GPSolo Magazine - October/November 2005
Elder law is a specialty recognized nationally by the ABA and by 24 states. Like the medical field of geriatrics, it is an area of practice defined more by the clients served rather than by the law applied. Nationally, senior citizens (those 65 or older) number 35.9 million, a figure that will double by 2030. More than half live in nine states: California, Florida, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey. The majority are female, unmarried homeowners with a median income of $11,845. Senior men, who are mostly married and homeowners, have a median income of $20,363. More than one-third of seniors report at least one significant disability, and about 11 percent receive personal care (from family and friends) in the community. Only 1.6 million are in nursing homes. (Source: “A Profile of Older Americans: 2004,” Administration on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).
The goals of this population usually revolve around preserving financial well-being, maintaining independence and dignity, and arranging for the trouble-free passing of assets upon death. They are decidedly middle-class, with views and standards shaped by the financial distress of the 1930s and the sacrifices of war. They lead modest lives and value their home above all other possessions. They see their accomplishment in their children, spend meagerly on themselves, and are determined to pass what they have to their offspring.
The elder law attorney employs a “holistic” approach in addressing the needs of the aging. He or she advises about health and long-term care planning, public benefits (including Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security), surrogate decision making (including powers of attorney and guardianship), individuals’ legal capacity, and the conservation, disposition, and administration of the client’s estate (including wills, trust, and probate).
The need for expertise in estate planning does not necessarily mean that practitioners must be tax experts—they may choose to leave tax-driven estate planning to others. Elder law attorneys must, however, be familiar with professional and nonlegal resources and services publicly and privately available to meet the needs of the client and be capable of recognizing the professional conduct and ethical issues that arise during representation.
The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys ( www.naela.org) is the most broad based organization for elder law practitioners. Founded in 1988, it has more than 4,800 members and 16 chapters at the state level. It is an extraordinarily collegial group, and its members share advice and information unselfishly. If you are interested in pursuing a practice focused on elder law, involvement with NAELA is the most productive investment you can make.
The National Elder Law Foundation ( www.nelf.org) was established in 1993 to provide a certifying entity for advanced practitioners, who currently number about 360 nationwide.
The ABA’s involvement with the legal needs of older adults predates either of these entities. Its Commission on Law and Aging ( www.abanet.org/aging) was created in 1978 and remains a primary source for policy development, education, and technical assistance.
Most elder law attorneys practice alone or in small groups. Their earnings vary broadly, but overall compensation is average for such practitioners. It is the non-financial gratification, however, that makes elder law a haven for those who choose it. As our population ages, the need for their expertise will grow, as will the challenge of meeting that need in the context of national policies that struggle to cope with the inexorable demographics. Join the fray!
David A. Myers is an elder law attorney, certified by the National Elder Law Foundation and approved by the Ohio Commission on Certification of Attorneys as Specialists. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at his website, www.aginglaw.com.