What Is Elder Law?

Elder Law Provides Unique Service for Seniors


It used to be that you could go to an attorney for any variety of problems -- a dispute with your neighbor about your property line, a wayward child arrested for reckless driving, and a desire to get your "papers" in order in the event that something happened to you. Chances were that your lawyer could do it all. But, times have changed. Now, you go to a real estate lawyer to solve a property dispute, or to a criminal lawyer to handle the court hearings for your child, or to an estate lawyer to draft your will. Why is this? Because life has become more complicated, and most lawyers simply cannot possibly keep abreast of the ever-changing laws in all of the various legal areas. Market forces have required the legal profession, as well as many other professions, to become more and more specialized.

One of the biggest and most powerful market forces in our society today is the older population. People are generally living longer and healthier lives. While this is good, it also creates a whole new array of concerns such as retirement housing, rising healthcare costs, and selection of and payment for nursing home care.

The legal profession has slowly but surely recognized that the elder population is made up of complex individuals with a variety of important legal needs. The legal profession has responded by identifying the area of "elder law" as an area of specialization.

Even though many attorneys, during the past 25 years or so, have built their practices around serving the needs of the elder population, the term "elder law" has just recently been added to the list of legal specializations. In 1988, the National Academy of Elder Lawyers was created by approximately 35 attorneys. Now, a mere ten years later, the membership is over 3,500 and growing. In one of the major turning points for the area of Elder Law, the American Bar Association, in 1994, approved a national certification program implemented by the National Elder Law Foundation. To become a Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA), the attorney has to meet strict requirements regarding the practice of Elder Law and has to pass a strenuous certification examination. The certification examination is over and above the required state bar examination. Currently, there are approximately 200 attorneys, nationwide, who have achieved certification, and who are identified by the letters "CELA" after their names. A lawyer does not necessarily have to be certified to practice Elder Law; however, the attorney cannot claim to be a "specialist" in the area Elder Law without certification.

Who are Elder Lawyers and what do they do? You will probably find Elder Attorneys to be "people-oriented" attorneys, who are caring and concerned about the growing needs of the aging population.

The unique services of an Elder Lawyer are most beneficial for those age 50 and above and include assistance in understanding nursing home regulations, Medicaid and Medicare benefits, Social Security Disability benefits, and long-term care insurance issues. They also handle estate planning, wills, powers of attorney, elder abuse, fraud, housing issues, age discrimination concerns, and retirement and pension benefits. Other areas include working with families of Alzheimer's patients, educating up-coming baby boomers on the "how to" of making retirement dollars stretch further, as well as offering wise solutions when "spending down" becomes necessary due to a nursing home placement.

So, when you have a "run-in" with the law, go to a criminal lawyer to help you get off the hook. But when you start thinking about your long-term care, seek out the services of an attorney who has specifically decided to devote a large part, if not all, of his or her legal practice to serving the growing needs of the elderly population.