May is national elder law month. Below is an excerpt from a guide published by the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), of which I have been a member since 2003.
It is important for attorneys working with seniors, people with special needs, and their families, to have a broad understanding of the laws that may have an impact on a given situation to avoid future problems. Elder law and special needs planning encompasses many different fields of law. Some of these include:
- Preservation/transfer of assets seeking to avoid spousal impoverishment when one spouse enters a nursing home
- Supplemental and long-term health insurance issues
- Tax planning
- Disability planning, including use of durable powers of attorney, living trusts, “living wills” for financial management and health care decisions, and other means of delegating management and decision-making to another in case of incompetency or incapacity
- Conservatorships and guardianships
- Estate planning, including planning for the management of one’s estate during life and its disposition on death through the use of trusts, wills, and other planning documents
- Probate and administration of estates
- Administration and management of trusts
- Long-term care placements in nursing home and life-care communities
Most attorneys do not specialize in every one of these areas. Therefore when an attorney says he or she practices elder law or special needs planning, find out which of these matters the attorney handles.
There are many places to find an attorney in your city or state who specializes in working with the problems facing people as they age and people with special needs. Check with local agencies to obtain good quality local referrals. Some of the groups you may want to contact include:
- Alzheimer’s Association
- American Association of Retired Persons
- Area Agency (or Council) on Aging
- Children of Aging Parents
- Hospital or nursing home social services
- National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys
- National Citizen’s Coalition for Nursing Home Reform
- Older Women’s League
- Social Security Administration
- State or local bar association
- Support groups for specific diseases
If you know any attorneys, ask them for a referral to an elder law or special needs planning attorney. An attorney is in a good position to know who handles such issues and whether that person is a good attorney. Such persons are often the best and safest sources of referrals.
Ask lots of questions before selecting an elder law or special needs planning attorney. You don’t want to end up in the office of an attorney who can’t help you. Start with the initial phone call. It is not unusual to speak only to a secretary, receptionist, or office manager during an initial call or before actually meeting with the attorney. If so, ask this person your questions.
- How long has the attorney been in practice?
- Does his or her practice emphasize a particular area of law?
- How long has he or she been in this field?
- What percentage of his or her practice is devoted to elder law or special needs planning?
- Is there a fee for the first consultation, and if so how much is it?
- Given the nature of your problem, what information should you bring with you to the initial consultation?
When you have found an appropriate attorney, make an appointment to see him or her. During the initial consultation, you will be asked to give the attorney an overview of the reason you are seeking assistance, so be sure to organize and bring all the information pertinent to your situation. After you have explained your situation, ask:
- What will it take to resolve it?
- Are there any alternate courses of action
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of each possibility?
- How many attorneys are in the office?
- Who will handle your case?
- Has that attorney handled matters of this kind in the past?
- If a trial may be involved, does the attorney do trial work? If not, who does the trial work? If so, how many trials has he or she handled?
- Is that attorney a member of the local bar association, a health advocacy committee, or trust and estates committee?
- How are fees computed?
- What is the estimate of the cost to resolve your problem and how long will it take?
Only if you are satisfied with the attorney you have hired from the very start will you trust him or her to do the best job for you.
NAELA, founded in 1987, is a national association of elder law and special needs planning attorneys devoted to the education and training of attorneys who can meet the needs of seniors and people with special needs, and who advocate for the needs of such individuals.