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Ronnie Friedland @RonnieF63

What You Don't Know About Elder Law Can Hurt You: An Interview With Stephen Spano

The advantages of hiring a certified elder law attorney.

Care.com interviewed Stephen Spano, a Certified Elder Law Attorney, about key issues affecting seniors today. Readers will find that educating themselves about these issues, especially when it comes to caring for elderly loved ones, can really make a positive difference.

Care.com: What exactly is a Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA)?

Stephen Spano: While any attorney can claim to have a specialty in elder law, only Certified Elder Law Attorneys have met rigorous criteria and been reviewed favorably by five of their peers. These attorneys have been in practice for a minimum of five years, three of which have been focused on elder law.* They have passed, in addition to the regular bar exam, a special one focused on elder legal issues. In addition, they must take continuing education courses to keep up with the latest changes in the law as it relates to elder issues.

Care.com: Why would someone consult a CELA?

Stephen Spano: For advice on estate planning, future planning, Medicare and Medicaid issues, end-of-life issues, choice-of-living-situation issues and planning for special-needs children. In contrast to many financial planners, who receive kickbacks or reimbursements if they refer clients to certain stocks and bonds, a CELA receives only the fee for the time he has spent working with a client, so his advice may be more neutral.

Care.com: What is an example of something a CELA could help a client with, that someone else might not be aware of?

Stephen Spano: In Massachusetts, if a grown child cared for a parent for at least two years, making institutionalization of that parent unnecessary, and lived in the same home as the parent, then that home may not be taken to pay for the adult's nursing home costs. This is something of great significance to many families that a non-CELA may not be aware of.

Care.com: What are the three top issues your elder clients are dealing with?

Stephen Spano:

  • Loss. Many are confronting the loss of their best friend -- their spouse -- due to illness, death or institutionalization. Many caregivers of the elderly are their spouses, who are themselves frail.
  • Feeling overwhelmed. Adult children are suddenly becoming caregivers and have no clue what they are getting into, nor any idea of estate planning or future planning (for the possibility that the parent may need more care) -- and they need lots of advice.
  • Special-needs planning. Elders with children who have special needs want to provide for their continuing care. This can be very complex, as they want to make sure that if they leave funds to a relative to care for their child, that the money is indeed used for that purpose.

Care.com: What are your top five tips for people dealing with elder issues?

Stephen Spano:

  • Become educated about the situation. Treat your life as a business and come up with a one-, three-, five- and ten-year plan. Educating yourself in the issues will prevent you from being taken advantage of by someone pretending to be an expert, who is not.
  • *Don't procrastinate. Take care of your future planning now. At least 50 percent of my work is crisis driven, and the clients who have prepared in advance are in much better situations.
  • Find an intelligent, qualified adviser, and don't be afraid to pay him for his time. A qualified adviser can save you much more money than you pay him.
  • Do create a health care proxy -- which designates someone to make health-care decisions for you in case you can't. The health care proxy can include elements of a living will, dealing with what kind of treatments you do or do not want.
  • Do sign a durable power of attorney, which allows your spouse to protect your assets. This is the financial equivalent of a health care proxy. It's better than putting your assets in a joint bank account, and you can specify what kinds of decisions the person can make for you. It is often used to protect the money of one spouse if the other goes to a nursing home.

Care.com: Any final thoughts?

Stephen Spano: There are many people claiming to be experts who aren't. They are misleading many elders, getting them to make bad investments and bad decisions. Going to someone who has solid knowledge of the issues and no financial incentive to mislead clients is crucial. I became involved in elder care after my own parents were misled by financial advisers and made bad decisions. It's something I want to help prevent.

Stephan Spano can be reached at elderlawsolutions.com.

*Elder Law is the legal practice of counseling and representing older persons and their representatives about the legal aspects of health and long term care planning, public benefits, surrogate decision making, older persons' legal capacity, the conservation, disposition and administration of older persons' estates and the implementation of their decisions concerning such matters, giving due consideration to the applicable tax consequences of the action, or the need for more sophisticated tax expertise.

Ronnie Friedland is an editor at Care.com. She has co-edited three books on parenting and interfaith family issues.

5 comments

Oldest comments are listed first

  • I had a terrible experience. I was taking care of a 86 year old woman who had her wits about her but her son tormented her and continued to play guilt trips on her. The hospice, and the rest of the caretaker group joined together to help her. I found a lawyer that was highly qualified but because she did not have a large amount of assets the lawyer would not take the case and protect her form her son. The 86 years old lady wanted to do this but because her assets we below 100k the lawyer would not help at all. We checked into advocate lawyers too but no good results. So this poor lady conceded, ended up be taken in by her son and she died a horrible death as we had to leave the case and only hospice was there for the minimal time the son let them come in. It would take too long to prove he was not there for her best interest as her health was fading fast. The care she was receiving from us had actually improved her health and well being and it was just so dishearting to see this happen. Was there anything else we could have done with the short time this lady had to live to make her more comfortable and have a more peaceful ending. We even had a power of attorney, a close friend helping her at the beginning but because of the bullying and problems the son was causing her he left the position and it only made things worse for her in the end and no family member wanted to deal with him.

  • Yes. I have seen so many of the elderly abused only for monetary reasons. I feel so bad for them. Charlotte c.

  • How long has the law been active: if a grown child cared for a parent for at least two years, making institutionalization of that parent unnecessary, and lived in the same home as the parent, then that home may not be taken to pay for the adult's nursing home costs.\

  • Do you have a scale for calculating rates I should charge?

  • Interesting post, it really helps when you do your research and lets you ask the right questions to get the answers you need!

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