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Embracing elder law

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When Jennifer VanderVeen went to her first conference of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys about 10 years ago, things looked a lot different than they do now.

“There were maybe three or four of us younger attorneys under 40,” said VanderVeen, 37, an attorney at Williams Barrett & Wilkowski in Greenwood who recently was appointed to NAELA’s board of directors. “There’s been a real explosion in younger attorneys in this area of law.”

linda-whitton-and-amy-nowaczyk.jpg----credit-valpo-law-15col.jpg Valparaiso University Law School professor Linda Whitton, left, talks with Amy Nowaczyk, who graduated in May and is pursuing a career as an elder law attorney. (Photo courtesy Valparaiso University Law School)

VanderVeen, who also chairs the elder law section of the Indiana State Bar Association, said those early meetings among more experienced lawyers felt intimidating at first. “But once you start talking to people and get involved, it’s a very open group, it’s very easy to be a part of, and you just fit right in,” she said. “It’s the most sharing and helpful group of lawyers you’re going to find.”

Reasons for the increase in young elder law practitioners vary. The aging boomer population and the anticipation of their growing need for legal service may be a factor, but most younger attorneys say they chose the career because they followed their hearts.

“We genuinely love what we do,” said Connie Bauswell, 40, a private practice attorney with offices in Valparaiso and Schererville who in May received a master’s degree in elder law from Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla. Bauswell thinks she might be the first Hoosier to earn the emerging degree offered by five or fewer law schools.

“Law schools are paying more and more attention to elder law,” Bauswell said. “I think the focus over time will be less about tax planning and more about planning for the best quality of life and getting the best quality of care (people) can get than about dividing up the assets.”

The development of these law school programs has motivated a number of younger lawyers to become elder law practitioners, said David McGuffey, a Georgia attorney who chairs NAELA’s Young/New Lawyers section. McGuffey said the section has grown to 353 members since it was established four years ago.

“We have seen a remarkable change in the demographics,” said McGuffey, who joined the organization as a young attorney. “The median age seems to have dropped.”

Linda Whitton is the Michael and Dianne Swygert Research Fellow and professor at Valparaiso University Law School. Whitton has taught elder law at Valpo for about 20 years and is co-author of the book “Everyday Law for Seniors.”

It’s clear from demand to get into her course that more students are considering a career in elder law.

“We have to cap it at 50, and we usually have 80 students a year who want to get into the class,” Whitton said. “There is a growing interest and certainly my law school has given it preeminence as subject matter in these times.”

Indiana University Maurer School of Law also offers courses concentrating in elder law, as does Notre Dame Law School. The IU McKinney School of Law has no concentration course in elder law, according to a spokesperson. Maurer and Notre Dame personnel who could speak about the extent of their schools’ programs or classes could not be reached for comment prior to Indiana Lawyer deadline.

Whitton said her students receive hands-on experience. They go into the field to interview service providers and learn about skilled nursing, agencies and programs that can offer assistance to potential clients, among other things.

As part of the class final project, Whitton creates mock fact scenarios to challenge students to represent the legal needs of a hypothetical client.

“I use elder law as really a template for teaching holistic client representation,” Whitton said. “Your client isn’t a legal problem; your client is a person who lives in the context of a family situation, usually, and a community. You’re talking about a person’s life here.”

At 35, Amy Nowaczyk is a nontraditional student who took Whitton’s specialized course. Nowaczyk graduated from Valpo law in the spring and is preparing to take the bar exam this summer.

A mother of three who also holds a master’s degree in psychology, Nowaczyk became interested in a career in elder law after helping as a paralegal at the private practice of her stepfather, John M. O’Drobinak, in Crown Point. Nowaczyk hopes to broaden the scope of the practice to comprehensive elder law at the firm where she said O’Drobinak has been concentrating in estate planning for 50 years.

“I used to think the law was boring,” she said. “To me, it was just rules and statutes and very dry.” Her perspective changed after she began working with her stepfather and saw connections between law and psychology. Her experience persuaded her to become an elder law attorney.

Clients, she said, “had such a feeling of worry when they came in. They were scared to talk about death and what happens when they pass on. When I would meet with the clients and do signings, 90 percent of the clients when they left would give me a hug and say, ‘thank you.’ I could tell they felt at ease once we finished the process.”

Elder law practitioners say they draw not just on client-relation skills but also a variety of intersecting practices such as estate and probate law, family law and administrative law.

The work may include matters such as simple wills or complex estate planning; crisis situations such as petitioning for guardianship of a wandering relative; or navigating the complexities of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and VA benefits.

“You have to be patient with the system and with your client,” VanderVeen said. “What I can do in an initial meeting for an estate plan for a 40-year-old couple may take me an hour and a half with an 80-year-old.”

The issues facing elder law attorneys have evolved since Whitton taught her first course in 1992. Among the changes is a greater emphasis on arranging for seniors to continue to live at home.

“The climate really is changing because boomers are becoming seniors,” she said. “And boomers have elderly parents they are having to help navigate the issues of where to live and health care and that sort of thing.” Boomers who’ve navigated the process are likelier to be proactive in planning for their own needs, she added.

Whitton remains troubled by what hasn’t changed, such as the widespread mistaken belief that a senior must sell his or her home in order to qualify for Medicaid benefits.

“I really couldn’t tell you where that comes from,” she said in frustration. “That’s a huge misconception.”•


 

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  1. Applause, applause, applause ..... but, is this duty to serve the constitutional order not much more incumbent upon the State, whose only aim is to be pure and unadulterated justice, than defense counsel, who is also charged with gaining a result for a client? I agree both are responsible, but it seems to me that the government attorneys bear a burden much heavier than defense counsel .... "“I note, much as we did in Mechling v. State, 16 N.E.3d 1015 (Ind. Ct. App. 2014), trans. denied, that the attorneys representing the State and the defendant are both officers of the court and have a responsibility to correct any obvious errors at the time they are committed."

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  3. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  4. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

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