Elder Law is a broad practice area that addresses the needs and concerns of senior citizens. While any lawyer can call themselves an elder law attorney, only those with the requisite skill and experience can call themselves a Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA). Daniel Surprenant and Michelle Beneski, the lead partners of Surprenant & Beneski, P.C., have the distinction of earning the CELA qualification. If you are a senior who is planning for your future, or you are preparing for that of a loved one, consider how a CELA stands apart from other attorneys.
What Is Elder Law?
Elder law concerns multiple fields of law that are focused on providing for senior citizens. It’s broader than just estate planning and probate, and can cover Social Security, disability, nursing home issues, and much more. The National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) provides perhaps the best overview of this practice area:
“Elder Law” is the legal practice of counseling and representing older persons and persons with special needs, their representatives and families about the legal aspects of health and long term care planning, public benefits, surrogate decision-making, older persons’ legal capacity, the conservation, disposition and administration of older persons’ estates and the implementation of their decisions concerning such matters, giving due consideration to the applicable tax consequences of the action, or the need for more sophisticated tax expertise.
Just about any attorney can hold themselves out as an elder law practitioner. But a Certified Elder Law Attorney, or CELA, has reached “the gold standard” of practice in this field.
What Is a Certified Elder Law Attorney?
A Certified Elder Law Attorney is one who has been certified by the National Elder Law Association (NELF). A CELA must meet precise certification guidelines based on practice experience, training, and high professional standards. CELA attorneys not only specialize in elder law matters, but they are also specifically trained to anticipate and address issues of concern to senior citizens. There are only about 500 attorneys nationwide who have risen to the level of expertise to earn CELA certification.
How Does One Qualify To Be A CELA?
It takes hard work, dedication, and commitment to elder law to become a CELA. The NELF requires several steps before an applicant may receive this certification:
Licensure and good standing. The attorney must be licensed to practice law in at least one state or the District of Columbia. He or she must also be a member in good standing of all the bars in all places in which he or she is licensed. This establishes a baseline of professional credibility and integrity.
Practice. The attorney must have practiced law for five years preceding his or her application to be a CELA, and must still be practicing law. Further, at least half of the attorney’s practice must have been focused on the special needs/elder law field for at least the last three of those years.
Substantial involvement. A CELA must show a significant amount of commitment to special needs and elder law practice. This is done by demonstrating a minimum number of individual cases, spread across a number of different categories that make up the NELF’s “elder law” definition.
More specifically, a CELA:
- Must have spent an average of at least 16 hours per week practicing elder law in the three years prior to his or her application
- Must have handled no fewer than 60 elder law matters during those three years, as specified by the NELF’s rules and regulations
Continuing legal education. Continuing legal education is intended to keep attorneys up to date on changes in the legal field, especially those particular to their area of practice. A CELA must have participated in at least 45 hours of continuing legal education, specifically for elder law, during the three years preceding their application.
Examination. The NELF requires applicants to study for, take, and pass a day-long written examination. The rigorous test, designed to gauge attorneys’ knowledge of elder law matters, must be taken within two years of filing the application. According to the NELF, recent pass rates have been below 50%, a figure which includes applicants who already met the experience requirements.
Peer review and professional references. The applicant has to submit the names of five references from attorneys who are familiar with the applicant’s competence and qualifications in the area of elder law. All of these references must satisfy specified criteria.
Why Are There Such High Standards for Becoming a CELA?
NELF’s criteria are designed to ensure that only the best attorneys provide quality legal services to their elder law clients. But it isn’t just knowledge and familiarity with elder law matters that makes an attorney a CELA. Those who are certified must be able to anticipate issues that arise and are of special concern to senior citizens.
A CELA must also be able to recognize potential problems that affect older persons or those with special needs, such as:
- Abuse and neglect
- Long-term care and housing
In addition, the CELA should be familiar with professional and non-legal resources and services that can meet the needs of senior citizens and those with special needs.
The overall objective of the certification requirements is that attorneys will conduct themselves in a professional manner and adhere to the highest ethical standards.
Contact a Southern Massachusetts Certified Elder Law Attorney Today
At Surprenant & Beneski, P.C., we understand the unique challenges that come with elder law clients. In fact, our lead partners are two of only 24 practicing CELA lawyers in Massachusetts. Senior citizens deserve attorneys who will represent their interests with knowledge, dedication, and compassion. Give us a call today to speak with one of our CELAs, and put our experience and expertise to the test.