Changes In The Requirements For Certification As An Elder Law Attorney Reflect The Growing Importance Of Special Needs Planning

The National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) is an organization established in 1993, primarily by members of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, known as NAELA. NELF assists the public in identifying attorneys qualified to practice the legal specialty of elder law by providing the only national certification in the field of elder law approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). A national certification program in elder law is important for two reasons: first, the legal and ethical issues of older clients require significant expertise in a number of legal areas; and, second, many of the legal issues of older adults involve federal law and professional ethics.

Elder law is an exciting and evolving calling for lawyers moved to promote the goals of autonomy, dignity, and quality of life for aging members of society. As a result of the continuing evolution in the practice of elder law, NELF recently revised the requirements for attaining certification in the field of elder law, and in January of this year the ABA approved the rules changes.  The new requirements place more emphasis on the areas of special needs planning and special needs trusts for the disabled population. The changes reflect the growing importance of disability planning in the practice of elder law.

Under the new rules, an attorney seeking to become a Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA) must demonstrate expertise in the following areas of law:

  1. Health and Personal Care Planning, including giving advice regarding, and preparing, advance medical directives (medical powers of attorney, living wills, and health care declarations) and counseling older persons, individuals with supplemental/special needs, attorneys-in-fact, and families about life care, medical and life-sustaining choices, and related personal life choices.
  2. Pre-Mortem Legal Planning, including giving advice and preparing documents regarding wills, trusts, durable general or financial powers of attorney, real estate, gifting, and the financial and income, estate and gift tax implications of any proposed action.
  3. Fiduciary Representation, including seeking the appointment of, giving advice to, representing, or serving as executor, personal representative, attorney-in-fact, trustee, guardian, conservator, representative payee, or other formal or informal fiduciary.
  4. Legal Capacity Counseling, including advising how capacity is determined and the level of capacity required for various legal activities, and representing those who are or may be the subject of guardianship/conservatorship proceedings or other protective arrangements.
  5. Public Benefits Advice, including planning for and assisting in obtaining Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security benefits, Supplemental Security Income, Veterans benefits and housing and food programs.
  6. Special Needs Counseling, including the planning, drafting and administration of special/supplemental needs trusts, housing, employment, education and related issues.
  7. Advice on Insurance Matters, including analyzing and explaining the types of insurance available, such as health, life, long term care, home care, COBRA, medigap, long term disability, dread disease, prescription coverage, and burial/funeral policies.
  8. Resident Rights Advocacy, including advising patients and residents of hospitals, nursing facilities, continuing care retirement communities, assisted living facilities, adult care facilities, and those cared for in their homes of their rights and appropriate remedies in matters such as admission, transfer and discharge policies, quality of care, and related issues.
  9. Housing Counseling, including reviewing the alternatives available and their financing such as: renovation loan programs, life care contracts, home equity conversion, reverse and other mortgage options.
  10. Employment and Retirement Advice, including pensions, retiree health benefits, unemployment benefits, and other benefits.
  11. Counseling with regard to age and/or disability discrimination in employment, housing and related areas.
  12. Litigation and Administrative Advocacy in connection with any of the above matters, including will contests, contested capacity issues, elder abuse (including financial or consumer fraud), fiduciary administration, public benefits, nursing home torts, and discrimination.

Of the roughly 70,000 lawyers in New Jersey, only 45 have attained the status of CELA. These attorneys have invested the substantial time, energy and financial resources to develop the special knowledge and skills to meet the unique legal needs of people age 50 and older. Donald D. Vanarelli, Esq. has been a CELA since 1998.

The new requirements for certification as an elder law attorney can be found on the NELF website, at

For further information on the significance of attorney certification in the legal specialty of elder law, see the Certified Elder Law Attorney page on the Law Office of Donald D. Vanarelli website.