For seniors, planning for the future can be complicated, even overwhelming. Hiring an attorney who is qualified to advise you on legal matters that can affect your family’s financial and emotional well-being can make things easier. Elder-law attorneys guide families on planning for health and personal care, public benefits eligibility, legal and financial planning for special-needs, advice on insurance matters, powers of attorney, living wills, trusts, housing, asset protection, veterans’ benefits and retirement issues.
It’s not only important to choose an attorney qualified to handle these matters, you should also consult with the lawyer at the right time. “When you plan ahead of time, you can consider all the options and make better decisions,” says Carol Sikov Gross, a certified elder-law attorney and partner at Sikov & Love in Pittsburgh, Pa. “If you wait until a crisis hits to do planning, there are still many things that can be done, but your options are limited because the time frame is shorter. Also, it’s harder to make good decisions when you’re under a lot of stress.”
If you meet with an attorney whom you’re considering hiring, it’s best to communicate in a way that is cordial but direct. Ask questions about the issues that are important to you, not only to get information, but also to determine whether you can work comfortably with the attorney. If you don’t like the attorney’s answers or simply don’t feel at ease, don’t hire that person. Only if you’re satisfied with the attorney from the first meeting will you trust him or her to do the best job for you.
Keep Your Goals In Sight
As you work with an elder-law attorney, don’t lose sight of the results you want. “An ideal outcome is that you’ve put a plan in place to deal effectively with the situation if you become incapacitated or disabled,” says Gross. “You want a plan that, in the event that you become unable to handle your own affairs or pass away, will protect your family, protect your savings and direct funds to the issues that you determine are important to you. By making your own decisions—as opposed to laying the burden of decision-making on a family member—you’re giving a great gift to your family.”
When it comes to legal fees, attorneys charge in different ways. Be aware of how your attorney arrives at their fees and how often they bill—some bill weekly, some monthly, and some upon completion of work. Ask about this at the initial conference so there will be no surprises.
What’s the best way to find a qualified elder-law attorney? Check the websites of the National Elder Law Foundation (www.nelf.org) and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (www.naela.org). The National Elder Law Foundation website lists certified elder-law attorneys nationwide.
Also, talk to family and friends to find out if they’ve used an elder-law attorney whom they like and trust. If they refer you to one, check the lawyer’s website for helpful information or signs that they’re involved in their community through public speaking or teaching other lawyers—those things indicate they’re committed to helping seniors and their families.
Other Helpful Tips
Get It Done—Stephen Spano, a certified elder-law attorney in Boston, Mass., and president of the National Elder Law Foundation, tells why it’s important to get a plan done now: “In estate-planning documents, for example, you can name someone to help with medical and financial decisions. But if you haven’t completed a plan, your loved ones must go to court and ask to have someone appointed for you. Would you rather choose someone whom you trust or go with the luck of the draw and be subject to someone whom the court appoints?”
Make Sure They’re Qualified—Look for an elder-law attorney who is board-certified. The National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) is the only national authority approved by the American Bar Association to certify attorneys in elder law. To become certified by NELF, lawyers are required to pass a rigorous, day-long examination, meet stringent continuing-education requirements, become re-certified every five years and spend at least 16 hours per week practicing elder law.
Ask Questions—What percentage of the attorney’s practice is devoted to elder law? How much experience do they have with the specific situations you are facing? How much elder law training have they had, and from what organizations? Review Your Plan Regularly— In the business world, companies review their business plans every year to change with the times. Your situation can change with time too, so handle your plans the same way—review them annually and make changes if necessary.
“Planning documents that boardcertified elder-law attorneys prepare are the physical manifestation of your hopes, dreams and desires for you and your loved ones,” says Spano. “These documents aren’t an end in themselves, they’re a means to an end, and that end should be to espouse your values for your family and to give you and your family peace of mind.” ■