What are "Elder Law Attorneys"?
In recent years "elder law" has become a specialized
area of law practice which is defined more by the needs of the people
it serves than by a single body of law. Elder law attorneys should
know about the legal aspects of short and long term health care
and financing, public benefits, substitute decision-making, legal
capacity, conserving and disposing of property and related tax issues.
They should also be able to identify legal issues related to housing,
retirement income, insurance and other consumer issues. No lawyer
can be an expert in all these areas, but the elder lawyer should
be able to identify needs and either meet them or try to refer the
client to someone who can.
How can I find a knowledgeable attorney?
Attorneys interested in elder law can join the Elder Law Section
of the Alabama State Bar, which provides opportunities to meet and
talk with other elder law attorneys and to attend seminars on topics
of interest in this field. Attorneys who primarily handle complex
estate planning may be members of the Real Property, Trusts and
Estates Section of the Alabama Bar. Some elder law attorneys are
members of both Sections. Many elder law specialists are members
of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys ("NAELA").
Those searching for an elder law attorney may contact the
Alabama State Bar (334-269-1515) in Montgomery, and ask for the
name and number of the contact person in the Elder Law Section.
That person can provide a list of Section members in the caller's
geographic area who have agreed for their names to be provided in
response to requests. Providing the list does not constitute a recommendation
or endorsement by either the Bar or the Section, but it is intended
to facilitate the caller's search for information.
Another good resource is the NAELA web site, which provides lists
of NAELA members by geographic area: www.naela.org.
Still another resource is the web site of the National Elder Law
Foundation, which lists the Alabama attorneys who are Certified
Elder Law Attorneys (CELAs). That web address is www.nelf.org.
What questions should I ask a prospective attorney?
You want to know what experience and training the attorney has
in areas of special concern to you. Is the attorney participating
in legal seminars and conferences, talking with other elder law
attorneys, and reading relevant publications in order to expand
his/her understanding and keep up with rapidly-changing laws and
social situations? Here are some suggestions for questions:
- How long have you been practicing elder law and what part of your practice is devoted to it?
- Do you have a particular area of expertise or interest within the elder law field?
- What is your experience in my particular area of concern? (For example, estate taxes; Medicaid; end-of-life decision-making; consumer issues; will-drafting; powers of attorney.)
- Have you had special post-law-school training? Do you attend elder law seminars and conferences?
- To what elder law organizations do you belong?
- (If the attorney is relatively young or new:) Did you
take academic courses that helped prepare you to practice in this
field? Do you have experience in a related field that gives you
special understanding of issues important to older clients?
Is there a certification process for elder law attorneys?
Yes. The National Elder Law Foundation was authorized by the American
Bar Association to develop and implement a certification process
for elder law attorneys, The process is expansive and rigorous,
and certification provides some assurance that an attorney has enhanced
knowledge, skills, experience and proficiency in the field. Nationwide
there are currently 308 Certified Elder Law Attorneys ("CELAs")
in 37 states. There are six CELAs in Alabama; they are listed on
the NELF web site: www.nelf.org.
Must an attorney be certified to be considered competent?
No, not necessarily. There are a number of highly qualified elder
law practitioners in Alabama and elsewhere who have not undertaken
the certification process for various reasons. One deterrent is
the time required from a busy practice to engage in this demanding
process. Others, such as estate tax attorneys or Social Security
specialists, amy hold advanced degrees or have extensive experience
applicable to the area in which they specialize. There can be several
reasons for not engaging in the process.
There are also a number of competent attorneys with less experience
in elder law who have an interest in the field, and are spending
time, energy and resources to increase their knowledge and proficiency.
Whether an attorney is certified or not, you should not hesitate
to find out whether he or she has the particular skills you need,
and determine whether the two of you can establish a good working
relationship so that you can accomplish your goals.