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A University of Alabama Law School Clinical Program funded in part by West Alabama Regional Commission

Advance Health Care Decisions

Powers of Attorney

Wills, Trusts, Estates

Guardianships

Medicare, Health Insurance

Medicaid in Nursing Homes

Long Term Care Financing

Social Security

Income Assistance

Nursing Home Issues

Other Consumer Issues:

Housing (Coming Soon!)
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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.

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