What Is An Elder Law and Special Needs Law Attorney and when should one be contacted?

What Is An Elder Law and Special Needs Law Attorney And When Should One Be Contacted?

By Karen H. Weber, JD, Elder Law and Special Needs Law Attorney

Elder law and special needs law attorneys are competent and compassionate professionals who focus on the holistic goals of the client. They typically represent the client’s interests in legal, medical, financial, social and family matters, with a primary emphasis on promoting the highest quality of life for the individual. While the client is usually a senior or a person with a disability, the issues addressed by the elder law and special needs law attorney are varied, including 14 keys areas:

  • Estate planning and probate administration
  • Estate and gift tax planning
  • Guardianship and conservatorship administration
  • Medicaid eligibility
  • Medicare eligibility
  • Special needs trusts and other disability planning
  • Entitlement programs
  • Retirement benefits
  • Age discrimination
  • Elder abuse/neglect
  • Housing issues, including discrimination and home equity conversions
  • Long-term care financing
  • Medical decision making
  • Supplemental and long-term care insurance issues

Most elder law attorneys do not specialize in every one of these practice areas, so be sure to hire the lawyer who regularly handles matters of the type involved in your particular case. Some actions may have unintended legal effects, and the elder law attorney will have enough knowledge of each practice area to question any unintended consequences.

For example, many seniors have a long-standing practice of tithing to the church or synagogue or other favored charities. Later in life, the Medicaid agency may view this as an uncompensated transfer of assets resulting in a period of ineligibility for benefits. However, the elder law attorney knows that such a penalty is imposed only when the gift, or transfer of assets, is done with the intent to qualify for Medicaid coverage. If the gift was made long before the client required Medicaid benefits, no penalty should be imposed.

Another common example of unintended consequences involves family members who wish to leave an inheritance to a loved one with a disability. Parents and grandparents often want to leave life insurance or other assets to benefit a person with disabilities after their death.  However, if the person with disabilities is receiving Medicaid benefits or Supplemental Security Income, such a generous gift can have the unintended effect of disqualifying the loved one from these critical benefits at a time when they are needed most. The special needs lawyer knows that such generous estate planning goals should be carried out in the context of a special needs trust (also known as a supplemental care trust). When done correctly, the client’s estate planning goals can maintain the beneficiary’s current medical, housing and income benefits and provide a supplemental source of funds to enhance the surviving family member’s quality of life.

So, when should a person contact an elder law and special needs lawyer? Since elder law and special needs law attorneys promote planning now for the future, it is never too early to seek information and advice. From people with disabilities to those facing the end of life, it is best to prepare before a medical or other crisis occurs. A qualified elder law attorney will be pleased to describe the five basic estate planning documents every adult over age 18 should consider.

Karen H. Weber has been practicing law for 17 years, and she has been a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, Inc. (NEALA) for 16 years. Her practice is devoted to estate planning (including wills, trusts, powers of attorney, etc.), with an emphasis on elder law (including Medicaid qualification for assisted living and nursing home care) and special needs law (including guardianship and special needs trusts).  Karen Weber can be contacted by calling 913-661-0550. She is licensed in both Kansas and Missouri.