Legal help for seniors and their families

In 1999, a fall landed Phyllis Gibbs, then in her late 70s and partially paralyzed, in the hospital. Her husband, who had been caring for her at home for 15 months, decided it was time for long-term care - and an elder-law attorney.

"The hospital social worker said it would take three years to get Medicaid benefits, and I wouldn't have a say in which nursing home my wife went to," says Robert Gibbs, a retired businessman in Columbia, S.C. "I was worried about my wife; I didn't need legal headaches, too."

As the name implies, elder-law attorneys specialize in handling legal issues affecting seniors - from estate and financial planning to guardianship and long-term health- care to consumer fraud and abuse. The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), which was founded by 30 attorneys in 1988, now has more than 4,600 members nationwide.

"If your legal need is specifically age-related - setting up financial power-of-attorney documents or long-term healthcare planning - an attorney specializing in elder law makes sense," says Gerald McIntyre, a lawyer with the nonprofit National Senior Citizen Law Center in Los Angeles.

"Of course, knowing the laws specific to people over 65 is crucial to resolving legal problems quickly, but that's only part of the equation," says Franchelle Millender, an attorney in Columbia, S.C., who obtained Medicaid benefits for Mrs. Gibbs within six monthsand had her placed in a nursing home near her husband's residence. "People usually come to elder-law attorneys when they are in emotional crisis and need someone to be sensitive to those needs as well."

Understanding older people as well as the law

That's where elder-law attorneys can be particularly effective, because they have a knowledge of older people that allows them to ignore the myths about aging and competence while empathizing with the challenges seniors face. They also tend to have networks of other professionals - such as social workers - that they can call on.

In some cases, clients are even offered other services that aren't typically found in conventional legal offices. Families may employ, or consult with, geriatric social workers, nurses, and financial planners, who can coordinate medical care, deal with housing issues, and help manage finances. While these one-stop service providers can be convenient, a red flag should go up if these groups try to use their legal authority to sell you products such as long-term care insurance.

"If the attorney's financial interest is in the mix when giving legal advice, there's a definite conflict of interest that doesn't benefit the client," says Mr. McIntyre. "This isn't illegal, but it probably should be."

Clients usually search for an elder-law attorney when something happens that they feel unable to cope with. "Healthcare crisis management is the biggest reason people come to us," says Bill Browning, president of NAELA. "When you need Medicaid ASAP because your life savings are being drained by an emergency healthcare situation or a loved one suddenly needs to be admitted to a nursing home, that's when our expertise really comes in handy."

"The most appropriate time to find an elder-care attorney is really before a crisis," says Ginny Rice, an elder-law attorney in Webster Groves, Mo. "We see lots of children of elderly parents who have had a health or financial crisis and don't know where to turn. By completing a durable power of attorney, naming someone else to take care of your health and financial issues when you're unable to do it, you can avoid a lot of headaches. Otherwise, you may need to go to court to have a guardian appointed - which is expensive."

Virginia Muschany employed an elder-law attorney to help with Medicaid when her husband went into a nursing home in 2000, and also for estate planning and asset protection. "It's nice to have one attorney who understands everything I'm going through," she says. "Most attorneys are in such a rush, but she takes the time to explain everything to me."

How to locate a specialist

"Finding a reputable elder-law attorney make take some homework," says Mr. Browning.

Mr. Gibbs and Ms. Muschany found their lawyers through neighbors who had used their services. In fact, referrals are the most common and reliable way of finding a qualified elder-law attorney.

If networking doesn't produce results, experts suggest asking a family physician, an organization such as one of the local volunteer groups that deal extensively with the elderly, or the local or state bar association for a list of elder-law attorneys.

Online resources are also available. The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys' website (www.naela.org) provides a list of members who have passed the stringent Elder Law Association Certification test (CELA), accepted by the American Bar Association as the gold standard of expertise, as well as links to other organizations that focus on senior issues.

FindLaw.com (www.findlaw.com) offers a state-by-state locator of elder-law attorneys.

Once a potential lawyer has been identified, ask plenty of questions, experts advise. People need to see if they think they will be comfortable working with that person.

"The mark of a great elder-law attorney is someone who genuinely cares about the issues affecting folks over 65," says Rice. "Ask your potential attorneys what volunteer organizations they belong to, if they're on the state elder-law committee, and what they do to perpetuate advocacy for the elderly."

Something else to consider is the attorney's areas of specialization. It's important to hire someone who regularly deals with the issues that are of concern in the case in question. For example, if a client is going to rewrite her will and her spouse is ill, the estate planner needs to know enough about Medicaid to know whether it is an issue with regard to the spouse's inheritance.

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