Senior citizens and the law

Attorneys: A new specialty, elder law, has evolved to handle the increasing legal problems faced by the aging.

April 25, 1999|By Ann Doss Helms | Ann Doss Helms,Knight Ridder/Tribune

A 45-year-old whose mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's wonders how she'll take over her mother's care and finances.

A 65-year-old newlywed wants to provide for his new wife if he dies first, but leave his estate to his children by his first wife.

An 80-year-old whose children squabble over everything wants to make sure her life ends with dignity.

Situations like these are sending families to elder-law attorneys, a growing specialty that caters to a growing slice of society.

Elder-law attorneys tout themselves as a new breed of lawyer: able to guide families through a maze of law and bureaucracy, attuned to the nuances of family relationships, and willing to cooperate with doctors, geriatric care managers and other professionals. The goal, they say, is not just legal planning but life planning.

"Lawyers alone can't handle this, and that's the most difficult thing for lawyers to understand," said Jan Warner of ElderLaw Services of South Carolina.

Ten years ago, the fledgling National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys had 350 members; today it has 3,500.

Jason A. Frank, chair of the Maryland bar's elder law section, said elder law is still considered by many an untraditional approach to the legal profession. From a law school perspective, he said, it's a specialty that doesn't exist.

"It's really a melange of what are traditionally separate areas of law," said Frank, a Lutherville attorney. "It can be incredibly complex."

Any attorney can open an elder-law practice. The label covers everyone from Frank, a Maryland elder-law veteran who started a practice in 1983, to newcomers tapping into a boom market.

Families can choose wisely by doing research, asking for referrals, quizzing lawyers about their training and experience -- but most of all, by making plans before a crisis strikes. Those who wait until a loved one is ill, incompetent or dying must take action when time is tight and emotions high.

Each family is unique, but common themes bring them to elder-law attorneys:

* Families with a loved one whose mind is deteriorating need legal documents to let someone make decisions and handle finances. Elder-law specialists suggest a consultation as soon as a diagnosis is made, when patients can still take part in the talks.

* Middle-class families worry about paying for nursing homes and other long-term care, fearing they'll have to sell the family home before qualifying for Medicaid.

* Older people want to make sure their wishes are respected when their health deteriorates. A health-care power of attorney is essential, attorneys say, but so is family communication.

* People planning their retirement finances and making wills are trying to cover complex goals -- paying for their own care if health declines, providing for a surviving spouse, leaving something for the children.

* Families looking at assisted living or retirement complexes often need help reviewing the contracts, especially if a hefty investment is required.

* Families are seeking legal help when faced with age discrimination, exploitation of an elderly person or nursing home problems.

Job experts say elder law is a hot field for young lawyers. Wake Forest University's law school trains students at a free legal clinic for the elderly, where they learn to work with doctors, social workers and pharmacists to meet families' needs.

Many midcareer lawyers also make the switch, often motivated by the needs of aging clients and family members.

Elder-law experts say it's not enough to know the law and draw up the paperwork. Elder-lawyers need to understand how aging affects the mind and body, how family relationships shape the way legal wishes are carried out, how the interests of caregiver children can clash with those of their parents.

"I learn intimate details of people's lives," said Lisa L. Jablonover, an elder law specialist with Tydings and Rosenberg, a Baltimore law firm. "It's counseling. There's a lot of hand-holding and you have to like that."

Elder law brings its own ethical issues. For instance, a healthy child or spouse may contact the attorney, seeking help for a frail family member. If possible, attorneys say, they want to talk to that person -- without the caregivers present. The attorney needs to know whether the frail person's wishes are really the same as the caregiver's. The attorney will probably ask whether the children get along, and who can best be trusted to take charge.

"As far as I'm concerned, the senior is the client," said Frank.

Choosing the right attorney is the family's challenge.

Doing homework is the first step. The family should read up and attend free seminars on Medicaid, housing options, whatever the family's issues are.

They also should get in touch with local agencies that serve seniors; help may be available from a source less expensive than a lawyer.

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