Families coping with both the emotional and legal complexities associated with long term elder care face a unique yet serious set of challenges.  As a result, many individuals facing long term care issues are more than willing to turn to professional service providers for advice.  Unfortunately, many purported elder law professionals simply do not have the experience or training necessary to provide comprehensive elder law planning.  To ensure effective elder law planning and advice, individuals are well served to seek out professionals who specifically focus their practice on elder law issues.

Medicaid planning, for example, is a particular area of elder law that lends itself to various complexities and pitfalls.  People who try to answer Medicaid questions without first undergoing extensive training run the risk of giving out misinformation that may lead to serious, long lasting effects on the care options available to you and your loved ones. If I only had a dollar for every client that said “I heard that…”  What they heard is usually wrong! Realizing the complexity of this particular area of elder law is the first step toward ensuring that you or your loved ones do not fall victim to ineffective planning.  The following guidelines will also help to make certain that your Medicaid and elder law needs are addressed thoroughly and effectively: 

Every case is unique.  Believe me, there is no cookie-cutter approach that will effectively address your Medicaid needs.  Each individual facing issues related to elder law brings to the table a unique set of circumstances.  In searching for an elder law professional, avoid those that do not treat each client as a fresh, unique case. 

You may not have to be in a nursing home to receive Medicaid benefits.  Did you know there is a benefit for in-home care?  Medicaid benefits may be available to cover the costs of receiving in-home care.  In Virginia, for example, the state Medicaid program not only provides benefits for qualifying individuals in nursing homes, but also for qualifying individuals who wish to remain in their homes.  A qualified elder law attorney will have the knowledge to walk you through all of your long term care options, including programs that may enable you to remain in your home for as long as possible. 

Asset protection should be an integral part of your elder law planning.  Depending on the circumstances, there are a variety of estate planning techniques that may serve to preserve a portion of your assets without necessarily disqualifying you from Medicaid.  More importantly, giving away your assets may trigger a penalty period under the Medicaid statutes that could prevent access to needed benefits for an extended period of time.  An experienced elder law attorney will be able to help you implement the gifting and planning techniques that best fit your particular situation.  While estate planning attorneys may be great at planning estate, they may not have the unique expertise to plan ahead for Medicaid, if needed. 

Force those advising you to prove they are qualified.  Do not assume that anyone is qualified to give Medicaid advice without first asking them about their experience and certifications.  Social workers, financial advisors and attorneys are not necessarily well versed in Medicaid law simply on account of their titles.  Ask professionals seeking to advise you to explain their training.  Attorneys, for example, must receive special training and certification prior to labeling themselves as an elder law specialist.  The National Elder Law Foundation is the only national organization certifying elder law attorneys, or CELAs.  CELAs must complete an examination and demonstrate that their law practice is actually focused on elder law. Once certified, a CELA must continue to practice primarily in the elder law field and complete advanced continuing education programs.

Consider hiring a law firm with a full service elder law team.  A growing number of law firms in Virginia realize the importance of elder law and have assembled teams capable of addressing all of your elder law needs.  Look for a firm that has attorneys trained and preferably certified in the practice of elder law.  Then ask about all of the people who will be working on your case.  Does the firm have a elder care coordinator?  Will there be someone to help you with placement of your loved one?  Will the firm handle the application process?  Pinpointing a full service firm allows you to choose the level of services that is best for your situation.  Even if you plan on ultimately completing the paperwork and application yourself, hiring a firm with the capabilities of shepherding the entire process become invaluable if complications or unforeseen obstacles arise. 

The legal world is fraught with pitfalls and complexities that can have lasting consequences.  What’s more, the planning process for the care of an elderly family member can be an emotionally and physically draining experience.  I  hope that the guidelines presented in this article will help those in need of long term care planning find an experienced elder law team who will present appropriate planning options for your situation so that you can feel secure and confident in planning for long term care for you or your loved ones.  In Virginia we have some of the best elder law attorneys in the nation.  You can find them at www.nelf.org or www.naela.org.