How to Find the Right Elder Law Attorney.

How can I find a good elder law attorney to help me plan for long-term nursing care? How can I tell if my attorney knows about long term Medi-Cal? Understanding the program and the benefits is critical in estate planing and long term care provision.

Medi-Cal is California’s version of federal Medicaid program. The “Long-Term” Medi-Cal program assists people in paying for long-term skilled nursing home placements.
At speaking engagements and social events people often approach me with questions such as: “Can any attorney who does estate planning help me prepare for possible Medi-Cal problems in the future?” Other times I get comments such as: “I have a good attorney whom I like very much. He helped me: when I bought my house/ when I had an accident/when I got divorced/when my daughter was being evicted; but I don’t know if he really knows anything about Long-Term Medi-Cal.”

The biggest problem in identifying a competent attorney to assist in long-term Medi-Cal planning is the misuse of the term “Elder law.” In reality, older people have the same legal problems that everyone else has with consumer complaints, real estate sales transactions, wills, trusts, traffic tickets, and even Medi-Cal planning. The primary difference is one of emphasis and relative importance to the individual of the various issues. I would be very suspicious of any attorney who claims to be an “Elder Law Specialist” without further qualification.

In locating an attorney you should start with a reliable referral source. One of the best sources is a friend or relative who has used an attorney in connection with concerns similar to yours and has been satisfied with that attorney’s performance. Another excellent referral source in the long-term nursing care area is the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). They maintain a website at www.naela.org which is searchable by zip code or city. When specific areas of expertise are listed for an attorney on that site it means that the attorney has demonstrated actual real life experience in those areas and not simply paid for the membership. NAELA can also be reached by telephone at 703-942-5711.
No matter what referral source you use, you must personally interview the attorney and determine not only the attorney’s degree of familiarity with the issues which are important to you, but also your level of personal comfort with the attorney. If you are intimidated by the attorney or if you find the attorney’s approach or mannerisms annoying, you probably will not be able to maintain the kind of open productive communication you need in order to make sure that all of your concerns are addressed.

The interpersonal relationship you have with an attorney cannot be objectively measured. It is something that only you can evaluate, based upon your personal experience with the attorney. However, there are a few things you can do to objectively determine whether the attorney is sufficiently conversant with Long-Term Medi-Cal issues to assist you with your planning needs:

Ask about the attorney’s background in public benefits. How did the attorney get involved in the area and what experience does the attorney have in handling administrative appeals of Medi-Cal denials?

Find out how the attorney stays current with changes in the state and federal laws and regulations relating to Medi-Cal. (For example, you might ask if there are any publications to which you could subscribe in order to stay current on those issues.) Attorneys must make a concerted effort to keep current in this changing area of the law, if they are to deliver competent advice and services.
A good way to verify that the attorney is at least somewhat familiar with Long-Term Medi-Cal system is to drop a few “buzz words.” These are terms, which are used constantly in connection with Medi-Cal eligibility. Some of the most common terms are:

  • SHARE OF COST – The portion of a patient’s monthly nursing home bill which must be paid from the patient’s own income, with Medi-Cal paying the balance of the bill.
  • COMMUNITY SPOUSAL RESOURCE ALLOWANCE (CSRA) – The amount of non-exempt property an at home spouse may own without disqualifying the other spouse from receiving long-term Medi-Cal benefits. (For 2011, the figure is $109,560, which may be increased under certain circumstances.)
  • EXEMPT ASSETS – Assets that are not counted by Medi-Cal in determining whether a person qualifies for Medi-Cal benefits. (The principal residence, one automobile, household furniture and furnishings, a burial plot, a prepaid funeral contract—within certain limits—and qualifying annuities are some of the most common exempt assets.)
  • MINIMUM MONTHLY MAINTENANCE NEEDS ALLOWANCE (MMMNA) – The minimum amount of income an “at home” spouse should receive before the patient’s share of cost in a nursing home is calculated. (For 2011, the MMMNA is $2,739 per month.)
  • AVERAGE PRIVATE PAY RATE – The average monthly fee charged by skilled nursing facilities in California. This is used to calculate periods of ineligibility if disqualifying gifts are made prior to an application for Medi-Cal. (For 2011 the rate is $6,840 per month.)
  • LOOK BACK PERIOD – The period of time Medi-Cal will look back to determine if any disqualifying transfers have been made by a Medi-Cal applicant. (The current look back period is supposed to be 60 months, although California is looking back only 24 months.)
  • D.R.A. RULES – The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 was signed into law by former President Bush in 2006 and changed several important rules relating to the Long-Term Medi- Cal program. However, California has failed to enact several of those rules. When the state gets around to adopting the appropriate policies it will change some of the current Medi-Cal planning options.

If you use any of these terms and the attorney looks at you with a blank stare, you should probably find another attorney. Any attorney familiar with this area of law should be able to explain what each of those terms means and explain how they apply to you, even if the dollar amounts are not memorized. (The dollar amounts change every year.)

In selecting an attorney (or a doctor, an accountant, or any professional for that matter,) be a smart consumer. Ask about fees at the beginning and find out what you are going to get in return. Also, do not just turn your fate over to the professionals. Keep yourself informed so that you will know if one of them is dropping the ball. Groups such as PRO, AARP, NAELA, California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform in San Francisco and others are extremely valuable in keeping you informed of recent developments which may affect your life.

Demand to be kept informed by your attorney of any developments in your case and keep your attorney informed of any significant changes in your personal affairs, which might impact on the work the attorney is performing. If the attorney does not want to talk to you, think about changing attorneys. Remember that, although there are a lot of jokes going around about bad attorneys, there are many fine attorneys out there to help you, if you can just find them!

William R. Remery is a practicing attorney and member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and a member of the Parkinson’s Resource Organization Board of Directors. Mr. Remery has dedicated over 30 years to all aspects of family law, probate, conservatorships, estate planning, elder law, Medi-Cal planning, trust administration and general transactional work. In addition to a very large number of complex estate administrations his experience includes prosecution and defense of will and trust contests, heir ship litigation, accounting disputes, fee disputes, creditor claim disputes and contested family law matters. He can be reached at 818  558 5909 FAX  818 558 6756

1955 W Glenoaks Blvd
Glendale, Ca 91201-1546

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