There are many types of attorneys, but an elder law specialist can assist with Medicaid, long-term care planning, estate planning, veterans benefits, and other special needs and government assistance planning. It may seem very easy to open a phone book or search the internet for a name of an elder law attorney. However, finding the RIGHT one that fits your needs will require some research.
Over a cup of coffee, I met with a friend and colleague to discuss how exactly to choose the right attorney to assist with legal issues related to aging, disability and estate planning. According to elder law attorney Edward Smith of Southwest Florida Estate Planning, there are some key factors involved in selecting the right legal professional. His suggestions are detailed below.
Seek a referral or recommendation.
Talk with your friends, your financial advisor, your accountant, your family attorney and anyone else you trust who may know of an elder law specialist in your community. A reliable referral can come from someone who knows an attorney professionally or has personally used their services. If you cannot get a referral, contact your local bar association. They will put you in touch with a lawyer who has experience in the area you require.
Evaluate their credentials.
Attorneys must be licensed in the state that they are practicing law and must be registered by the Bar Association of that specific state. In addition, attorneys can be members of specialized national consortiums, such as ElderCounsel or the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, Inc. (NAELA). These professional organizations focus on providing members with materials and information for continuing education in the realm of elder law. Member attorneys typically must follow an aspirational, ethical, and professional set of standards. Additionally, such organizations can be a resource for consumers who are researching attorneys’ credentials and overall information. Attorneys can also become Board Certified or maintain other awards which can assist with learning about the attorney’s qualifications and achievements.
It’s all about the relationship.
Utilizing the services of an attorney for any reason is a very personal matter. It is important for you to trust that your attorney is looking after your best interests. Many legal professionals can provide you with an end result, such as a will, a power of attorney or an advance directive. However, a skilled attorney will present you with a number of personalized options and solutions that may be appropriate for your situation as well as pros and cons of each approach.
Empathy is an important consideration as well. Your attorney should take the time to truly understand all facets of your position and have a genuine interest in helping you and your family. Estate planning and advance health care planning are typically very delicate issues for a family to address. You should feel comfortable sharing any and all concerns and goals for your care and your estate with your legal advisor.
Understand their fee structure and what it includes.
Some attorneys will charge clients hourly, while others will charge a flat rate. It is important to know this up front in order to make sure you are comfortable with the arrangements. A flat rate might appear a bit high at first, however, you will not be nickel-and-dimed for every 5-minute phone call you make. The objective and scope of work should be well defined (what is included and what is not?), and terms should be clear in case you wish to terminate the agreement.
An elder law attorney is not a financial planner, but you should be open to adding their expertise to your financial team. An experienced lawyer, financial planner and CPA can help you develop a solid plan for your future and that of your loved ones.
Special thanks to Ed Smith, elder law attorney and founding member of Southwest Florida Estate Planning, PLLC, for his assistance with this piece.