An Elder Law Attorney is an advocate, magician, and guardian all in one. With the cost of Long term care on the rise across the country, many elderly face the question of how to pay for that care. In some parts of the country nursing homes can cost upwards of $10,000 a month, so you can see where the problem comes in. There are so many areas of Elder Law an attorney can specialize in, but all are devoted to helping those most in need in our country. As an example of how an Elder Law attorney can help, read the following experience of our very own Scott Solkoff with his client Mrs. Baker.
When Mrs. Baker first came to my elder law attorney office, she had been married to her husband, Joe, for 59 years. They lived their lives together in Massachusetts and retired to South Florida in 1992. When I came out to greet Mrs. Baker in the reading room (we don’t have a “waiting” room), her eyes were puffy, red and she was clutching a wrinkled tissue in one hand. I brought her back to my office where she immediately related her story to me. Joe is ill and in a nursing home. Mrs. Baker feels overwhelmed, depressed, guilty, scared and lonely. On top of it all, she worries about being poor.
She goes further to explain that she has guilt and remorse for even talking about money because, she feels she should be at the nursing home taking care of what is really important — her husband, Joe. Crying again but trying not to, she feels embarrassed. I lean in from my desk to convey assurance and help her feel better. As an Elder Law Attorney, making her feel better is all I really want to do.
She obviously feels overwhelmed with all that is going on in her life. In a burst, she tells me about the doctor at the nursing home, Joe’s most recent hospitalization, her daughter’s multiple sclerosis, her son living “back home” in Massachusetts, the high electric bill because it is so hot, her three CDs totaling $90,000.00, the stock once worth $140,000.00 but now worth only $100,000.00. How Joe used to be an important teacher and how good he was to her and the kids. She is crying off and on. Mrs. Baker reminds me of my grandmother.
I’m so glad I can help
I begin by asking her some questions from our elder law intake form. Instead of having a staff member do this, I do it. These innocuous questions help make wonderful small talk with my clients. Often, new clients are nervous and scared, just like Mrs. Baker and it helps calm things down. As Mrs. Baker and I talk, I write down some notes of my impressions and the answers to the questions using her own words wherever possible.
Elder Law Attorneys talk about the details
Mrs. Baker has two children; a daughter named Hillary and a son name Stephen. Hillary is a “good girl,” suffers from MS and does not “deal well with sad things.” Hillary calls once each week but Mrs. Baker does not want to “burden her.” Mrs. Baker last saw Hillary eight months ago. It is hard for Hillary to travel because of her MS. Stephen is a teacher, having followed in Dad’s footsteps. Stephen is a big help to Mrs. Baker. He was just down for ten days and will be returning next month. Because there is no school in summer, Stephen has some flexibility for the time being.
Mrs. Baker feels panic thinking about the expenses. She just paid the nursing home $5,700.00 for last month alone. “We never spent money like this,” she says. She tells how she and her husband saved and saved their money; how they never had two cars, how Joe “taught me how to put money away for later.” She tells me how Joe does not even recognize her sometimes and she starts crying a lot now.
Even though I know I can help Mrs. Baker as her elder law attorney, I feel frustrated that I cannot do more. I want her to stop crying, to be happy, and to feel secure again. For strength, I strong-arm my emotions aside and stay with my lawyerly, authoritative and assuring pose. My deepest wish is for her to understand that I can help her and that she will feel some precious relief.
Elder Law Attorneys provide solutions to lift the weight
“Mrs. Baker, when you leave here today, I want you to leave with a weight taken off of your shoulders. I cannot fix all of the problems, but I can remove the money problem from your worries.” She exhales some years of worry and her shoulders visibly relax.
“How?” She is wobbling her head and looks incredulous. Then she adds, “The money is not important though.” Even in her excitement to maybe have found some help, she feels guilty that we are talking about “money” when her husband is suffering so much.
“Mrs. Baker,” I continue, “Money buys care. I cannot make your husband all better. No one can. But what we can do is maximize the use of your savings so that he — and you — can get better care. We do this through a process of protecting your savings while accessing any and all benefits that will help you and your husband.”
I am very cool, very assuring. Inside, I want to jump up and hold Mrs. Baker and cry with her and tell her everything will be alright. But I know that I must convey detached professionalism so Mrs. Baker feels safe.
It’s so much more than the law
I am a healer at heart. My undergraduate degree is in religion. I had once planned to go into the clergy. I satisfy this need now by being an Elder Law Attorney and by doing magic shows. Magic makes people feel good and is a lot easier than Elder Law but I have learned that being a magician and being an Elder Law Attorney take very similar skills. My clients and friends kid me by saying that in one act, I make handkerchiefs disappear and in another act, I make assets disappear. I think this is funny too but it also makes me feel uncomfortable.
Some people do not understand what I do as an Elder Law Attorney. Some people think that Medicaid planning means taking rich people and putting them on the public dole. This is not true.
Mrs.Baker is a composite of my average elder law client. Middle to upper middle-class families who’ve dutifully saved for retirement only to be beaned by a long-term care system that has spiraled out of control. What the government wants is for Mrs. Baker to “spend down” the family savings and then, when there is little or nothing left, Medicaid will help pay for the nursing home. The problem, of course, is that Mrs. Baker then has little or nothing left to pay for those things that Medicaid will not cover. All of their efforts in saving for a lifetime mean nothing. They get no benefit from having saved. Indeed, in the room right next to Mr. Baker, a lady who never saved a penny is receiving the same care on Medicaid.
Planning makes all the difference
Through proper elder law planning, I know I can show Mrs. Baker how to protect all or most of the family savings. I can show Mrs. Baker how she can qualify Mr. Baker for Medicaid while still getting the benefit of their savings. By using their own dollars and the government’s dollars, Mr. Baker (and Mrs. Baker) will be able to afford more and better care. This can make all the difference.
The New York Court of Appeals (NY’s highest court) put it well when they held that, “No agency of the government has any right to complain about, the fact that, middle-class people confronted with desperate circumstances choose, voluntarily, to inflict poverty upon themselves, when it is the government itself, which has established the rule, that poverty is a prerequisite to the receipt of government assistance, in the defraying of the costs of ruinously expensive, but absolutely essential, medical treatment.”
Peace of mind is possible
Mrs. Baker is every client who has walked into my office full of grief, guilt and fear.
For the individual person who comes to me, Medicaid planning can mean the difference between that person’s (or their loved one’s) life and death and it almost always means a higher quality of life for one’s last weeks, months or years. With each individual person or family who comes into my office, I can care only about them and making things better. I know that more money means more care. An elder law attorney, I can show my clients how to protect their savings and access Medicaid to get better care. Most importantly, what I am doing is not only legal, but is morally just.
Mr. and Mrs. Baker worked hard for their money. They helped to build this country. Whether we serve as Elder Law Attorneys, guardians or in another helping capacity, we should feel good about doing all we can to make Mr. and Mrs. Baker’s lives better. That is what gives me pleasure and I hope you can and do feel the same.
The above was only one example of our motto “to do well by doing good”. We see many attorneys who have made the switch get this feeling. Attorneys, who at one time, were getting tired of the practice of law. Now, they feel like they’re making a difference in their community and those in need.