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What an elder law attorney does — and why you might need one

There are now more than 40 million Americans over the age of 65, and that number is steadily increasing. In lockstep with greater longevity, the availability — and complexity — of federal programs created to assist the aging population is also growing. That’s where an elder law attorney can help.

An elder law attorney, sometimes referred to as an elder care attorney, can help older adults and their families navigate the complicated financial and legal decisions they face. It’s a growing specialization, with nearly 500 certified elder law attorneys across all 50 states. These attorneys are trained to take into account any physical and mental limitations aging clients may be experiencing, and to tap into a specialized network of psychologists, social workers, long-term care planners, and other professionals to assist with any changes in the client’s circumstances.

How an elder law attorney can assist you

Elder law attorneys often work in conjunction with other professionals in various fields to coordinate care, legal protections, and financing. The issues they may tackle include:

  • Care coordination. This can be as simple as establishing a health care power of attorney or as complicated as locating the right long-term facility and coordinating financial resources to finance the cost of care.
  • Government benefits. Some seniors want legal guidance protecting their assets while maintaining eligibility for Medicaid and certain Social Security and Medicare benefits.
  • Guardianship. When a person is unable to make decisions for him or herself, whether it be paying utility bills or choosing a doctor, someone needs to assume responsibility for that individual’s affairs. If no one has the legal authority to act, the court will appoint a legal guardian.
  • Financial representation. From planning for the future, like making sure an estate plan is in place and establishing a durable power of attorney, to dealing with money matters in the here and now, such as tax guidance and coordinating with financial planners, an elder law attorney is typically well-versed in looking at clients’ larger financial picture.

It’s important to note that elder law attorneys do not necessarily specialize in every area of law affecting seniors. If you’re especially concerned with a matter of guardianship, for instance, or need guidance on government benefits, take care to find an attorney with experience in that area.

When to consult an elder care lawyer

According to Harry Margolis, the founder of Boston-based law firm Margolis & Bloom and founding president of ElderLawAnswers, families should consider seeking an elder care attorney when you begin to anticipate a need for long-term care of a loved one, or if you are wondering how to qualify for government benefits. If you’re worried about a time when you can’t take care of your finances or other affairs on your own, a consultation with an elder care attorney is advised.

Jody Gastfriend, vice president of senior care at Care.com, talks about finding an elder care attorney in her book My Parent’s Keeper.

"An elder law attorney specializes in the complex legal and financial issues impacting seniors. Most can handle a wide range of issues such as Medicaid eligibility (which can vary by state), estate planning, and the delegation of healthcare decision making in the event of incompetency.”

Questions to ask an elder care lawyer

Finding the right elder care lawyer is important, not only for future planning, but for your pocketbook. Margolis recommends asking the following questions before seeking representation:

  1. How long have you practiced elder law? What is your specialty? Remember some elder care attorneys are versed in Medicaid, while others are experienced in wills, trusts or probate issues. Finding the lawyer that fits your needs is key.
  2. What segment of your practice is dedicated to elder care law? While attorneys typically practice in several different areas of law, you want a representative that is well versed in current developments.
  3. How much will it cost to retain you? Ask about fees at the initial consultation. Although some attorneys may not be able to provide a comprehensive quote without studying your particular issue, they should offer a range of fees for services. Comparison shop between different firms until you find the right fit. Also, ask if you will be charged for phone calls and emails. Some attorneys charge by the hour, while others have a flat fee for representation.
  4. Will you be part of the entire process, including drafting the legal documents and defending them (if necessary) in court? Some attorneys will not litigate in court if a potential issue arises. Discuss whether additional fees are required for appearing in court.
  5. What if I need assistance at home? Do you make house calls? How much does it cost?

How to choose an elder law attorney

Here's how you can narrow the pool of available legal professionals to find the best fit.

  • Ask for referrals from friends and family who have hired legal counsel to handle similar issues and in similar circumstances. You don’t need to delve into the nitty-gritty details of your friend’s legal affairs, but you will want to ask what matters the attorney helped with and how satisfied your friend was with the level of service.
  • Search web databases of non-profit groups and professional organizations, such as the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys or the National Elder Law Foundation. The latter offers certification to elder law attorneys who have at least five years of experience in practice, have completed a comprehensive examination, and demonstrate a minimum number of individual cases across elder law categories.
  • Don’t stop at the first name. Choosing an elder law attorney is a big decision, and many experts recommend meeting with at least two attorneys. You’ll want to consider comfort level (Would you feel at ease sharing confidential information with this person? Did he or she seem interested and attentive to your questions?), cost (How does the attorney bill? Are they able to give you an estimate?), and location (convenience counts, particularly if you anticipate an eventual uptick in concerns).

By Kate Rockwood and Rudri Patel

Read next: 4 legal documents every adult needs

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