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As the elder population in New Jersey grows, so does the number of law practices geared toward the needs of older clients. The rise in the number of lawyers who work with seniors and their families is evident in attendance at elder law seminars across New Jersey. Membership on bar association elder law committees reveals the same trend. And like other elder law attorneys across the country, practitioners in New Jersey are discovering that representing the elderly no longer means simply drafting a will. An everyday divorce can have an unexpected twist when lawyers must confront Social Security penalties on remarriage. Representing the elderly today carries unique challenges that practitioners are not always equipped to handle. “The thing that makes this area of practice grow is [that there are] more and more elderly people every year, and their needs are growing,” said Thomas D. Begley Jr., of Begley Begley & Fendrick in Moorestown, N.J. Begley is past chairman of the elder law section of the New Jersey State Bar Association and presents seminars on elder law. “There’s more litigation involving people not administering trusts correctly and people ripping off elders,” he said. “And up until recently, people haven’t been willing to sue nursing homes. Now, they are being sued pretty frequently with the average judgment over $500,000. Attorneys can move their practice into some of these areas and do very well.” The field’s expansion is also apparent in the growth of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, a professional body of lawyers who work with seniors and their families. Its membership jumped from 30 at its founding in 1988 to more than 3,500 today. In New Jersey, there is anecdotal evidence of the same trend. “I’m seeing more people on the mailing list,” said Cynthia Sharp, an attorney with a solo practice in Haddon Heights, N.J., who also is secretary of the elder law section of the state bar association. “There’s also a larger core group of people that come to the meetings. It’s impressive.” Seats are also filling up at seminars like the one held recently in Atlantic City, N.J., on the “nuts and bolts” — estate planning, competency, insurance matters and age discrimination — of elder law. “Elder law is one of our more popular areas of law as the population ages,” said Michael Weisberg, who manages the seminar department of the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education. For lawyers across the state, the seminars have become among the places to turn for the best advice on how to counsel older clients on significant matters. “I’ve formed some fantastic relationships at these seminars,” said Sharp. “I’ve met so many people that I can pick up the phone and call, and they are ready to help. But I learn more from conversations in the hallways at these seminars than I do from the programs. That’s not to put down the programs. The practitioners who offer them are well-regarded and well-prepared.” NEW ISSUES The key to lawyers’ ability to becoming better prepared to confront elder law issues may lie in increased knowledge and creativity, said Dana Rozansky of the Begley law firm. For example, seniors nowadays are forced to look to retirement centers and nursing homes where there are reports of mental, physical and even sexual abuse of residents. Lawyers like Rozansky are asking, “How does one protect them?” And while a lot of seniors might have safely counted on Social Security, Medicare and a modest pension to carry them through their golden years, Rozansky said, the government’s well may be running dry for the post-World War II baby boomers, who are beginning to approach retirement. More seniors may have to turn to Medicaid, a government program that sometimes can take almost everything they own before extending them coverage, she said. This leaves elder law practitioners asking, “Can the elderly receive adequate health care and stay out of the poorhouse?” Other questions pose varied challenges to attorneys. How does an older person protect his or her assets in the event of mental incapacity? Can active, older people in search of companionship marry late in life and still preserve their estates for their children? These questions and others have fueled the growth of elder law practice, said Rozansky. “It’s hard to keep up with the changes,” said Rozansky, who has written articles in law journals on the topic. “Elder law is going to be as necessary to families as real estate and matrimonial law. It not only affects seniors. It affects entire families. Our practice is so busy we sometimes find ourselves traveling to South and North Jersey and often Pennsylvania.” A NATIONAL COMMITMENT To address the challenges facing elder law attorneys, steps have been taken nationally to provide resources for them. For example, the Judicial Administration Division’s Committee on Elder Law, Legal Rights and Problems of Elderly of the American Bar Association has started to focus a lot of its attention on the courts, which its members say is a pressing concern. The committee holds seminars across the country to educate judges and court administrators on how the courts can physically accommodate many elderly who are intimidated by court — often unable to use stairs to get into the courthouse — or are in nursing homes. The ABA general practice section has also seen a need for education focused on elder law. Not only has the committee continued to offer its widely attended elder law program at the annual meeting. The committee has written a handbook for elder law practitioners. “Helping families fund long-term care is one of the biggest legal problems we face,” said Sharp, who lectures on estate planning. “Nursing homes cost between $6,000 and $7,000 a month. For a middle-class population, that eats away a lifetime of savings.” Sharp’s former client, Laurine McDonald, was in this situation a couple years ago. McDonald, 63, of Cherry Hill, said her husband was sick and dying from prostate cancer and dementia. Nursing-home care became necessary. “We had no will and a joint bank account, and I was unable to care for him,” said McDonald, whose life savings was in jeopardy. “I lost 40 pounds in three months. I just didn’t know what to do.” But a nurse friend referred her to Sharp, who provided McDonald with legal advice on estate planning. “[Sharp] was a Godsend,” McDonald said. “She guided me through the problem so that I could have something to live on.

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