You may know that the term “Elder Law” does not indicate the age of the attorney – although I promise, many people think that this is a HILARIOUS joke. But really – what IS Elder Law?
Backing up a bit, I went to law school at Wake Forest University School of Law. During my first semester, in the fall of 2005, I met a classmate who told me she had decided to go to law school because she wanted to practice Elder Law. I had no idea what that meant. I even thought it was weird that she wanted to practice in an area devoted to “old people.”
Fast forward two years – I was finishing up my second year of law school and I had decided that estate planning was my path. I enjoyed the analytic and intellectual aspects of developing a written plan that ensured the appropriate transfer of assets during life and at death, all while avoiding legal and tax pitfalls. I also knew that I would find helping people fulfilling. So, when I learned that Wake Forest had an Elder Law Clinic – where students could represent elderly clients under the supervision of the managing attorney/professor – I jumped at the chance, knowing estate planning would be involved.
During my time at the clinic, I learned that Elder Law encompassed those things that I enjoyed in estate planning, and more. So, when I graduated from law school, I set out to practice in an area that three years before, I had found a bit strange.
Fast forward again, five years this time. I am in my fifth year of practice, and several weeks ago I attended the Atlanta Bar Association fair presented for first year law students at John Marshall Law School here in Atlanta. The first student who approached my table asked “what is Elder Law?”, as did the second, and the third, and the fourth…
To explain to the students what Elder Law is, I described the kind of help I provide. I told them that my practice consists largely of estate planning, that is, drafting wills and trusts and powers of attorney and health care directives, which direct how clients’ assets are distributed at their death, provide for control of the same during life, and direct health care decisions if someone else has to make them. My clients tell me what their desires and concerns are, and I help execute a written plan that will see their wishes through. Or, when a loved one dies, I assist the family in establishing an estate and distributing the assets. When adult children call because mom or dad is not doing so well at home, I counsel regarding their options, talking about the differences between Assisted Living Facilities and Nursing Homes, and the option of in-home care for those who do not want to leave home at all. I summarize the costs and the financial options for paying for care, reviewing the rules of the Medicaid program and the Veterans Administration pension program, hopeful that those benefits might help. When someone is trying to take advantage of my client financially, I try to use the legal remedies available to bring the injustice to a halt. When my clients need someone appointed for mom or dad (or aunt or uncle or husband or wife) to handle their affairs because the mental capacity is gone, I represent them in the probate court to have a guardian and conservator appointed.
When my clients are discouraged, I try to comfort them. When they cry, I give them a tissue and tell them that it is going to be alright, but that it is alright to be sad. When they are angry or when they are scared, I listen. When they are confused, I educate them. And when they are lost, I try to show them that the path does not seem so treacherous once someone turns the lights on. As far as I am concerned, that is what “Elder Law” is.