Can Elder Law Attorney’s Be Nice People?
By: Jerold E. Rothkoff
As an elder law attorney, I often visit clients in their homes who are unable to travel to our office due to their disability. Approximately 2 months ago, I visited a client living in a multigenerational household – living with her son, his wife, and her two minor granddaughters. As I was meeting with our client at her kitchen table, her granddaughters returned home from school that afternoon. I greeted the granddaughters and introduced myself to them. The 8 year old granddaughter asked her dad who I was and what my purpose was in talking with her grandmother. He explained that I was a lawyer helping her grandmother with her financial and legal affairs. The granddaughter stated that I could not be a lawyer because she thought all lawyers were mean.
Trying to explain to an 8 year old what I do each day has allowed me to reflect on what I do as an Elder Law attorney. I truly love what I do, but on occasion, I find it difficult to explain to others what I exactly love to do. At the Rothkoff Law Group, we practice “Elder Law” with a particular emphasis on Life Care Planning. But what does that mean? What is the significance of the term “Elder Law”?
No one practicing “elder law” likes the term. It is not descriptive of our clients: a significant number of the cases we handle involve children, and many of our clients are middle-aged children of aging parents. It is not easy for clients to relate to: when asked what constitutes an elder or senior citizen, most of our clients immediately think of someone just a few years older than themselves. No one has come up with a better label, or even one that comes closer to describing what we do. What do we (Rothkoff Law Group) do? Here’s a sampling:
Estate Planning. We write wills, trusts, powers of attorney and other estate planning documents. Most of our clients in this area are older , but not because that’s who needs estate planning. Younger people also need to complete estate planning. They just tend not to until they reach an age where they see the value. As one of our clients wisely said: “the two kinds of people you hate to deal with are doctors and lawyers — and when you get older you spend a lot of time with both.”
Older people may have more complicated estate plans. They may have others (children with disabilities, spouses with failing abilities, long-time friends they have helped over the years) who rely on them and need their consideration. They also may feel somewhat more mortal. And so they tend to be the ones who get to the lawyer’s office — and hence the estate planning business seems to be (but should not be) an issue for elders.
Long-Term Care Planning. Nursing home costs will likely bankrupt most families if someone has to spend more than a few months in a care facility. Planning for how to deal with that should start early. But most people don’t plan for possible institutionalization. Instead, they bravely insist that “I am never going into the nursing home.” Many of them turn out to be wrong, but most of those won’t know how wrong they were until they are, well, elderly. Most (but certainly not all) of the residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities are elderly. So the practice of preparing people for that eventuality, and of helping spouses and children get ready to place a loved one in such a facility, has come to be thought of as “elder” law.
Special Needs Trusts and Planning. The beneficiaries of most special needs trusts are young. Even the parents of special needs trust beneficiaries may be young. So how does this become an “elder law” issue? It’s simple: the government programs and rules that are involved in special needs trust planning, establishment and administration are the same programs and rules involved in long-term care for the elderly.
Health Care Advocacy and Life Care Planning. We employ geriatric social workers, a health care specialist, a VA specialist, and a Medicaid specialist, among others, to help clients navigate the health care and public benefits system to ensure a loved one is safe and getting the right care, either at home or in an appropriate residential setting.
Guardianship. A guardian is a court-appointed person who makes financial, medical and placement decisions for an incapacitated adult or a minor child whose parents are not available to handle those duties. A guardianship may be necessary for the very young, and for adults who are incapacitated. Getting a guardian appointed is only part of the battle. Once appointed, a guardian must file annual reports and accounts. It is an intensive exposure to the legal system, and very difficult to navigate without the help of counsel.
So that’s what we do as “elder law” attorneys. Is that all we do? No, we also in advance directive preparation and interpretation, or recovering from abuse, neglect or exploitation. But that’s the bulk of our work.
Feel free to come up with a better, shorter, more user-friendly term. We’ve been working on it for years, but we are confident that there is a good answer out there somewhere. One thing I know for sure – we truly are nice people.