legal services to senior citizens and younger people with special needs, such as early onset Alzheimer's or Crohn's disease, who want to manage their circumstances now and into the future [source: Goldberg]. The client may also be a person helping a family member or friend in need.
So whether you're hoping to understand your personal rights in more detail, or just about to delve into the emotional and legal intricacies of end-of-life planning, it's a good idea to seek sage council as early as possible. Keep reading to learn the most important questions to ask an elder law attorney.
Do I Really Need an Elder Law Attorney?
Planning for the future can be problematic without the correct information. Simple situations can rapidly turn into complicated and expensive conundrums without good advice. That's where an elder law attorney can help.
According to certified elder law attorney Ruthann P. Lacey, counsel can help lead you through the pitfalls, roadblocks and hurdles associated with:
- Evaluating the client's needs relating to federal tax, social security, Medicare, Medicaid and property laws
- Advocating the best way to move forward, consistent with these laws
- Preparing trusts and wills
- Figuring out the best way to pay for long-term health care
- Helping the client make emotionally difficult decisions, such as those related to end-of-life
Are You a Certified Elder Law Attorney?
Today, lawyers can demonstrate their specialty in elder law by becoming certified through the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF). The certification was created to educate lawyers on all parts of the law relating to the aging population, and then help them demonstrate this dedication to their clients. Once certified, the attorney must continue focusing on elder law and special needs and complete continuing education credits. On the flip side, the certification also helps people find a lawyer skilled in this particular field.
According to NELF, some of the requirements for certification include:
- Being licensed as a lawyer in one or more states
- Practicing law for five years or more
- Maintaining a level of excellence of all the bars
- Demonstrating involvement in practicing elder law
- Finishing at least 45 hours of continuing education in elder law in the last three years
- References from five attorneys
- Passing a certification examination
Does the Practice Focus on a Particular Niche?
The only way to know is to ask. So remember to question the law firm about its range of experience, especially as it relates to the area of elder law in which you're seeking help. Sometime later, you may need the firm for another facet of elder law, so it's good to ensure its lawyers have a wide range of skills.
According to Elder Law Answers, some areas of expertise might include:
Are you experienced? On the next page, we'll find out if your lawyer is or not.
Do You Have Experience With Similar Cases?
"If you needed brain surgery, you wouldn't want to a podiatrist to treat you," says Robert M. Goldberg, an elder law attorney based in Griffin, Ga. "The same holds true for law."
In other words, pick the lawyer's brain. Find out how many years he or she's been working in the field. When talking with prospective attorneys, find out how many cases they've had similar to yours and what the outcomes were. And ask them what they think the likely outcome is if he or she were to take you on as client. There's no harm in doing your research and finding the best possible elder law attorney suited to your specific needs, especially since you're going to be paying for it with your own hard-earned cash [source: Goldberg].
How Familiar Are You With the State Laws?
State laws vary and change all the time. "The government has made the health care system almost impenetrable," says Goldberg, listing some of the systems many facets including, Medicare, Medicaid, veteran's benefits and various tax laws [source: Goldberg]. "Elder law attorneys can serve as guides through the health care [system]."
Take Medicaid for example. Medicaid is a federal program that provides health-care financing to certain people with low incomes. But, the program is managed at the state level, with each state drawing up its own rules and procedures [source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]. Understanding these guidelines can be difficult to say the least, and it may be best to trust a professional who already has a firm grasp of the rules.
Are You a Member of Any Relevant Organizations?
There are a handful of organizations that focus on issues affecting retirees and people with disabilities. When searching for a skilled elder law attorney, it's probably good to ask if he or she belongs to any of these to test his or her interest and continuing involvement in the topic.
One such organization is the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, Inc., or NAELA. With more than 4,200 attorney members, NAELA helps its constituency receive the continuing education necessary to stay up-to-date on elder law topics. Another such organization is the Special Needs Alliance. State and local agencies also exist. Do a little research at your local library or on the Internet to find elder law resources in your state.
Do You Educate Others About Elder Law Issues?
An old truism says, "Actions speak louder than words." It's no different when it comes to witnessing an attorney's life outside of the office. When an attorney steps outside of his daily practice to help educate people about the numerous issues facing the elderly, it not only shows that interest in his career, but also his true dedication to the community at large.
It may also demonstrate that he has gathered a thorough and profound interpretation of the nuances of elder law. Hint: Search for lawyers who instruct the public about guardianship, long-term care, Medicare and Medicaid, mental health issues, retirement or any other issues relating to the disabled and elderly.
Are You One of the Few "Super Lawyers"?
Before asking this question, it's good to realize that there are many incredibly skilled lawyers out there with years of experience in the field that have not been given the designation of "Super Lawyer."
This does not mean that they aren't successful and caring. However, why not ask and find out if your lawyer is the cream of the crop? The designation "Super Lawyer" refers to attorneys who are nominated and evaluated by their peers. These recommendations are conducted annually and made on a state-by-state basis. Only a small percentage of lawyers in any given field are given this honor [source: SuperLawyers.Com].
How Familiar Are You With the Medicare and Medicaid?
Many elder law attorneys prepare will and trusts on a daily basis, but only a few really understand the Medicare and Medicaid systems and how to plan for long-term care, explains attorney Goldberg. Medicare is a federal medical insurance program for people over 65 years of age and for younger people with certain disabilities.
Should a family member need custodial care, which involves help with daily living activities like eating and dressing, Medicare simply won't pay for this [source: Goldberg]. In this regard, a person will either pay out of pocket or seek help from Medicaid, a needs-based entitlement program that pays for custodial care.
"These are very complicated programs that have a high learning curve," continues Goldberg.
What Web Sites Will Teach Me About Elder Law?
Before you ever pick up the phone and call an elder law attorney, it's wise to do some research of your own. This will increase your confidence and comfort level with the topic so that you're able to ask the right questions and know whether you're hearing the correct answers in response.
There are numerous, free online tools that can help the general public acquaint themselves with the nuances of elder law.
A few resources include:
Want to learn more about elder law? Visit the links and resources on the next page.
What happens when the child becomes the parent? Being a caregiver to your parent can be a hard job. Get tips and information on when a child becomes the parent.
- Area Agency on Aging. "Legal Considerations When Facing Incapacity." 2011. (June 2, 2011) http://www.agingcarefl.org/about
- Department of Health and Human Services. "Eldercare Locator." May 31, 2011. (June 2, 2011) http://www.eldercare.gov/Eldercare.NET/Public/Index.aspx
- Elder Law Answers. "Elder-Law 101." 2008. (June 2, 2011) http://www.elderlawanswers.com/elder_info/elderlaw_info.asp
- Goldberg, Robert. Elder Law Attorney, The Elder Law Practice of Robert M. Goldberg in Griffin, Ga. Personal Interview. June 2, 2011. http://www.elderlawyergeorgia.com/site/
- National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, Inc. "About." 2010. (June 2, 2011) http://www.naela.org/Public/
- National Elder Law Foundation. "Becoming a Certified Elder Law Attorney." 2011. (June 1, 2011) http://www.nelf.org/becoming-certified
- National Elder Law Foundation. "Qualifications Summary." 2011. (June 2, 2011) http://www.nelf.org/becoming-certified/qualifications-summary/
- Ruthann P. Lacey, P.C. Certified Elder Law Attorney. "Frequently Asked Questions." 1999-2010. (May 31, 2011) http://www.elderlaw-lacey.com/faq.html
- The Social Security and Disability Resource Center. "What is Elder Law?" 2011. (May 30, 2011) http://www.ssdrc.com/generalretirement17.html
- Special Needs Alliance. "Welcome to the Special Needs Alliance." 2011. (June 3, 2011) http://specialneedsalliance.com/home
- Super Lawyers. "Super Lawyers Selection Process." 2011. (June 3, 2011) http://www.superlawyers.com/about/selection_process.html
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. "General Overview of the Medicaid Program." February 23, 2011. (June 3, 2011) https://www.cms.gov/MedicaidGenInfo/