Legal Assistance

 

At times, you may find that legal consultation and/or representation is needed. There are many types of legal services available and many types of legal specialties.

 

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American Bar Association

The American Bar Association offers a "Consumer Guide to Legal Help" which can help guide you as you determine which type of attorney is right for you. They provide no direct service but they do offer education and links to assistance in your state.

For each state, they offer:

  • Find a Lawyer
    Referrals
    Pro Bono Legal Help (no charge)
    Other Ways to Find a Lawyer
  • Find Legal Information
    Basic Information
    Self Help
    Court Information
  • Using a Lawyer
    Lawyer Licensing
    Trouble with a Lawyer

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Choosing an Attorney

An attorney can offer you the security of knowing that your affairs are in order and are legally viable. However, attorneys specialize in different areas and have differing skill levels. It is important to be selective. There is information available to help you make this important decision.

Think about:

  • How complicated is your situation?
  • Is there a lot of money involved?
  • Is the issue specifically related to older adults?
  • Does the attorney specialize in the area of law needed to resolve your issue?
  • How much experience does the attorney have in this area of law?
  • Will the attorney be doing the work or will a paralegal do most of it?
  • Is the attorney a member of your state Bar Association or other legal association?
  • Does he or she have certification in the area of law needed?

Really think through your situation. If your situation is not complicated and doesn't involve a lot of money (estate funds and not money to pay for attorney services), then you may be well served by an attorney who handles many types of issues or even a well-trained paralegal (found in the Yellow Pages). However, if the situation is more complicated, involving high dollar amounts, a large estate, multiple family members, Medicaid spend down, or other like issues, it may be worth your while to retain a specialist.

According to the American Bar Association, "a lawyer who is a certified specialist has been recognized by an independent professional certifying organization as having an enhanced level of skill and expertise, as well as substantial involvement in an established legal specialty. These organizations require a lawyer to demonstrate special training, experience and knowledge to insure that the lawyer's recognition as a certified specialist is meaningful and reliable.

In order to be certified as a specialist under most certification programs, lawyers must:

  • provide evidence of substantial involvement in the specialty area and appropriate references from lawyers and judges
  • take a written examination in the substantive and procedural law in the speciality area
  • demonstrate that they have completed at least 36 hours of continuing legal education courses in the specialty area in the three-year period preceding the lawyer's application for certification
  • be admitted to practice and be a member in good standing in one or more states
  • be re-certified at least every five years and be subject to revocation of certification if they fail to continue to meet the program's requirement's

In 1993, the ABA developed an accreditation system to provide clients with a way to identify those certification programs that employ adequate methods and criteria to reliably recognize experienced legal specialists and meet ABA standards.

"To obtain accreditation for its program, an organization needs to show, among other things, that:

  • It is dedicated to the identification of lawyers who exhibit an advanced level of skill and expertise and to the development and improvement of the professional competence of lawyers.
  • It possesses the organizational and financial resources to carry out its certification program on a continuing basis, and that key personnel have by experience, education and professional background the ability to direct and carry out such programs.
  • The requirements and process for certifying lawyers are not arbitrary, can be clearly understood and easily applied and do not discriminate against any lawyers seeking certification on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or age.
  • Each speciality area in which certification is offered is an area of the law in which significant numbers of lawyers regularly practice and is described in terms which are understandable to both lawyers and potential clients. "

 

One of the most easy to navigate and understand legal sites is NOLO. They offer a variety of types of legal information online, including information on how to choose an attorney.

NOLO Logo

 

If you decide to use an Elder Law Attorney, there are additional resources to help you choose and locate one in your area.

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Elder Law Attorneys

Attorneys often specialize in a particular area. The area of Elder Law is different from general law because it offers joint, multiple or family unit representation versus the predominant individual representation often found in trusts and estates law and because of the specialization in areas of law often needed by seniors and their family members.

There are fourteen areas that define Elder Law as a specialty. They are:

  1. health and personal care planning
  2. pre-mortem legal planning, including trusts
  3. post-mortem legal planning
  4. fiduciary representation
  5. legal capacity counseling, guardianship, and conservatorship
  6. public benefits advice (Medicare, Medicaid, etc.)
  7. insurance matters
  8. resident rights advocacy
  9. housing counseling
  10. employment and retirement counseling
  11. income, estate, and gift tax counseling
  12. tort claims against nursing homes
  13. litigation in judicial and administrative jurisdictions
  14. age or disability discrimination in employment and housing

The National Elder Law Foundation is licensed by the American Bar Association to certify attorneys in Elder Law using these areas of law. Their website identifies the criteria used to certify an attorney as an Elder Law attorney.

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If more than one individual is represented by an Elder Law attorney, there must be no conflicts between them. Elder Law is holistic and multidisciplinary. The holistic approach plans for all environmental and personal needs, as well as asset and financial protections. The multidisciplinary aspect reaches beyond the legal profession to include other professions serving seniors and their families. Some Elder Law attorneys offer in-house non-lawyer consultations with professionals who can assist in non-legal areas. However, any services offered by someone other than an attorney, even if provided within the office of an attorney, may not carry the protections normally afforded a client-attorney relationship.

 

If an attorney in the yellow pages of the phone book or one that you heard of through a friend calls themselves an Elder Law attorney, the American Bar Association recommends looking for the statement, "Accredited by the American Bar Association to certify lawyers in the specialty area(s) of ____________" in the program's descriptive materials or on their certificate. Or, you can always search for a certified Elder Law attorney through nationally recognized legal organizations.

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Pro Bono Assistance If You Cannot Afford to Pay

If you need legal assistance but cannot afford an attorney, there are options available. To find out information about free - or "pro bono" - services, read the American Bar Association's "Consumers Guide to Legal Help", linked below. Click on your state and then click on "Free Legal Help" to find out what is available in your state.

Legal Aid may be able to offer assistance. There are income guidelines for qualification. The Legal Services Corporation funds many Legal Aid centers. If your state is not funded as per the link below, check the Yellow pages, your Bar Association, LawHelp, or your Area Agency on Aging to find Legal Aid services in your area.

LawHelp helps low and moderate income people find free legal aid programs in their communities, and answers to questions about their legal rights. The site was built by Pro Bono Net, a nonprofit organization headquartered in New York and by partnering legal aid organizations.  It is funded largely by the Legal Services Corporation and the Open Society Institute.

Through Older American's Act funds, local Senior Centers may offer limited legal assistance through coordination with local Legal Aid agencies. Typically this type of help involves an information session at the Senior Center on the topic of wills and living wills. If you are interested in this type of learning and assistance, contact your local Senior Center, through your Area Agency on Aging, to inquire about the availability of the program.

 

The Administration on Aging offers a list of Legal Hotlines for Seniors. Seniors 60 years of age or older, or people calling on their behalf, may speak with an attorney about legal questions or problems.

Hotline Phone

Services offered may be:

  • document review
  • preparing letters and providing legal forms
  • referrals to pro bono services or private attorney

 

Some hotlines may limit their service to specific legal matters and this service is not available in every state.

Though not pro bono, AARP offers a Legal Services Network for members. They have arranged special rates with attorneys who have been screened and interviewed and have attended a LSN orientation. Their bar standing has been checked and their malpractice insurance verified. An initial consultation (up to 45 minutes) is free. Legal services may be provided at a 20% reduction off the usual rates. You will need to check to see if service is available in your area.

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Self Help or "Do It Yourself" Legal Help

For an excellent online source of "do-it-yourself" legal information on a variety of topics, go to NOLO. They offer forms and software for sale, but also offer short online synopses of information on many topics at no charge.

The American Bar Association offers a "Consumer Guide to Legal Help" also offers access to self-help legal assistance and information. They offer both connection to both local and national resources.

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Quick Reference:

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*Picture Credits:
Chatham County Courthouse - Home & Ideas Magazine; Orange County Courthouse - Alliance for Historic Hillsborough; Wake County Courthouse - Wake County

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