Older adults face many legal issues. Some of the most complicated relate to planning for continued life (life care planning), rather than for death (estate planning).
Planning for aging, possible incapacity, and the potential need for expensive long term care can be particularly complex and requires expert legal help. But it is difficult for the consumer to be able to identify lawyers who have the training and experience required to provide the expert guidance needed.
Planning for senior issues like incapacity and long term care is an important aspect of the services provided by what have become known as “elder law attorneys.” Unfortunately, in most states any lawyer can say he or she practices elder law or hold themselves out as being an “elder law attorney” even if the lawyer has little or no experience with the issues that are especially important to older adults. This means seniors must be particularly cautious in choosing a lawyer and carefully investigate the lawyer before hiring.
This article contains some tips you can use to find a lawyer who can provide older adults with high quality specialized legal services.
A Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA) is a lawyer who has met the rigorous standards for certification in the field of elder law set by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF). In Pennsylvania, where I practice, the Supreme Court has approved the NELF certification process and permits lawyer who have been certified by the Foundation to state that they are certified elder law attorneys.
Lawyers who have not met these rigorous standards are not permitted to refer to themselves as CELAs. This means that the CELA professional designation provides a measure of assurance that the lawyer has an in-depth working knowledge of the legal issues that impact the elderly, including long term care. It is somewhat akin to Board Certification for Physicians.
There are CELAs located in most areas of the country. A listing of those attorneys can be found on the NELF website at www.nelf.org. But some geographic areas are unrepresented. There are presently only 45 CELAs in Pennsylvania.
What can you do to find qualified elder law help if there no CELAs in your community? How can you find lawyers who have the knowledge and experience required?
You may want to start by seeking recommendations from friends who have received professional help with senior planning issues. Who did they use? Were they satisfied with the services they received? Hospital social workers, Alzheimer and other support groups, accountants and other financial professionals can also be good sources of recommendations.
Questions to Ask
To have an issue addressed properly, the senior planning client needs a lawyer who devotes a substantial part of his or her practice to your issue of concern. Experience is a critical platform for quality services in most professional areas, especially law.
For example, if your family member needs long term care planning, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask the lawyer what percentage of his practice involves long term care planning. Or, you could ask how many new long term care planning cases the law office handles each month. There is no correct answer. But there is a good chance that a law office that assists with two nursing home placements a week is likely to be more up to date and knowledgeable than an office that helps with two placements a year.
Ask whether the lawyer is a member of any Elder Law planning organizations. Is the lawyer involved with committees of state bar organizations that have to do with senior issues? If so, has the lawyer held a position of leadership or authority on the committee? Does the lawyer lecture on your issue of concern? If so, to whom? (For example, if the lawyer is asked to teach other lawyers about elder law and long term care planning, that is a pretty good sign that the lawyer is considered to be an expert in those areas by people who should know.)
If the lawyer lectures to the public, you or a family member might try to attend one of the presentations. This should help you decide if this is the lawyer for you.
NAELA and State Bar Associations
The leading national organization of elder law attorneys is the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA): check www.naela.org for a listing of its members.
NAELA has thousands of members and there is a good chance that there will be one or more members of NAELA in your geographic region. While mere membership in the Academy is open to any lawyer and provides no assurance that the attorney is an experienced elder law practitioner, membership does at least show that the lawyer has some interest in the field.
In addition, NAELA (and many state bar associations) run educational sessions to help lawyers stay current on the latest aspects of elder law and issues like long term care planning. Attending these sessions takes time and commitment on the part of the lawyer and is a good sign that the lawyer is attempting to stay up to date on nursing home issues. You may want to look for an attorney who is a member of NAELA and/or of your state bar Elder Law Committee or Section and has recently attended one or more of its educational sessions.
If the lawyer has been a speaker at one of the NAELA or State Bar elder law educational programs, that is an even better sign of recognized competency in the field.
Life Care Planning
Some elder law firms offer “life care planning services” to provide continuing ongoing support and guidance to older adults and their families. These firms take a holistic approach and supplement their legal services with care coordination and advocacy support to help families respond most effectively to the changing challenges of aging, chronic illness and disability. Many of these firms are members of the Life Care Planning Law Firms Association.
Life care planning can help relieve the physical, emotional and financial stress for families struggling to deal with the demands of caregiving. The Life Care Planning law firm helps the family locate available resources and employ the right caregivers and preserve the family’s physical, financial and emotional resources. It helps the family keep the older adult at home for as long as possible, and make the best residential transition if that ever becomes necessary.
The goal of life care planning is to promote and maintain the health, safety, well-being and quality of life of the elder client, whether the client is at home or in a residential facility. More information about life care planning and a list of law firms who are members of the Life Care Planning Law Firms Association is available at https://lcplfa.org.
Finally, the internet has become an incredible resource for finding just about anything you need. This includes an elder law attorney. By now most lawyers have websites. Do a search on “elder law” and your city and you are likely to find quite a few lawyers show up in the listing. You can then check out the lawyer’s website. Many lawyer websites are just glossy advertisements written by marketing firms, but some have content actually written by the lawyer. At the very least, you can read the lawyer bio page to get some useful information.
There are quite a few lawyer rating sites available on the internet. These include AVVO, Super Lawyers, and Best Lawyers in America. The internet is filled with ratings, of course. Google assigns a PageRank score to every Web site it indexes, Yelp rates restaurants, Standard & Poor's rates stocks and bonds, etc. But rating lawyers is tricky and subjective, and information can be stale. I once represented the family of a lawyer who had suffered for many years from Alzheimer’s. 7 years after he retired from practice he still was being given the top rating possible by one of the best known rating companies. I checked his ratings again, 3 years after his death – he still had an “A” rating from that company.
So, while lawyer ratings services can provide some useful information (for example, AVVO tells you whether a lawyer has ever been disciplined for misconduct), they should be viewed with a measure of caution.
Bottom line: When you need legal help with a senior issue, it is critically important that you find a qualified law firm that is experienced in dealing with your particular issue of concern. Be smart and don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all lawyers are equally knowledgeable about your issue. They are not. Do some homework before choosing your attorney.
Lawyers love Latin terms and there is one that you should remember as you search for an elder law attorney - “Caveat Emptor” – which means “Buyer Beware.”