Elder care law encompasses many fields: Preservation/transfer of assets to avoid impoverishment when a spouse must enter a nursing facility, Medicare and Social Security claims and appeals, health insurance issues, tax and disability planning, living trusts, living wills for health care decisions in case of incompetency or incapacity, conservatorships and guardianships, probate and administration of estates, nursing home problems, age discrimination, public and private retirement benefits, survivor benefits, and pension benefits.
When a lawyer professes to practice elder or special needs law, the first thing to find out is which specific matters the attorney handles. The lawyer should handle matters in the area of concern in the particular elder care case and know enough about related fields to understand and anticipate how other areas of law might affect a legal action. Lawyers who work primarily with seniors should appreciate the complex financial and social decisions their clients face. They always should take into account the true physical and mental difficulties of the aging process. They should have formal or informal support systems of social workers, geriatric nurses, psychologists, and other professionals.
Even with all these qualifications and credentials, not every lawyer is right for the client. The relationship must be based on mutual trust and understanding. There are lots of questions about fees and services in the selection of an elder care attorney. It is not unusual to speak to only a secretary, receptionist, or office manager in an initial call to a legal representative’s office. If so, the caller should ask how long the counselor has been in practice, whether the practice concentrates in a particular area of law, and whether there is a fee for the initial consultation. The answers to these questions determine whether the attorney has the qualifications important for a successful attorney-client relationship.
During the initial consultation, the attorney asks for an overview of the prospective client’s reason for seeking assistance, so all pertinent information should be organized for clear, easy explanation of the situation. Questions to be answered at this point are what will resolve the immediate problem, whether any alternate courses of action would be preferable, how many attorneys are in the office, which attorney will handle the case, and how much experience that attorney has in such situations.
The prospective elderly client should ask how the attorney charges for services, whether flat fees or by rate, how much and how often billed. Some attorneys bill weekly, some monthly, some on completion of the case. There will be no surprises. For clear understanding, questions should be repeated or rephrased as necessary. In addition to fees, most attorneys charge expenses for copies, postage, messengers, court costs, and other incidentals.
The attorney-client relationship should be defined in writing. A letter is adequate evidence of a formal contract. It should specify the services the attorney performs and the fee and expense arrangements. Even if the agreement remains oral and not in writing, however, the client has made a contract and must understand the responsibility to pay for all charges for work done by the attorney.
The key to a successful attorney-client relationship is communication. The attorney’s answers to the client’s initial questions indicate not only the attorney’s qualifications but also whether the relationship is likely to succeed. An attorney who seems to give an elderly client’s concerns short shrift, who answers questions incompletely or unclearly, who seems to resent the questions, or who makes the questioner feel uncomfortable in any way probably should not be hired. Only the client’s comfort from satisfaction with the attorney from the start establishes the trust for a relationship of open communication that can resolve any difficulties that may follow between them.