Saturday, September 11, 2010

What is a Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA), and Why Does it Matter

3 lawyers with my law firm, Marshall, Parker and Weber have achieved the status of certified elder law attorney (CELA). That is more than any other law firm in the nation. But what does that certification mean.  Certifications are a dime a dozen aren't they?

It’s true that many senior certifications are pretty much meaningless. They may signify nothing more than that the advisor took a marketing course and paid a fee to become "certified". The risk that consumers may be misled into believing that the advisor has some special knowledge or ability is not insubstantial. 

On the other hand, some certifications do signify that the holder has been proven to hold a special degree of skill and knowledge. Such certifications can be quite valuable and reassuring to the consumer who is searching for expert assistance. This is the case with the CELA designation.

A CELA is a lawyer who has met the high standards required for certification as an elder law specialist by the National Elder Law Foundation. In order to attain certification as a CELA, lawyers are required to pass an elaborate screening process that includes a day-long written examination, at least 16 hours per week practicing elder law and at least 60 elder law matters during the three years preceding the application, peer references from 5 other elder law attorneys, and continuing legal education. Few lawyers have the knowledge required to become certified. The passage rate on the certification exam in recent years has been under 30%.

Elder law is the distinct legal field which concentrates on the special circumstances and needs of older and disabled persons. Areas within the elder law specialization include estate planning, wills, estates, trusts, guardianships, special needs planning for disabled children, powers of attorney and health care directives, retirement planning, and the protection of assets from taxes and from nursing home costs.

CELA certification by the National Elder Law Foundation is the only accepted certification in the field of Elder Law. In Pennsylvania, the certification process has been reviewed and approved by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and The American Bar Association. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court only permits lawyers who have met the rigorous certification standards of the National Elder Law Foundation to state that they are certified specialists in elder law and to use the "CELA" professional designation.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated that the CELA professional designation provides a measure of assurance to the public that the attorney has an in-depth working knowledge of the legal issues that impact the elderly. But you need to be aware that there is a major distinction between lawyers who say they are "elder law attorneys" and "Certified Elder Law Attorneys." Any lawyer can say he or she practices "elder law." And there are quite a few lawyers who hold themselves out as being "elder law attorneys" but who have little or no experience in this area of practice. They are merely trying to "cash in" on a business opportunity at your expense. To protect yourself, you need to make sure that your elder law attorney verifies that they are Certified in Elder Law.

So, while certifications are sometimes meaningless or worse, they do provide you with valuable information when you are choosing a lawyer. When you need legal planning services for an aging or disabled individual, it makes good common sense for you to look for a Certified Elder Law Attorney.

Jeffrey A. Marshall, Matthew J. Parker, and Tammy Weber of Marshall, Parker and Weber, are currently Board Certified Elder Law Attorneys (CELA) in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Consumers in other locations can find a complete list of Certified Elder Law Attorneys here

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