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Choosing an Elder Law Attorney

            Choosing an attorney can be an overwhelming task.  Choosing an elder law attorney can be even more daunting, especially if the decision is made in the midst of medical, emotional and financial crisis.  The best plan then is to choose an elder law attorney before you are in a crisis situation, and specifically to choose an attorney with whom you feel comfortable and in whom you have confidence.  Choices are always easier and decisions always clearer when we have the opportunity and foresight to plan ahead with knowledge and understanding.               Our world has become so complicated, necessitating the proliferation of specialists in every area.  When we seek medical attention, we choose our doctor based on our ailment.  In legal decisions as well, it is important to choose the attorney with experience in the field in which you are seeking assistance.  Unlike medicine, though, we have the ability to plan ahead.   We all know that our parents will get older, we will get older and our children will need to be provided for.  We can all agree that turning to your “family attorney” when Mom is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease or Dad is hospitalized after a stroke, is not the best plan.  Waiting for disaster to strike is not the way to handle life changing situations?  Although your family attorney, with all good intentions, might try to assist you, he or she may not be fully aware of all the options available and all the ramifications of the many legal possibilities which can only lead to disaster.  Elder Law is an area of law that requires a great deal of specific knowledge, understanding and experience.  In the opinion of this author, such knowledge and experience cannot be gained by an attorney who does not devote the majority of his/her time to Elder Law issues.  Just as you would choose a specialist rather than a general practitioner for medical advise about a brain tumor, you should seek elderlaw assistance from an attorney knowledgeable with regard to elder law issues.               What then is an Elder Law attorney and how do you choose such an attorney?    An Elder Law attorney is a professional with an expertise in Estate Planning who not only helps to plan for the future but specifically addresses medical/disability/capacity issues and the costs of long term care in the estate plan.  A good estate plan always includes the preparation of a comprehensive Durable Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy and Last Will and Testament and/or Trust.  Good planning also includes reviewing title and ownership of real property and other assets in order to minimize tax liability, plan accordingly with regard to the mental capacity of the titled owner of the assets and to create a plan that minimizes the risk of exposing the assets to depletion by the costs of long term care.  As such, an Elder Law attorney must be familiar with many tax laws, properly draft estate planning documents, and be familiar with long-term care insurance and the laws regulating Medicaid eligibility.  An Elder Law attorney should be experienced and comfortable relating to a person under a disability and should be fully conversant with psychological and medical support services to whom he/she can refer the client for assistance.  An experienced Elder Law attorney has forged relationships with professionals in related fields who can otherwise serve the client.  An Elder Law attorney realizes the importance of providing the client with assistance he/she requires in all phases of preparing for the future and coordinating the present.               Thus, one of the best ways to locate an experienced Elder Law attorney is from a professional in a related field.  Geriatric physicians and geriatric social workers are good referral sources.  Discharge planners in hospitals and admissions directors of nursing homes are excellent sources as well.  Additionally, social workers at various organizations, such as the Long Island Alzheimer’s Foundation, the MS Society, UCP and other support groups, work extensively with Elder Law attorneys and know not only their level of expertise, but also their personalities and can guide accordingly which would be the best suited for the client.               The key is to obtain a referral from someone who has had positive experiences with that attorney.  Prior clients who were happy with their experience and with the assistance that they received are excellent sources. Obtaining the name of an Elder Law attorney from another attorney is good source, but one that is far from infallible.  Most attorneys can provide the name of an attorney who professes to be familiar with Elder Law but often have had no experience working with him/her and do not know their level of expertise or their relationship to their clients.               Many organizations such as the local Bar Associations can provide the names of Elder Law attorneys.  Be aware though, these lists of attorneys are compiled based on the attorney’s membership in the organization and the information provided by the attorney, potentially based on their interests, not necessarily their expertise in the field.               The most important tool for choosing an attorney is asking questions.  If the answers do not satisfy you or the manner in which the questions are answered or do not meet with your needs or approval, keep looking.  Ask your potential lawyer questions about their experience; How many Medicaid applications have they submitted?  How many Guardianship matters have they handled?  Do they prepare their own Powers of Attorney or do they use the Blumberg form only?  To what organizations do they belong?  What percentage of their practice is Elder Law?  Ask for references.  These are all good questions.  Any experienced lawyer will be able to answer these questions with confidence and to your satisfaction. If you meet with an attorney who does not, remember that there are others.  Shop wisely, the decision you make can affect the rest of your life.