Why Do You Need a Certified Elder Law Attorney?

What is Elder Law?

Elder Law is broad legal practice area involving the problems of older and disabled persons. Elder Law includes counseling and dispute resolution in a variety of areas including health and long-term care planning, identifying and accessing sources of financing for long-term medical care, nursing home issues, qualifying for Medicare, Medicaid and other public benefits, legal capacity, surrogate decision-making, estate planning and administration, including tax consequences, trust creation and administration, probate, retirement benefit disputes, estate and probate litigation, contested guardianships and elder mediation services.

In addition, an Elder Law attorney must be capable of recognizing issues that arise in abuse, neglect, or exploitation claims, insurance issues, housing rights disputes, and employment matters. An Elder Law attorney must also be familiar with community resources and services publicly and privately available to meet the needs of older and special needs clients, and be capable of recognizing the ethical issues that arise during representation.

Elder Law is the only area of law defined by the elderly and disabled clients served rather than the areas of law in which the attorney practices.

Why Do You Need a Certified Elder Law Attorney?

How can a consumer know whether an attorney has deep expertise in elder law and special needs planning, or if the lawyer is a newcomer to the field? Consumers can rely on the Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA) certification.

The Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA) certification has frequently been referred to as “the gold standard” for elder law and special needs practitioners. This reflects the hard work and experience required before an attorney attains the valued designation.

Preparation for a CELA designation includes several steps and several different types of qualification, all of which are designed to assure that clients receive good legal care. Before being certified, an applicant must:

  1. Have practiced law for at least five years, and have focused at least half of their practice in the special needs/elder law field for at least the last three of those years.
  2. Demonstrate “substantial involvement” in special needs and elder law practice, by demonstrating a minimum number of individual cases, spread across a number of different categories making up the “elder law” definition.
  3. Study for, take and pass a rigorous, day-long written examination. Recent pass rates have been below 50% — and that is of applicants who have already met the experience requirements.
  4. Undergo a review by peers and colleagues, focused on the applicant’s reputation for ethical and competent representation in elder law and special needs planning matters.

There are fewer than 500 CELAs in the country, so not every community has even one person who has been certified. Your lawyer should be a CELA — it is your surest method of independently confirming that she (or he) has deep expertise in the areas of elder law and special needs planning, demonstrated through specialized knowledge and experience.

Elder Law has been formally recognized as a legal specialty by New Jersey’s Supreme Court through the American Bar Association’s accreditation of legal specialties program. Only about 50 attorneys in New Jersey have attained the level of expertise required to be board-certified as Elder Law attorneys.

The National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) is the only national organization certifying practitioners of Elder and Special Needs Law. NELF is a non-profit organization, dedicated to the development and improvement of the professional competence of lawyers in the areas of Elder Law and Special Needs Law. The American Bar Association approved NELF as the certifying organization for specialization in Elder Law and Special Needs Planning in February 1995.

(Donald D. Vanarelli, Esq. has been board-certified as an Elder Law attorney since 1998.) 

For additional information concerning NJ elder law and special needs planning visit:

NJ Elder Law and Estate Planning Services