The Life Transition Blog

Interview: Elder Law Attorney Steve Kotler

I am very excited to introduce a new feature of the Life Transition Blog, interviews with leaders in fields serving those in transition. My hope is to help you get a better understanding of the many professions that are at your service and will help you feel less overwhelmed. If you know of a profession and/or professional you’d like to see interviewed for this feature, please be sure to be in touch.
Steve Kotler is an attorney who is Board Certified in Wills, Trusts and Estates with an additional practice concentration in Elder Law. He has a background in taxation as well. Steve practices in Naples, FL.

What is Elder Law? Who usually hires you?

 Elder Law is a big “catch-all.” Elder Law is the only legal specialty defined by the client we serve rather than an area of law. While not all of the clients are elderly, a typical unifying characteristic is that they all need some advice related to public benefits because they don’t have the means to pay for their own care. For example, some clients are disabled and have special needs, even though they may not be elderly. While I always encourage clients to pre-plan, the fact is that very often I am engaged when the situation has escalated and become a crisis.

At the core of the practice of Elder Law is planning and navigating public benefits such as Medicaid, Social Security disability, and Veteran’s benefits. In addition, elder law involves a lot of tax and asset protection issues because we often have to look at the pros and cons of moving assets around and the resulting implications related to income tax and gift tax.

In addition to dealing with the public benefits and resulting tax issues, many elder lawyers take on matters related to long term care planning, nursing home care, housing options, financial and health care decision making, etc. In addition, many lawyers concentrating in the field of elder law handle probates, estates, special needs trusts, incapacity issues, guardianship along with exploitation and abuse. However, very few elder lawyers handle ALL of these matters within their own practice and it is not unusual for them to refer certain situations to a colleague.

The client is almost always the elderly or disabled person, but in my practice, I am actually retained about equally by the older adult/disabled person or a family member.

How did you get into this field? What is your story?

About twenty years ago I had a client who was the adult child, in his 50s. His Mom needed nursing home care and the family wasn’t sure where to turn. In order to help them, I had to dig in and learn more about the questions at hand and that was the beginning for me. I found that elder law was “code based” with defined rules, much like the areas of taxation and trust/estates where I was practicing at that time. It was a natural for me to extend my practice into the field of elder law and I found that I enjoyed it.

What training, education and/or experience is required or helpful to do what you do?

Since Elder Law is such a broad area, it is important to seek an attorney who is educated and current on the nuances of the field. A referral is the best way to find an elder lawyer because not all of the good ones are specially certified since we often have other, related certifications.

How can a consumer find someone like you?

As mentioned above, a personal referral from a trusted advisor is the best way to identify an elder lawyer. However absent that, consumers can look to the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) at www.naela.org.  Consumers can also visit the National Elder Law Foundation (www.nelf.org) which certifies practitioners. They give the designation of Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA). If the state you are in certifies lawyers in a particular area of practice, starting your search among those certified in elder law by the state also makes sense.

What are the three most important questions to ask before hiring a lawyer for an Elder Law matter?

1.      Look at the attorney’s website but remember who wrote it. Ask how much experience they have with elder law and for how long. You are looking for someone with experience in the field, someone who has done more than one elder law case and didn’t start yesterday. You can look the lawyer up in listings on www.lawyers.com to learn more about how they present their areas of specialization.

2.      Ask what percentage of their personal practice is comprised of elder law matters. Choose an attorney with at least fifty percent concentration in elder law. Ask what other types of law they practice. Ideally, it is a related area, such as estate planning, probate, or guardianship, to name a few.

3.      Ask whether the lawyer is a member of one of the national elder law professional associations such as NAELA. Maintaining membership in this type of organization is expensive and doing so shows commitment to the field.

What are your top tips for working with an attorney specializing in Elder Law?

Be honest and forthcoming with your lawyer. We’re only as good as the information we’re given. Be realistic about what you (or your loved one) can really do and what’s best for them. There are a lot of misconceptions and myths around public benefits, and I find that 90 percent of my time is spent dispelling misinformation. Working with elder law clients is an educational process for the client and their family and it is most helpful when you engage in the process and are willing to learn because you are on the front lines.

Please visit Steve’s website at www.kotlerpl.comSteve recently co-authored, “Don’t Let Your Kids’ Problems Become Your Problems” regarding asset protection for Medicaid eligibility and common pitfalls. You can get a copy of this article by emailing Steve at skotler@kotlerpl.com.
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