You’re facing a situation in which you, or perhaps your spouse, parent or other loved one, needs long-term care, or you’re concerned that such care will be needed in the future. You’re concerned about the great cost of that care, and the potential loss of your or your loved one’s life savings toward paying for that care. You wonder if anything can be done to protect some of those life savings.
You also, wonder, in general, whether you or your loved one has taken all of the steps, legally and financially, that ought to be taken in preparation for the situation you or they will be facing. In general, since you’re in unfamiliar territory, you feel a bit overwhelmed, and you have quite a few questions.
You decide that you need a lawyer’s help and guidance. You know, or perhaps you learn for the first time, that there is a particular type of lawyer who can best assist you: an elder law attorney. Naturally, given the importance of the situation and how much is at stake, you want to find and choose the right one.
So how do you go about that?
Here are the factors you should consider in choosing the right elder law attorney to help you or your loved one.
How to choose the right Elder Law Attorney
An Exclusive or Primary Focus on Elder Law. The laws, regulations and policies governing eligibility for Medicaid and veterans’ pension benefits are extremely detailed, complex and ever-changing. Unless your lawyer is intimately familiar with them from dealing with them on a day-to-day basis, he or she can’t give you the best advice on how to plan for your or your loved one’s future. Simply put, you need to know that elder law is the exclusive or primary focus of an attorney’s practice before you hire him or her. So ask: “What percentage of your professional practice is devoted to elder law?” Also, ask if the attorney is a member of NAELA, the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. Pretty much any lawyer who is a serious elder law practitioner is a member of NAELA.
Experience Really Matters. Because every elder law client’s situation differs in some respects from every other client’s, any sort of “cookie-cutter” planning approach just won’t work. You need an attorney with the knowledge and experience it will take to customize the best plan for you or your loved one. So ask about it, not just generally but in particular to your situation and needs. For example: “How many clients have you assisted with Medicaid planning and applications? Or “How many clients have you assisted in getting VA benefits like aid and attendance?”
Success Also Really Matters. You want to make sure that the lawyer you choose has not only helped people with what you need help with, but that he or she has done so with consistent success. So ask questions like these: “Have any of the clients you have assisted in qualifying for Medicaid or VA benefits been turned down? If so, were you able to get their situations successfully resolved? If we have to go through an appeal, will you handle it? What has been your success rate on appeals? Have you ever faced a malpractice claim by anyone whose planning you handled did not produce a successful result?”
Look for External Indications of Knowledge and Experience. Although Illinois and Missouri do not recognize practice area specialization in elder law or most other fields of practice, elder law attorneys can obtain board certification in elder law through the National Elder Law Foundation (www.nelf.org), the only organization accredited by the American Bar Association to confer practice area certification in the field of elder law. An attorney must demonstrate broad and deep experience across several fields of elder law, be recommended by several fellow elder law attorneys, and pass a very rigorous examination to become a “CELA” (certified elder law attorney). Only a very limited number of elder law attorneys are able to achieve CELA status. It’s also helpful to know whether an attorney has published professional articles or has served as a continuing education (CE) presenter, instructing other attorneys about elder law subjects. So ask: Are you a CELA? Have you written any articles, or taught any CE classes on elder law?
Your Lawyer Needs to Be a Good and Active Listener. Any lawyer who starts by offering specific solutions, or by quoting fees, without having learned about your circumstances, your needs and your goals, will eventually be doing you a disservice by proposing and implementing planning that fails to address your individual situation, and may not even by the right or best way for you to proceed. Lawyers who listen actively and attentively show that they really care about you and want to know how best they can help you, and those are the lawyers who can find you the best solutions that accomplish the most good for you.
Your Lawyer Needs to Be Able to Explain Things So You Can Understand Them. One good measure of a person’s depth of knowledge of a subject matter is his or her ability to explain things in terms you can understand. Speaking in jargon, using unfamiliar terms, dodging questions, or talking over your head and just expecting you to be impressed and therefore trusting, are not good signs in any situation. It’s of particular importance here. Elder law planning is an interactive process, with important steps to be taken on the client’s end as well as the lawyer’s, and so it’s vitally important that the lawyer be able to communicate with the client in understandable terms, so that you’re both “on the same page” in getting things done. Use your own good judgment and common sense on this one. Ask yourself whether
When It Comes to Fees, Focus on Value Rather than Price. The more important something is, the more important it is to focus on results – what you’ll get for your money – than it is on getting the lowest price. If you were a pro football team trying to win a championship, you’d rather spend the extra money for an all-star quarterback than a bottom-of-the-pay-scale rookie or reserve. The focus of elder law planning is not merely to eventually establish eligibility for benefits. Rather, the goal is to achieve that result as soon as possible, and in a way that protects as much of your or your loved one’s life savings as possible. If one lawyer would charge $2,000 more than another one, but that’s because he or she knows a better (although more complex and time-consuming) means of protecting your life savings that will enable you to protect $25,000 more than the less-expensive attorney could, which one would be the better choice? “How much will this cost?” isn’t the right question, because it will only tell you part of what you need to know. The right question is: “How much will this cost, and what portion or my or my loved one’s life savings do you expect to be able to help protect?”
A Final Word. Trust that if we’re suggesting that you ask about these things, we feel very comfortable in letting you know that Coulson Elder Law will be proud and happy to answer your questions and tell you what you need to know about us.
Coulson Elder Law is dedicated to providing families in the St. Louis area with their Elder Law needs. Our practice areas include Asset Preservation Planning, Veterans Benefits, Medicaid Eligibility, Alzheimer’s Planning, Special Needs Planning, Estate Planning and more. We understand the financial challenges you may face as you and your loved ones grow older. At Coulson Elder Law, our clients’ well-being is our number one priority. For immediate help, call (877)995-6876 or Contact Us and we will get in touch as soon as possible.