Monday, June 11, 2018
My good friend and colleague, Pennsylvania Elder Law Attorney Linda Anderson, has a thoughtful essay about her personal journey in elder law in a recent issue of GPSolo, the ABA journal for solo, small firm, and general practitioners. Her closing paragraphs address several core issues, comparing her elder law focus with traditional tax and estate planning concerns. I enjoyed her use of classic lines from the movie Jaws.
My early work with elder clients or their adult children across a variety of asset levels certainly involved tax and estate planning. But it became clear that serving and protecting these clients demanded more than just good lawyering, that good planning needed “a bigger boat.” It entailed comprehensive knowledge of the Social Security, Medicaid, and VA benefits bureaucracies, close engagement with insurance providers, geriatric care managers, social workers, and other professionals, as well as close monitoring of state and federal regulatory and policy changes and housing and age discrimination laws, among others. The eventual next step for me was completing the requirements to become a certified elder law attorney (CELA).
Solo or general practice attorneys do not have to become dedicated elder law experts when taking on clients seeking long-term care and funding planning. Take those clients, but be prepared to augment tax and estate planning expertise with a deep dive into areas of elder and special needs law and funding mechanisms. All this is doable, of course, but the biggest difference is in mindset. Attorneys often approach estate and long-term care planning as transactional or episodic--needs arise, documents are drafted or revised, and we and the clients move on. But the nature of the legal work I've touched on above demands a continuing, flexible outlook and a lot of homework. When in doubt, consult with or refer your client to a CELA-qualified attorney. These attorneys are listed in the website for the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF, nelf.org). Another resource for lawyers (who may or may not be CELA-qualified) is the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA, naela.org). Both organizations are excellent sources for information and referrals.
Finally, as we all learn in time, everything that we've covered here will become very personal for each of us. This may first happen through our parents or siblings as they transition and age, but it's necessarily part of our own futures as well. That's true whether you're a Baby Boomer looking at 70, a Gen Xer thinking that 40 is “old,” or any age in between.
Aging is the one shark we cannot escape. But as attorneys, we know how to plan and can build our clients' (and our own) “boats” to manage aging as well as possible.