Once a person reaches the age of 60, it is a good idea for them to have a number of legal documents prepared for themselves. As a person ages, they are more likely to need care from others due to illness, accident, or the inevitable infirmities that accompany old age.
Since the only dealings with the legal profession that many people have had are at real estate closings, they may not realize the degree of specialization that exists among attorneys. Like physicians, most attorneys specialize. While the "country lawyer" practicing in a small town may indeed practice both civil and criminal law, and offer services including divorces, real estate, wills, probate, and other matters,attorneys in larger towns and cities often have a specialty. This allows them to concentrate on the many complex issues in their area of expertise that a generalist simply does not have the time to master.
What does an elder law attorney do?
The field of "elder law" is a relatively new one, perhaps only 20 years old or so. Before that, attorneys specialized in estate planning, real estate, or guardianship, but few concentrated their practices specifically on the legal issues that frequently affect the elderly. Such issues include: wills, trusts, surrogate decision-making (guardianship/conservatorship/powers of attorney), dealing with legal incapacity, living wills, public benefits planning (Medicare/Medicaid/SSI/SSDI), long-term care options, insurance, and housing. A good knowledge of the tax implications of the above is also important.
An attorney who advertises as being an expert in various unrelated areas of the law may well be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Indeed, even attorneys who limit their practice to elder law may not be experts in all the areas mentioned above.
For example, many elder law attorneys do not go to court, so if you have a possible contested will or guardianship issue at hand, you will want to find an attorney with court (litigation) experience. Elder law attorneys may be able to help you prepare legal documents to make health decisions for your parent.
The area of planning for long-term care benefits under the federal Medicaid program is a specialty requiring extensive knowledge of federal benefits law as well as wills, trusts, and real estate law. Thus, you will want to make sure that the attorney you seek matches your particular area of concern.
How to find (and afford) a competent elder law attorney
One good place to look is on the website of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. Once there, click the link that says "Find an Attorney." You can then search by state, city, or zip code, and also search for attorneys that have self-proclaimed expertise in your particular issue of concern.
A second suggestion in how to find a good elder law attorney is to check your state and local bar associations for a membership list in their respective elder law sections or committees. Any attorney in a leadership position in one of such sections or committees will have been given a stamp of approval by their fellow attorneys, and that generally indicates expertise in the field.
A third option is to find out who is teaching courses in elder law (or one of the sub-specialties mentioned above) in your state. You can check with your state and local bar associations, but also check some of the national organizations that sponsor such courses, for example, National Business Institute and Elder Counsel.
Finally, a number of states have started to add the field of elder law to their certified specialist programs. This allows you to check such a state-issued list and be confident that the attorneys who are allowed to advertise that they are certified by their state as elder law attorneys have met the state requirements, guaranteeing that they have a good level of expertise in that area.
Once you have compiled a list of a few attorneys in your area that seem well-qualified to handle your particular elder law issues, visit their websites to learn more about their practices. Then, contact several of them to inquire about fees.
Attorneys generally charge either a flat rate for certain tasks or documents, or they charge by the hour. Since the attorney has no idea how complex your particular situation may be, they may insist that you come in for at least a brief consultation before they can quote you a fee.
Having a brief meeting with the attorney in their office is always a good idea, since it will give you important feedback about their office, staff, and whether you feel comfortable with the attorney.
If possible, bring along at least one other person, such as a family member or trusted friend. Since you will be discussing confidential matters, be sure you are comfortable doing so in their presence, unless you plan to leave them in the waiting room during your consultation.
After meeting with two or three elder law attorneys, you should have a good idea of their relative competence, your comfort in working with them, and their cost estimates. Then you can make your decision!
A note about fees: If you are unable to pay the full fee of an attorney, be sure to investigate these options:
- Find the local branch of the federal Administration on Aging. They provide reduced-fee legal assistance for seniors.
- In many areas there are branches of the Legal Services Corporation ("Legal Aid"), which specializes in assisting low-income persons with their legal issues.
- Contact your local bar association and find out if there are elder law attorneys who offer "pro bono" (free) services to a certain number of low-income clients.
- A number of religious organizations offer similar "legal aid"-type assistance to deserving members of the public. Contact members of local churches in your area for more information.
- Finally, if you are a veteran, there are specific organizations (such as the National Veterans Legal Services Program) that specialize in assisting veterans with their legal problems for a reduced fee.