You wear many hats as a caregiver, but dealing with complex legal matters is a role best left to the pros.
If you're preparing to take over financial or medical decision making for an aging parent, or you're trying to help a senior relative navigate the rules for Medicaid eligibility, you may want to consult with an elder law attorney. These legal specialists focus on advising seniors and their family members on issues like Medicare and Social Security claims and appeals, nursing home patients' rights, and elder abuse and fraud.
One of the most common types of cases involves helping clients figure out how to spend down or transfer their assets in order to become eligible for Medicaid assistance with home care, assisted living or skilled nursing care. It's a dilemma most middle class families will likely face at some point in their lives, says Catherine Anne Seal, president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA).
“If you live long enough and you are frail enough at the end of your life, you will spend all of your money," Seal says.
Because they tend to work closely with social service agencies, health care providers and other professional service providers, elder law attorneys also can refer clients to those types of resources when the situation calls for it. In fact, clients often come to elder law attorneys with problems that don't have legal remedies, like how to find a home caregiver or how to deal with a loved one who can no longer keep up with home maintenance, says Michael Kirtland, Seal's partner in the Colorado Springs, Colorado, firm of Kirtland and Seal LLC.
“That's why it's important for a good elder law attorney to not only know some legal answers but to be kind of a makeshift social worker, to be able to say, 'Here's an agency that deals with cleaning. Here's one that deals with food preparation,'" Kirtland says.
While elder law specialists make up a relatively small group within the legal profession, Kirtland notes that NAELA and another organization, the National Elder Law Foundation, offer online directories to help you locate an attorney in or near your area.
In addition, a fact sheet on the NAELA website suggests checking with local and national agencies and nonprofits, such as the Alzheimer's Association, AARP, the Area Agency (or Council) on Aging, as well as your state or local bar association, hospital or nursing home social services and other attorneys you know.
All members of the National Elder Law Foundation have passed a national certification exam that covers a variety of topics, including housing, governmental benefits, estate planning, guardianship and conservatorship, Seal says. But not all elder law attorneys accept every type of case in their practice. For instance, Seal does not handle Social Security appeals.
Seal also warns that not all lawyers who identify themselves as elder law specialists are certified in the field, so it's important to ask. Just as you would insist on the most qualified health professionals taking care of your loved one, you should have the same assurance when it comes to legal care.