What’s the Difference Between a Certified Elder Law Attorney and a Non-Certified Attorney?

Certified Elder Law Attorney badgeWhen you hire a Medicaid planning attorney, you are probably looking for someone with lots of experience, a stellar reputation, and many satisfied clients. However, there is another element that most people who are seeking highly experienced Medicaid planning lawyers, elder care attorneys, or estate planning attorneys do not always think of when they are doing their research. This aspect, which can be the key to finding the most experienced and knowledgeable specialists in the elder law field, is finding an attorney who has a designation referred to as CELA, which stands for “Certified Elder Law Attorney.” Any attorney who has passed a state bar exam can call themselves an “elder law attorney.” But only an attorney who has gone through the rigorous standards and testing to become a Certified Elder Law Attorney can call themselves a CELA.

Currently, there are about 525 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the United States, according to the National Elder Law Foundation, which is the foundation/board that created and manages this certification and continuing education program for attorneys. The National Elder Law Foundation is the only national organization accredited by the American Bar Association to certify practitioners of Elder Law and Special Needs Law. In fact, the CELA designation was the very first legal specialization to ever be recognized by the American Bar Association. The CELA designation represents confirmation of a lawyer’s exceptional expertise and experience in the practice of elder law and special needs planning. Again, any licensed attorney can call themselves an “elder law attorney” but only someone who has met the rigorous qualifications and passed the full-day comprehensive supplemental bar exam to become a Certified Elder Law Attorney can call themselves a CELA.

The reason there are so few elder law attorneys that possess this important CELA designation is that it’s extremely difficult to obtain, in part because Medicaid is the most complex area of law in the United States. Click here to read about the incredible complexity of Medicaid.

Becoming a Certified Elder Law Attorney is a grueling experience. It requires at least 5 years of work and commitment dedicated to 12 sub areas in the field of elder law, board review, a rigorous full-day exam that has a very low pass rate, and specialized continuing education and peer reviews from other certified elder law attorneys every five years.

Why the Medicaid Planning Attorney You Select Should Be a Certified Elder Law Attorney

When an elder care attorney possesses the CELA certification, it is evident that he or she has the highest qualifications, knowledge, expertise, and skills in the practice of elder law and special needs law. The CELA designation is “the gold standard” for elder law attorneys and special needs practitioners for this reason. Medicaid planning lawyers, estate planning lawyers, and special needs planning attorneys with the CELA designation provide exceptionally reliable and effective representation. In addition, NELF insists that CELAs maintain the highest ethical integrity and engage in much more legal education than a non-certified elder law attorney to continue to qualify for recertification. If you are searching for an estate planning attorney in Fredericksburg, an elder law attorney in Fairfax, an elder care lawyer in Maryland, or a DC special needs planning attorney, you can count on a CELA for the highest standards of practice and integrity.

What if an Elder Care Attorney Is Not a Certified Elder Law Attorney?

Most attorneys who indicate they are elder law attorneys or estate planning attorneys do not have the CELA designation. This does not necessarily mean they are not good or experienced in their practices in the elder law or estate planning field. It may just mean that they did not go through the rigors needed to qualify as a Certified Elder Law Attorney.

As mentioned, elder law attorneys who obtain the CELA designation are truly specialists in their field. Some attorneys claim to practice in several areas of law, and they include elder law and estate planning as part of their practice. CELAs focus solely on being Medicaid planning attorneys, estate planning attorneys, elder law attorneys, special needs lawyers, elder care attorneys, and areas in these and related areas of practice only.

When you look for someone to handle important details in your life, you naturally look for the very best. If you or someone you know needs specialized medical care, you will of course seek out the best medical specialist in the field that you can find.

You’re not going to go to a general surgeon to have specialized brain surgery, or to a general dentist to have specialized dental surgery. Likewise, if you are seeking specialized legal services, you will of course seek out someone who is specialized in the exact legal area that you need assistance with. A CELA is the most qualified and specialized elder law attorney you can find, and someone you can completely trust as your elder law attorney or estate planning attorney.

How Does Someone Become an Attorney?

To become an attorney, you must first graduate college with a four-year undergraduate degree, then typically attend three years of law school (although some states, including Virginia, allow attorneys to “read” for the law instead of attending law school), and then pass at least one state bar exam.

How Does One Become a Certified Elder Law Attorney?

The preparation to become a Certified Elder Law Attorney ensures that clients receive the highest quality legal care from the practitioner. To become eligible for CELA certification, an applicant must:

  • first become an attorney by going through four years of college and three years of law school and passing at least one state bar exam;
  • practice law for at least five years;
  • focus at least half of their practice as a special needs/elder law attorney;
  • be substantially involved in special needs and elder law practice, by demonstrating a minimum number of individual cases in 12 different elder law categories (the applicant must submit a short form application and a long form application; the long form application contains the information regarding the background on at least 60 elder law matters handled during the prior five years).
  • Complete at least 45 hours of continuing legal education in elder law during the three years preceding the application.
  • Pass a rigorous, day-long written examination which has a very low pass rate, and that is of applicants who have already met the experience requirements.
    • Much of the exam is an essay which describes real life situations and asks the attorney how to handle the matter.
    • A panel of Certified Elder Law Attorneys judge both the exam and the essays.
  • Pass a review focused on the applicant’s reputation for ethical and competent representation in elder law and special needs planning. Peers and colleagues conduct the review. They too must satisfy the stringent requirements in the area of elder law practice. The applicant must submit names of five referring attorneys (all CELAs) familiar with the applicant’s competence and qualifications in elder law, and must renew certification every five years, showing another 60 elder law matters or cases within the three years prior.

You Deserve the Best Legal Representation Available

According to NELF, “(y)our lawyer should be a CELA — it is your surest method of independently confirming that they are more than just competent; they are specialists.” Evan Farr is currently one of only eight elder law attorneys in the Northern Virginia and the DC Metro area that holds both the CELA and CAP credentials (CAP is a certification that stands for Council of Advanced Practitioners. It is an invitation-only council founded by NAELA for Advanced Practitioners.)

So, before moving forward with an elder law attorney, ask about his or her credentials and training, or look them up online on the NAELA and  websites. Keep in mind that a CELA (and CAP) certification is confirmation that your lawyer is “more than just qualified” and that you are getting “the best legal representation available.” (source: The National Elder Law Foundation).

You Can Trust Evan Farr as Your Elder Law Attorney

Evan H. Farr, CELA, CAP is a Certified Elder Law Attorney, member of the NAELA Council of Advanced Practitioners, 4-time best-selling author, and creator of the Living Trust Plus®. He is one of the top Elder Law Attorneys in Virginia, one of the top Elder Care Lawyers in Maryland, one of the top Estate Planning Attorneys in Washington, DC and one of the foremost legal authorities in the Country in the field of Medicaid Asset Protection and related Trusts. The Farr Law Firm helps protect seniors and their families by preserving dignity, quality of life, and financial security. If you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning or Incapacity Planning (or had your planning documents reviewed in the past several years), or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, call the Farr Law Firm to make an appointment for a consultation.

Northern Virginia Medicaid Planning Attorney: 703-691-1888
Elder Care Attorney Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Estate Planning Attorney Maryland: 301-519-8041
Estate Planning Attorney Near Me (in DC): 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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