Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Certified Elder Law Attorneys Are a Rare Breed

It’s safe to call elder law a small niche in the legal scene. Only 39 lawyers in New Jersey have been certified as elder law attorneys by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) of Tucson, Ariz., which is authorized by the American Bar Association to grant the certification. The foundation has certified fewer than 400 elder law attorneys nationwide.
These lawyers focus on age discrimination, elder abuse, estate planning and probate, long-term care and health care decisions.

“We take a holistic approach to clients,” says Deirdre Wheatley-Liss, a certified elder law attorney in Parsippany. “What happens when you are getting a little slower? What happens if you need care? Just because a person gets older doesn’t mean you don’t have any rights. How do you have dignity as you age? And what will happen to you and your property?”

Any lawyer can handle cases confronting senior citizens, but certified elder law attorneys commit to the niche by meeting requirements set by the NELF that include a written test and ongoing courses on elder law issues.

Wheatley-Liss says the field is about 20 years old and rapidly growing. “Estate-planning attorneys handle estate issues and what happens when you die,” she says. “But elder law attorneys look at what happens if you live.”

A critical issue for people nearing retirement is preparing for the eventual need for medical assistance. “People are living longer and they don’t know enough about issues like health insurance, prescription drugs and whether they will be able to afford to live in the communities they spent their lives in,” says Wheatley-Liss.

“Some give away their money to children and assume the children will take care of them. People need to be educated about this in advance of the crisis situation.”

Donald M. McHugh, a certified elder law attorney in East Hanover, says the first wave of baby boomers is keeping elder law attorneys busy. Many boomers, he says, don’t realize that Medicare won’t cover all their future health care costs. “They should be looking at long-term care insurance or other planning techniques,” says McHugh. “Once they are sick, they are uninsurable.”

Individuals also tend to disregard the prospect of moving into an assisted-living facility or nursing home. “They should be thinking about setting aside funds in trusts and shelters to preserve the assets that can be designated for long-term healthcare,” says McHugh. “By setting aside certain funds, you don’t have to spend your entire estate on hospitals.

“If you’re a senior on a public benefit plan who wants a little bit better quality care,” he adds, “you better have something socked away so you can supplement whatever your insurance carrier covers.”


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