When decisions are required that affects a senior’s living circumstances, finances, safety, or long term care, it can be a difficult and confusing process for caregivers and families. Everyone involved has an opinion or suggestion that, while well-intentioned, only compounds the dilemma.
To assure a proper solution that addresses the need, protects the senior, and satiates decision-makers, professional legal help is often the best answer. With so many law firms in greater Atlanta, it is important to find the right type of attorney who understands issues impacting seniors. The area of legal practice which is specifically focused on senior matters is elder law.
What is Elder Law?
Many people are unaware of this relatively young law practice specialization. Its genesis has roots in the passage of the Older Americans Act in 1965. Funding from this Act lead to a range of legal programs and services designed to assist older people. In 1978, the American Bar Association formed what is now known as the Commission on Law and Aging whose mission is to “strengthen and secure the legal autonomy, quality of life, and quality care of elders.” The Commission studies a spectrum of issues that include legal challenges for older citizens, housing and benefits, guardianship, age discrimination in the workplace, elder abuse and more.
In the early 2000s, the baby boomers began announcing their retirements. As this segment of society exploded, so too their issues and concerns with such items as medical care, estate protection, wills, health insurance among others. From these early events, the practice of elder law has assumed a higher profile yet the law surrounding these types of cases remains largely unsettled. This may be due to the fact that this new, older, more diverse population is quite different from preceding generations – its issues numerous, its challenges unrelenting and its numbers increasing, and with it – viable political clout – to articulate its needs and demands.
What Issues do Elder Law Attorneys Handle?
Elder law has become an active division in many law practices in Atlanta and around the country, largely due to the expansive issues that seniors and their caregivers are taking to them. It is not uncommon for an elder law practice to help a 60 year old with an age discrimination issue at work, a 65 year old with a Medicare coverage problem, a 73 year old with estate planning, a 91 year old with a nursing home matter, and others. Among the many issues that elder law attorneys address for older people includes:
- Financial representation including income, taxes, estate, housing and financial planning
- Power of attorney, living wills, advanced care planning
- Rights of residents of long term care facilities
- Wills, trusts and probate
- Employment and retirement
- Asset protection, Medicare/Medicaid, Veteran’s Benefits
- Guardianship and Conservatorship
Elder law attorneys bring not only an expertise in the law, but perhaps just as important they bring an understanding of the aging process, sensitivity and an awareness of the senior population’s needs, limitations, and difficulties. Their broad knowledge often makes them more prepared to meet the specific needs of an older person. This includes a thorough knowledge of community resources and senior advocate networks who augment the work of the attorney so that a comprehensive solution is achieved that addresses all relevant concerns. For example, when an attorney is working with the family of a senior on estate planning, they may also bring in Atlanta Senior Advocates who will help the family plan for a move into an assisted living community for the senior or help identify a home care provider when the need arises.
What to Look for in an Elder Law Attorney?
Most any lawyer can call themselves an elder law attorney; there are more than 10,000 lawyers across the country using the term ‘elder law’ or ‘elder care law’ in their practices. Caregivers and families should exercise caution in selecting an attorney to help with legal matters involving older loved ones. Aside from asking questions like how many years have they practiced elder law, what results have they had in such cases, references from former clients etc., caregivers can ask about professional credentials and certifications. Some lawyers have earned the designation Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA), having successfully completed additional competencies set forth by the National Elder Law Foundation. The criteria for certification include:
- The attorney must be licensed to practice in at least one state;
- The attorney must have practiced law for at least 5 years prior to application and currently practicing;
- The attorney must be in good standing with the applicable bars in their locale;
- The attorney must have practiced at least 16 hours of elder law –on average – each week during the 3 years prior to application and have handled 60 elder law matters with a specified distribution among subjects during those 3 years;
- The attorney must have participated in at least 45 hours of continuing legal education in elder law during the preceding 3 years prior to application;
- The attorney must submit 5 references from attorneys familiar with their competence and qualifications;
- The attorney must pass a full day of examination that tests the attorney’s knowledge and skill in elder law
There are more than 400 Certified Elder Law Attorneys practicing in most states and major cities across the country…and this number is growing. That’s a good sign for seniors and their caregivers, but in and of itself it is not a guarantee of the kind of representation one seeks for a senior’s needs. There are many attorneys in elder law practice that may not have the CELA designation but who are very effective in addressing legal issues of this demographic. Atlanta Senior Advocates can recommend an Elder Care Attorney in your area that is certified and has an excellent track record.