A good elder law attorney will be your family’s trusted adviser in the areas of estate planning and long-term care.

These days, having your “affairs in order” when it comes to estate planning means more than signing a simple will. And protecting your home and life savings from the rising costs of long-term care calls for more sophistication than signing everything away and hoping for the best.

Families in need of an elder law attorney want to get their affairs in order the right way. Those families want an estate plan designed to keep the next generation out of probate court and safe from disagreements that arise from a lack of clarity and direction. They want an attorney who can describe to them, in plain English, the difference between a will and a trust, who will help them decide which is right for them, and who will ask all the right questions to create documents that meet their goals no matter what contingencies arise.

They want an attorney who can point out the differences between a quitclaim deed, a life estate deed and a beneficiary deed and, more importantly, who will help them avoid major pitfalls that can come from using the wrong one. They want an attorney who can prepare thorough and thoughtful power of attorney and health care documents — documents that will work when they are needed — to ease the stress that can accompany future disability caused by age, illness or accident.

Families in need of a good elder law attorney want to make wise decisions when it comes to taxes, too. These days, the tax conversation in estate planning centers less on federal estate taxes and more on capital gains taxes, real estate taxes and taxes associated with retirement accounts.

Poor planning, especially with real estate, can result in unnecessary capital gains taxes down the road. It can also bring unpleasant surprises when the real estate tax bill comes due each year. Tax rules regarding retirement accounts grow more confusing with each new administration.

A good elder law attorney can help navigate through issues like these to ensure you and those down the line pay no more in taxes than necessary.

Families in need of a good elder law attorney want to ensure they don’t lose everything they have worked for all their lives just because they need expensive care in their later years. More long-term care options exist today than ever before, from home care options, to assisted living facilities, to memory care, to nursing homes. But good care is expensive, and without proper planning it can quickly wipe out an estate.

A good elder law attorney will guide a family through the maze of rules that apply to long-term care benefits and protect income and assets to the maximum extent allowed by law. What’s more, a good elder law attorney will realize the extent to which basic estate planning and tax planning decisions intertwine with long-term care planning so that steps taken in response to one set of problems don’t cause trouble in other areas.

What to Look For

Once a family realizes how essential it is to have an elder law attorney as a trusted adviser in these areas, the question turns to how to find one.

Part of the answer is assumed by the language of the question. A good elder law attorney will be an attorney, not an online document preparation service or a well-meaning neighbor who has been through this with an in-law.

When it comes to estate planning and long-term care, "pretty sure" is not enough. There is too much at stake to take shortcuts that require you to do all the homework yourself.

A good elder law attorney will not be a general practice attorney who does a little bit of everything. This field is a specialty, not something to dabble in. You should not hire an elder law attorney to handle a divorce or a bankruptcy, and you should not count on your divorce attorney or your bankruptcy lawyer to be your trusted adviser on elder law issues.

Do your homework. Make sure the attorney you plan to see really focuses his or her practice on the area of elder law and doesn’t just include it in a long list of practice areas because it’s a buzzword.

Ensure he or she has actual experience, credentials and a reputation that give you confidence in his or her guidance. Pause to think about who might have referred you to that attorney. Was it someone who used that firm in the past and had a good experience, or did the referral come from someone whose interests may not align with yours?

A good elder law attorney will certainly have a top-notch staff to help get the job done, but that should not mean that you never actually meet with the elder law attorney you retain. A good elder law attorney will want to meet you, to hear your goals and concerns and to take the lead in developing a plan that sits perfectly at the intersection of estate planning, tax considerations and long-term care.

A good elder law attorney will care as much about you, your family, and your legacy as you do and will have the knowledge and experience to protect them.

Sponsored by Oldham Law Firm PLLC, The Elrod FirmRoss & Shoalmire PLLC and RMP Attorneys at Law LLP.