New Practices: What a Life Care Planning Law Firm Can Do for You

When most folks hear the words “elder law,” they envision a practice centered around estate planning:  wills, asset protection, public benefits applications, and other complicated paperwork.  Traditionally elder law practices have focused almost exclusively on the material aspects of aging – that is, establishing end-of-life documents and preserving the elder’s assets so that they can be passed down to the next generation.  But beginning in the 1990s, a new approach to elder law began developing right here in Tennessee, where elder law attorney Timothy L. Takacs conceived of another way to provide legal services for the elderly.  Rather than attending to a narrow range of financial and legal matters, this new type of elder law practice would approach elder care from all angles, providing a holistic care plan called a Life Care Plan.  This plan would include legal, financial, and health care planning services to maximize quality of life and peace of mind for the elder and his or her loved ones.

In this edition of Elder Counselor we will discuss the ins and outs of Life Care Planning:  what it is, how to know if you need it, and what a law firm that offers Life Care Planning can do for you.

What is a Life Care Plan?

A Life Care Plan combines traditional legal services and geriatric care management to create a roadmap for the future so that the older adult and his or her loved ones can enjoy financial security, the highest possible quality of life, and peace of mind.  Each Life Care Plan is different because it is tailored to address the unique needs and wishes of a specific individual.

Life Care Planning begins with an assessment to evaluate the elder’s functional ability, living situation, cost of care, and available resources.  Then the elder law attorney works with a care coordinator, often a professional social worker or geriatric care manager, to determine the best course of action.  Together they develop a plan to find, get, and pay for care both immediately and in the long-term future while also preserving the client’s assets.  This includes traditional estate planning and public benefits applications, but it goes much farther than that.

Unlike traditional estate planning, a Life Care Plan is an ongoing relationship between the elder client and the law firm.  After the Life Care Plan has been established, the care coordinator works closely with the client and his or her family to ensure that every step of the plan goes smoothly and the elder gets all the services and benefits available to him or her.  This means that the care coordinator fills a number of different roles depending on the elder’s situation.  He or she may advocate for the elder; help the elder find placement in an assisted living facility or nursing home; find less expensive channels for filling prescriptions; help with public benefits applications, assessments, and appeals; locate home and community-based services that allow the elder to remain at home; recommend safety measures in the home; or perform any number of other tasks that ensure the elder’s well-being and the family’s peace of mind.  The care coordinator continues to monitor the elder’s physical, emotional, and financial needs and adjusts the plan as necessary to adapt to new circumstances.

How do I know if I need a Life Care Plan?

Broadly speaking, if you are uncertain about how to manage care and finances for yourself or your loved one in the future, chances are you could benefit from a Life Care Plan.  Many people don’t know about Life Care Planning or are skeptical about its benefits, and they wait until a medical or financial crisis situation to seek help from a Life Care Planning law firm.  While a Life Care Plan is excellent for addressing crisis situations, it is usually more effective for the elder and his or her family to establish a plan before a crisis occurs.  By establishing a Life Care Plan you may postpone or even completely avoid crises while protecting assets, thereby preserving your family’s general well-being and peace of mind.

What can a Life Care Planning law firm do that a traditional elder law practice can’t?

Compared to traditional elder law practice, law firms which provide Life Care Planning services are better prepared to address a wide range of issues associated with aging.  Clients enjoy the familiarity of a long-term relationship with their attorney as well as the benefits of having a professional care coordinator on call to help them through difficult situations.  In an interview in the spring 2012 edition of Inside GCM, a publication by the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers, elder law attorney Amelia Crotwell describes the benefits of having a care coordinator on staff.  Without one, she says, “I would be confined to a traditional law practice selling commodities – that is, selling a last will or a power of  attorney or a deed or representation in a court case.”  With a care coordinator, however, she can offer a much wider range of services:  “We do Life Care Planning, we offer care coordination alone, we offer…monitoring for clients who have no family nearby to provide that oversight, we offer placement assistance, we provide advocacy in the hospital, nursing home, assisted living, or with care providers in the home.”

It is important to note that law firms which offer Life Care Planning offer extra benefits for all their clients, not just clients who need Life Care Plans.  Traditional elder law attorneys may be approached by elders and their families with a number of questions about care issues which the attorney has neither the experience nor the professional qualification to address.  Furthermore, there may be aspects of long-term legal and financial planning which are influenced by care decisions the elder needs to make.  Having a professional care coordinator on hand who is well-versed in geriatric care needs enables the attorney to provide better services for his or her clients, even if those clients only come to the attorney for traditional estate or asset protection plans.  A law firm which offers Life Care Planning is simply better-equipped to address the full range of all clients’ needs because the approach is holistic and the knowledge base is broad.

If you are beginning to think about how to handle financial, legal, or care challenges now or in the future, it is a great time to schedule a consultation with a Life Care Planning law firm and listen to their suggestions for addressing your or your loved one’s needs.  You can get started by visiting the Life Care Planning Law Firms Association website and searching for a law firm near you.  You can also find more information about Life Care Planning through their Family Resource Center.  Of course, if you live in East Tennessee, we also hope you will get in touch with us at Elder Law of East Tennessee.  We will be happy to answer your questions about Life Care Planning and help you determine what services may be beneficial for your family.