May is Elder Law Month
by National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA)
Legal issues that affect people as they age and people with special needs are growing in number. Our laws and regulations are becoming more complex, and each state has different laws.
Elder and Special Needs Law attorneys bring to their practice a knowledge of their clients that allows them and their staff to ignore the myths relating to aging and the competence of seniors and people with disabilities. At the same time, they will take into account and empathize with some of the true physical and mental difficulties that often accompany the aging process. They are tied into a system of social workers, geriatric care managers, psychologists, and other professionals who may be of assistance to you or your loved one.
Elder and Special Needs Law encompasses many different fields of law. Here are some important specialty areas: estate planning, durable power of attorney, wills and trusts, living wills, probate, nursing home issues, guardianship, Medicare planning, and elder abuse and fraud.
Most attorneys do not specialize in every one of these areas. So when an attorney says he or she practices Elder and Special Needs Law, find out which of these matters the attorney handles. You will want to hire the attorney who regularly handles matters in the area of law of concern to your particular case and who will know enough about the other fields to question whether the action being taken might be affected by laws in any of the other areas of law.
Finding an Elder And Special Needs Law Attorney
Before making the effort, step back a moment and try to determine whether you actually have a legal problem in which an attorney needs to be involved. If you’re not sure, ask your clergy, your financial advisor, a social worker, or a trusted friend to help you decide whether this is a legal issue rather than a medical or a social services issue.
There are many places to find an attorney in your city or state who specializes in elder and special needs law. Check with local agencies to obtain good quality local referrals such as the Alzheimer’s Association, AARP, Area Agency (or Council) on Aging, Children of Aging Parents, State or local bar association, AND National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. If you know any attorneys, ask them for a referral to an Elder and Special Needs Law attorney. An attorney is in a good position to know who handles such issues and whether that person is a good attorney.
Ask Questions First
Ask lots of questions before selecting an Elder and Special Needs Law attorney. Start with the initial phone call with the receptionist:
- How long has the attorney been in practice?
- Does his or her practice emphasize a particular area of law?
- How long has he or she been in this field?
- What percentage of his or her practice is devoted to Elder and Special Needs Law?
- Is there a fee for the first consultation, and if so how much is it?
- Given the nature of your problem, what information should you bring with you to the initial consultation?
Once You Have Found an Elder and Special Needs Law Attorney
When you have found an appropriate attorney, make an appointment to see him or her. During the initial consultation, you will be asked to give the attorney an overview of the reason you are seeking assistance, so be sure to organize and bring all the information pertinent to your situation. After you have explained your situation, ask:
- What will it take to resolve it?
- Are there any alternate courses of action
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of each possibility?
- How many attorneys are in the office?
- Who will handle your case?
- Has that attorney handled matters of this kind in the past?
- If a trial may be involved, does the attorney do trial work? If not, who does the trial work? If so, how many trials has he or she handled?
- Is that attorney a member of the local bar association, a health advocacy committee, or trust and estates committee?
- How are fees computed?
- What is the estimate of the cost to resolve your problem and how long will it take?
Some attorneys bill weekly, some bill monthly, some bill upon completion of work. Ask about these matters at the initial conference, so there will be no surprises. If you don’t understand, ask again. It is very important that you feel comfortable in this area.
In addition to fees, most attorneys will charge you out-of-pocket expenses. Out-of-pocket expenses typically include charges for copies, postage, messenger fees, court fees, deposition fees, long-distance telephone calls, and other such costs.
The attorney may ask for a retainer. This is money paid before the attorney starts working on your case. It is usually placed in a trust account and each time the attorney bills you, he or she is paid out of that account. Expenses may be paid directly from the trust account. The size of the retainer may range from a small percentage of the estimated cost to the full amount. In many cases, the total fee will be higher than the retainer.
Get It In Writing
Once you decide to hire the attorney, ask that your arrangement be put in writing. The writing can be a letter or a formal contract. It should spell out what services the attorney will perform for you and what the fee and expense arrangement will be.
Make It A Good Experience
Use the questions and answers above as a guide not only to the attorney’s qualifications, but also as a way of determining whether you can comfortably work with this person. Only if you are satisfied with the attorney you have hired from the very start will you trust him or her to do the best job for you.
About the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA)
This informational brochure is provided as a public service by NAELA and is not intended as legal advice. Such advice should be obtained from a qualified Elder and Special Needs Law attorney.
NAELA, founded in 1987, is a national association of Elder and Special Needs Law attorneys devoted to the education and training of attorneys who can meet the needs of seniors and people with special needs, and who advocate for the needs of such individuals.