What is elderlaw?
Your lifestyle, ambitions, and worries all change with age -- and so can your legal needs. Older people who have never hired an attorney in their lives may suddenly find themselves thumbing through the phone book when it's time to plan their estates, fight for Medicare benefits, arrange for long-term health care, or write a will. Fortunately, a growing number of attorneys across the country are focusing on the special legal needs of seniors, creating a new field called "elderlaw."
Do I need an elderlaw specialist?
First of all, you should ask yourself if you really need an attorney at all. Many minor legal issues can be handled easily without a lawyer. For instance, the American Association of Retired Persons can help you fill out a living will that's appropriate for your state, and small claims courts can be an excellent way to collect money from debtors. In addition, legal self-help books can guide you through garden-variety disputes and negotiations. But if you're dealing with a complex issue that's likely to go to court, or if there's a large amount of money at stake, you'll need to think carefully about finding the right attorney.
You may already have a good relationship with an attorney. If your current legal consultant feels comfortable tackling your new issues, then you probably don't need to find an elderlaw specialist. But if you're starting from scratch, a specialist can be a good choice. Elderlaw attorneys are not only more familiar with the legal needs of seniors, they're also more likely to have close ties with physicians, social workers, bank managers, and others whose participation might be needed in pursuing your legal matters.
But don't choose an attorney just because you see "elderlaw" on a business card. Lawyers today tend to focus on just one or two areas of the law, even within their specialty, and a given elderlaw attorney may have little experience with your particular problems. Shop around until you find the right professional with the right experience, regardless of what the card says.
How can I find the right attorney?
You can start by talking to friends and family who have faced similar legal issues. You can also find directories of lawyers in your local library. For instance, the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory lists over 870,000 American and Canadian lawyers, arranged by state and by specialty. Local referral services are another excellent way to find attorneys. Groups like the Area Agency on Aging, the Alzheimer's Association, and your state's civil liberties union will have lists of lawyers who have experience with elderlaw.
Of course, collecting a list of names is just the beginning of your search. You'll want to call several attorneys and interview at least two in person before making your choice. During the interviews, ask about the attorney's experience, the strengths and weaknesses of your case, how he or she would approach the case, and, of course, the fees.
How can I find legal help I can afford?
Here's a rundown of several sources of free and low-cost legal help for seniors:
Area Agency on Aging. More than 600 of these offices nationwide provide free legal assistance on noncriminal matters to people age 60 and over. There are no income guidelines, but the agency can handle only a limited number of cases. If it considers your case to be a low priority, you'll probably have to look elsewhere for help.
Legal Services Corporation. The government-funded LSC runs hundreds of legal aid offices that provides free legal help to seniors who meet certain income guidelines. Your local office will gladly explain these guidelines to you.
Pro bono panels. Many legal aid offices and bar associations can help you find attorneys who offer free or reduced-cost legal help as a public service. Again, income guidelines may apply.
This site offers an excellent guide to key legal issues facing seniors, including living options, estate planning, and national network of eldercare attorneys.
The American Bar Association Guide to Will and Estates, Time books.
Nolo's Will Book, written by Denis Clifford, and Nolo's Plan Your Estate, written by Denis Clifford and Cora Jordan. Clear, straight-forward, and practical.
Federal government booklets on estate planning and other elderlaw issues. The Consumer Information Center Catalog lists more than 200 federal publications. Call 888-8-PUEBLO (1-888/878-3256) or look up www.pueblo.gsa.gov.
Peter Strauss and Nancy Lederman. The Elder Law Handbook: A Legal and Financial Survival Guide for Caregivers and Seniors. Facts on File, Inc.: 353 pp.
Charles P. Sabatino and Nancy Coleman. The American Bar Association Legal Guide for Older Americans: The Law Every American over Fifty Needs to Know. Times Books: 272 pp.
Chris Adamec, et al. The Unofficial Guide to Eldercare (The Unofficial Guide Series). Hungry Minds, Inc.: 400 pp.
Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory. www.martindale.com