Senior citizens have unique legal problems, especially involving financial decisions. Now, some lawyers are specializing in elder-care legal issues.
Many of these lawyers are members of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys Inc., (520-881-4005) a 3,000-member group that publishes a registry of such specialists. Elder care specialists can address legal issues ranging from age discrimination to estate planning, from elder abuse to long- term care policies and asset transfers.
More than 40 Chicago attorneys are members of the academy. Some are members of the academy. Some are independent practitioners or part of small offices, while others are building large practices that also offer investment advice, insurance sales and brokerage services.
The academy advises seniors to check with their bank trust department, local senior citizens council, the Alzheimer's Association or the area council on aging for recommendations of lawyers specializing in elderly issues. Seniors also can buy the academy's directory for $25 by phone.
No matter who gives the referral, the academy suggests seniors ask an attorney how long he or she has specialized in this field. They also should ask how the lawyer bills for services -- either through hourly fees or a fixed fee for an estate plan, for example. Typically, these attorneys will not charge for the initial consultation.
Elder law specialists say about half of their clients seek advice on their own because they recognize the need for an appropriate estate or wealth transfer plan. But many seniors are brought in by their adult children, who worry that their parents' diminished capacities make it impossible for them to manage their affairs.
Therein arises a potential conflict.
Elder care attorneys agree that both seniors and adult children should clearly understand at the first legal meeting that the parent is the client.
The interests of the older person may conflict with those of their grown children. The parent might want to keep control of assets, while the children want them distributed now, for example. Or it might be that the children are paying the legal bills and feel they are, therefore, the clients. The attorneys I consulted insist that the elderly are the clientsñeven if their children pay the bills.
If you're an adult child trying to persuade an aging parent to make an estate plan or discuss the potential costs of nursing home living, you tread on perilous territory. You're forcing your parents to accept the role reversal that they've always dreaded.
But it doesn't help to wait until their abilities are diminished. Alzheimer's or a stroke may make it impossible to transfer control of assets without a court order. Still, attorneys are wary of the pressures that children place on their elderly parents.
has formed a full-service legal and financial planning firm for seniors--the Elder Law Center (312-372-1040). A former president of the academy's Illinois chapter, says giving specialized legal advice to seniors is not enough to protect their assets and preserve their income.
So his firm includes not only attorneys, but also certified financial planners, registered investment advisers and insurance professionals. They clearly disclose their fees and any commissions -- and never charge fees on top of commissions.
In fact, the firm keeps ethics counsel on retainer to review all fees and disclosures. Thus, you can get an estate plan, fund it with life insurance, and get investment advice all in one stop.
But knowing where to go for specialized legal advice isn't the only issue for seniors and their families. Frequently they are unaware of the issues that will come up in their senior years -- and how they can save money and emotional problems by proper planning.
Some of the most pressing issues are long-term care costs, transferring assets and planning for diminished financial resources. Next week we'll seek opinions from top elder-law attorneys on these issues.
A special note: If you know of an elderly person who is being financially victimized by a family member or acquaintance, call the Illinois Department on Aging's Elder Abuse Hotline at (800) 252-8966.