As the population ages and people live longer, an emerging field of law finds some attorneys going beyond estate planning to take a more holistic approach.
Attorney Joan Nelson moved to New Port Richey to be closer to her widowed mother. After a short while, she realized there was a need for legal help for the elderly.
April Hill was a social worker in nursing homes in St. Petersburg who wanted to do more to help the aging.
Laurie Ohall was a Tampa attorney that grew tired of working for a law firm and defending insurance companies.
The answer for all three women was going into elder law, a growing branch of legal work that has evolved from estate planning to helping families with a host of legal, financial and health-related concerns.
Hill left social work and went to law school. Today she practices elder law in St. Petersburg. Ohall is a sole practitioner now in Brandon, also practicing elder law.
In 1993, Hook founded the Hook Law Group in New Port Richey, where she is managing partner and her son David also works as an attorney. After coming out of retirement as a middle school teacher, Hook wanted to do something that used her teaching skills. That ended up being elder law.
“Solving problems appealed more to me than confronting them as a litigator,” Hook says.
The Hooks originally lived in Maryland, in the Washingon, D.C. suburbs before moving to the U.S. Virgin Islands where they were involved in the building industry.
Joan Nelson Hook retired, but later decided to attend Widener Law School in Delaware. After Hurricane Hugo decimated the Virgin Islands, her son David Hook came back to Rockville, Md. to sell imported cars.
After tours of duty in Bosnia and Germany with the U.S. Army as a helicopter mechanic, David Hook joined his mom's law office in the summer of 2000 as a legal assistant. After two years, he went to law school at St. Thomas University in Miami, finishing an accelerated program in 2005.
While at St. Thomas, he focused on elder law. He came back to New Port Richey to practice law with his mother and is co-chairman this year of the Florida Elder Law Conference April 10 in Tampa, at the Tampa Airport Marriot.
“My mom realized how much assistance the elderly needed,” David Hook says. “There was a lack of information about resources, probate, trust and Medicaid planning.”
An evolving niche
Traditional estate planning for the elderly, a way to guard and disperse assets and achieve tax advantages, goes back to the 1960s. Back then, Americans were dying in their early 70s.
Today, adults are living much longer. The impact of that has meant elder law attorneys have broadened their services, offering financial planning, help with finding housing and health care.
“Today, people do not want to be a burden on their kids,” David Hook says.
The beginning of life care planning starts with figuring out life expectancy and the quality of life expected. The quality of life of someone with Alzheimer's Disease is not the same as people with cancer.
Other professionals get involved with elder law attorneys, such as social workers, who know assistance programs, and financial planners.
The Hook Law Group has a licensed social worker on its staff, Sandra Howard, who was formerly an administrator at an assisted living facility.
Typically elder law attorneys are dealing with a spouse or a family member of an elderly person who is in some kind of crisis.
What are the needs of the well spouse? Will they need assistance in the home? How is the couple going to pay for this? What public benefits are available? VA beneifts? Medicaid? These are the kinds of questions the elder law attorney works to answer.
The Hook Law Group averages about four clients a week in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.
Many elder law attorneys see this niche as a growing segment of the profession because of the aging U.S. population.
“It is almost the perfect storm,” David Hook says. “There are ever-changing government benefits. As the population gets older, there's a need for more and more assistance, and you have more and more emphasis by some groups to cut back on public assistance. Where do they expect this population to go? The financial problems can become quite complex.”
Many U.S. companies no longer offer pensions. Meanwhile, the federal government is thinking of cutting aid programs for the elderly. Elder law clients want two things: Financially, they don't want to be dependent on their children. And they don't want to live with their kids.
How are they going to do it? That's where the elder law attorney and his staff come in. The client needs competent health care and custodial care, such as meals and house cleaning.
“We try to bring all these pieces together,” David Hook says. “Mrs. Smith needs at-home care. She needs $2,000. Where does she get an extra $800 a month? Financial advisors step in and can take a little from here and there. But some can't afford it.”
The goals for elder law attorneys include increasing the quality of life for clients and stabilizing their lives. Elder law attorneys earn referral business. If they do a good job, word of mouth brings in referrals from people and nursing homes. The Hook Law Group also does elder law presentations in the community. Business is growing. It takes people about two to three weeks to get in to see the Hooks. David Hook is thinking of opening another office, someone east of New Port Richey.
“We are thinking about it,” Hook says. “But it's preliminary.”
Has the holistic approach approach to elder law affected Tampa attorney Laurie Ohall? “Absolutely,” she says.
Ohall works with geriatric care managers to help pick the best nursing home for clients and help them look at their Medicare benefits.
“A lot of times, clients are in crisis mode, in the hospital and facing a nursing home stay,” Ohall says. “They need hand-holding, more than just documents.”
Often the contact elder law attorneys have is through the children of the client in crisis. However, they can't get to the bank accounts of their parents without guardian status and power of attorney.
Without that status, the parents' assets go through probate proceedings, which are often drawn out six months to one year, and the family often gets less money.
Ohall has been practicing elder law for about eight years. Prior to that she was working for a big law firm doing insurance defense in Tampa.
“I didn't like the feeling that I wasn't helping anyone except insurance companies,” she says. “I definitely love what I do. People thank me, hug me.”
Teacher turned attorney
Joan Nelson Hook taught math and science in the Montgomery County, Maryland school system. She then worked two years for the Department of Education in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
After going to law school in Delaware, she wanted to continue to use some of her teaching skills such as planning, anticipating, time management, listening and taking complex issues and breaking them down into digestable pieces. Elder law allows her to do that.
Besides working with older clients or their children, Hook sometimes helps developmentally disabled adults who are children of elderly parents. In those cases, elderly parents may not be able to care for them. There are not a lot of public services available to help.
“In some of these situations, we can't help them,” Hook says. “It's heartbreaking. We have to realize our limitations.”
Because some Florida residents are snow birds, elder law attorneys team up with a client's other attorney in his home state. “We do see liaisons between northern firms and Florida firms,” Hook says.
Social worker attorney
After working as a nursing home social worker, Hill went to law school at Stetson University full time.
“Some people thought I was crazy,” Hill says. “It was the best move I ever made.
After working in probate, Hill struck out on her own and has been practicing elder law for 11 years. She likes to use the term “lifecare planning” when describing her work with clients. Hill is in the process of hiring another social worker and trains her staff on elder law issues so employees can do multiple tasks.
She even brought a copy of Runners World magazine to the office which had a story on an 85-year-old woman doing marathons.
“I wanted them to know that not every elderly person is declining,” Hill says. “We want to help enhance the quality of life of people at every stage of the game.”
The overall goal is to help the family, not just the elderly person in crisis.
“The elderly person is the primary goal,” Hill says. “But if the family can find a facility that meets their needs, so they can visit the parent, that can reduce the stress to that family.”
Tact and diplomacy come in handy in elder law.
“When someone is declining, we say, 'You may not have questions now, but we're here for you when the next crisis hits,'” Hill says. “They appreciate that.”