January “Senior Sense”—Choosing an Elder Law Attorney
By Elizabeth Guttenberg, LCSW, Senior Care Advisor
New year, new beginnings. Filled with new possibilities – and, for those caregivers out there, perhaps a lot of changes. A dear friend of mine recently faced some big ones after her mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. This life-altering event, of course, prompted her family to reexamine their estate plans, and plans for long term care. The process was daunting and highly charged. Like most people planning for the long term, they had to make tough decisions that would significantly impact their finances, quality of life, and interpersonal relationships.
That is why my friend was adamant about working with an elder law attorney (ELA) she could trust: Someone knowledgeable enough to guide her and her family in the right direction, but also kind, sensitive and patient. How do you find such a person? Start with your Senior Care Advisor, who can research ELAs in your area. Once you have a couple of options, here are two steps for choosing the attorney that will best meet your needs.
Step One is to conduct interviews. Some attorneys offer a brief introductory phone consultation free of charge, while some larger firms charge a fee to speak with the attorney who will be handling your case. If finding exactly the right fit is important to you, then it may be worth it to pay this fee. Either way, to get the most out of your first call, you will want to consider the following:
- Expertise: Ask the attorney about his or her experience working with issues similar to those you are facing. Is the attorney knowledgeable about the range of options available to you including federal and state laws that might affect your estate planning? Overall, did the conversation leave you feeling that this attorney has the depth of knowledge to help protect your assets and make the best decisions for you and your family?
- Communication style: Did the call put you at ease, and did you feel free to ask probing questions? If you felt rushed or anxious, or if the attorney did not answer your questions clearly and thoroughly, then this may not be the right match for you. At the end of the call you should also have a good understanding of what documents the attorney thinks are necessary for you, the time it will take to prepare them, and what steps you will need to follow.
- Fee structure: Depending on your situation, working with an ELA may be costly. During your initial interview, ask plenty of questions about what to expect. Does your prospective attorney bill on a flat fee or an hourly basis? If the latter, is the attorney willing to set a ceiling for the fees? Will an upfront retainer fee be required to get started? Will work completed by paralegals and administrative assistants be billed at a different rate than work done by your attorney? If so, then ask who will be doing most of the work and how much they charge per hour. Also ask how often you can expect to be billed: weekly, monthly, or upon completion of work.
- References: Ask whether you can talk to one or more of the attorney’s clients about their experiences with similar estate planning projects. Although legal work is always confidential, many professionals do obtain permission to use clients as references.
Once your interview is complete, Step Two is a gut check. If you find yourself questioning whether the attorney can provide what you need for a price you can afford, then consider interviewing someone else on your list. It’s worth the effort. My friend feels a great sense of relief and confidence about the future now that she has legal counsel she and her family can trust, and all of their planning documents are complete. And remember, your Senior Care Advisor is there to help you through this process—from finding the right attorney to sorting through your thoughts and concerns as you make those important decisions about your family’s future.
Contact a Senior Care Advisor at Care.com. We are master’s-level social workers specializing in adult and senior care.
Call us today at (855) 781-1303 x3 or email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
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