Meeting with an Elder Law Attorney
Guest: Dennis Christenson – Elder Law Attorney
Host: Sally Smith – Author/Resource literature on age-related disease and healthy aging
Sally Smith: Welcome to Age to Age. I’m Sally Smith. Let’s talk. We’re with Dennis Christenson, an elder law attorney, who has been sharing his wisdom with us. Dennis, you have told so many fabulous things about documents and decisions that need to be made by families as they move into caregiving for parents and, also, planning ahead for themselves. I’m fascinated by the fact that there’s a whole genre of lawyers that deal with elder law. Who are most of your clients?
Dennis Christenson: Well, one of the most interesting and difficult questions is, really, who is the client? Many times we’ll have people in their 70s and 80s come in and their spouse has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, or they’ve recently had a stroke, or they’ve fallen, or broken their hip and need to go into a nursing home. So, a lot of times our client is the elderly person who has had some type of medical condition, or incident happen, and they need to get their affairs in order.
Sometimes we have people come in who aren’t sick yet, but they’ve heard about the need to plan and get things prepared, and not wait for an emergency to happen. So, we do a lot of planning for people who are elderly but still in good health. They just want to be prepared. If an emergency comes, they’ve got plans in place. They’ve got the names of individuals, so they don’t end up in the courts. If someone doesn’t plan, they inevitably will go into the courts. And the probate court is going to determine how you’re going to live the rest of your life and who’s going to be in charge of things. Most people want to be in charge. They want to make those decisions. They don’t want a judge to do it. So, that’s why people come to us, as a 65, 75-year-old person.
We also have children come in to see us because they will get a phone call. Mom’s had a stroke, and Dad has died, so now they’re thrust into making all these decisions and taking care of their mother. So, they come in to seek our counsel and assistance in helping to deal with the crisis and put things in order, and make sure that Mom gets the proper care and lives the type of life that she wants. So, that middle group comes in initially for emergencies, or planning for their parents. They may realize, if they’ve listened or done any reading, that the best thing, from their standpoint, is for Mom and Dad to have all their affairs in order, so they don’t have a crisis thrown on them.
Sometimes we have the middle-aged person who has a child. Let’s say that child has an infant that has some type of physical or mental disability. That middle-aged person will want their child to have their affairs in order so that if something happens, that disabled grandchild will be properly taken care of.
So, even though we call it elder law, and we’re dealing with the special problems of the elderly, those same issues present to middle-aged people and to young people. Whenever someone is sick, there are issues about who is going to control their medical condition, and who is going to control their money. The elderly piece of it just happens more frequently, and it’s more immediate. That’s why our typical client probably is anywhere from 60 to 85, or 90. But many times we end up dealing with the children who also have issues that need to be dealt with at the same time.
Sally Smith: So, if I were to decide I wanted these documents and needed to start to plan ahead, I would call you up? What would our first meeting be like? What’s a normal first meeting, is it an hour long, and what do we talk about?
Dennis Christenson: Well, one of the things about an elder law attorney that’s different, I think, than a regular estate planning attorney is that an elder law attorney sees things from a holistic standpoint. We’re looking at all of the person; we’re not just looking at documents. I can’t say other lawyers do it the same way, or even other elder law attorneys do it the same way.
What we do is we’ll have someone come in. The appointment usually takes at least an hour or two, and we just talk. We talk about their family, what health issues we have, the financial issues, what their problems are. We ask them: why are you here? How can we help you? What are your objectives? And, many times, the legal piece is a rather small piece of the pie. Doing a will is sometimes what they come in for, but when you talk to them, they may have some issues with their children, their spouse. There might be some medical issues. In other words, we’ll have someone come in and say that their mother has dementia, so we’ll talk about that. They might say, also, that she has some behavioral problems.
Well, not only do they need documents, the dementia that they’re assuming is Alzheimer’s, may not be Alzheimer’s. So, we would say, maybe what you need to consider doing is getting a better evaluation, go to the medical university’s Memory Clinic to good information as to what the health problem is. A lot of times, dementia issues can be urinary tract infections, and other types of things. So, we’ll suggest to them that they explore the medical issues.
Sometimes there are family problems among the children. We’re not psychologists. We don’t pretend to be psychologists. But we can give them some ideas or things to think about that can help them with those issues. So, we try to identify the issues that are going on in their life at the time, and in the future, and tell them what we see the alternatives to be, so they can have their whole life in order; it’s not just to have the documents. The documents are the easy part. Anyone can get on a computer and pull up the documents. But to know how to design the plan that works for that client takes more than just a checklist. You have to see what they’re like, how they interact with their family. So, our meetings are much more personal, and we’re more personally involved with them in preparation of the documents.
Sally Smith: That’s so pivotal. It’s not just one ingredient here, one ingredient there, from a whole lot of different sources. It’s one place where you can go and, as you say, have the holistic approach, and with great experience. You’re dealing with this all the time, and have been for many years. It’s amazing. One thing that was interesting, you were saying earlier, when were just chatting, here, we’re talking about some of the most important decisions that are ever going to be made in a person’s life, and in the life of their family, how they’re going to die, how they’re going to leave things to their children, all these issues that go beyond documents, and yet people are loathe to open their checkbook and pay for this sort of expertise. What do you attribute that to?
Dennis Christenson: My experience, again, is that if all they’re getting is documents, in the back of their mind, they may say, well, I can go on the computer and get it for less. So, what you have to do is give them value, so that it’s not just the documents. There are people, and it’s just amazing to me, that I’ve never met before, which we’ll ask, who would you like to be your personal representative to handle your estate, and they’ll say, me.
Sally Smith: Oh, they’ll say you, personally?
Dennis Christenson: And I’ve only known them for half an hour. I think they feel that I’m interested in them, that it’s not just a matter of the legal stuff; we’re dealing with the whole person. I can’t separate the medical side from the legal side, from the financial side, from the family side. To me, they’re all together. And I think people leave our office, and elder law attorneys generally have the same holistic philosophy, feeling that it’s not just a lawyer, now they have a friend. They have someone that they can turn to.
The difference with an estate planning attorney is that they really don’t have the information, in many cases, about the medical stuff, about public benefits. You know, it’s a different place that they’re coming from. It would be like the old general practice doctor that you go to. They know everything. And the type of practice we have, I think our clients feel like they know us, and they often come back and call about things that are unrelated to the will or the trust that we’ve done. They know that our job is to help them solve problems, not to just create issues; we’d like to be known as problem solvers. Also, there aren’t many people these days that are willing to give opinions. You go to a lawyer wanting help, and many lawyers, like many doctors, are afraid to give an opinion. Not that we give opinions, but we tell them what their options are, and we can assist them through the process. I see my clients as my friends. And I think that most elder law attorneys, who truly are of that philosophy, will do that. That’s why our appointments tend to be longer than would be necessary for just a will. We want to know that person.
Sally Smith: What a fulfilling way to spend your life. What a reach out to people where they need to be touched. Where do you find that? Maybe your pastor is one person, as you said, in your spiritual life. To have somebody that not only cares, but knows the components of everything you need to be looking at. I’m fascinated by the point, and I really hear you, that there are so few places that are willing to say, well, actually, if it were me, I would do x, y, and z. But everybody is trying to make sure that they’re not liable, that they didn’t do something illegal.
I know with my husband being a pediatric surgeon, sometimes parents need to be able to get permission to let their child go ahead and die. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes they’re dying for somebody to be able to say, I can understand why you’re making this decision, and it’s okay. Some people are very afraid to say those words.
Dennis Christenson: Well, I know that the person sitting across from me wants to know what I would do. So, I always lay out all the options, and I can see if they want to ask a question. I’ll say, well, you know, this is just my opinion. I talk to them as if they were my parents. I see them as my parents, and these are the issues that I would explain to my parents. They need to make the decision, but if they were my parents, this is what I’d tell them. And a lot of lawyers don’t want to do that.
Sally Smith: I think that’s absolutely beautiful. One question that pops into mind: You have a client and they have a mixed up family, or not, but for whatever reason, they decide they want you to be their agent. If you’re warm and fuzzy and wonderful, a lot of people might want you to do that. That would take a lot of time. Would you get reimbursed for your time? How would that work? It’s one thing if I’m the daughter. Obviously, I’m just going to do it. But if you’re an outside agent, you could have 15 people, or 20 people, like that, and it could take a lot of your time, if they’re sick.
Dennis Christenson: What happens is that people come in for an initial consultation, and this takes an hour or two. Then, I kind of give them my diagnosis and thoughts. If they, then, choose to hire me, 90 percent of the time, we work on the basis of a flat fee. In other words, I will tell them what it’s going to cost for all the things I’m going to do for them. And if we agree on that, then we go forward. Generally, they’ll pay part of the fee at the beginning. Now, telephone calls, they’re kind of factored into the fee. I don’t want a person worrying about whether or not they’re going to have to pay for that phone call because the reason they’re calling could be very important. So, we basically do it on a fixed fee, so they know up front what it’s going to cost. They know exactly what we’re going to do for them, and what’s going to be included. Then, if it goes beyond that, we’ll talk about an additional fee. But we try to take the money out of it up front. I just find it’s easier to have a relationship where everyone’s not watching the clock.
Sally Smith: Absolutely. Oh, gosh, Dennis, thank you so much for talking with us about what it’s like in your office for one of these visits. It’s really wonderful to hear the level of caring. If you have just one life and can really help people like that on something so personal, and so meaningful, it’s really inspiring. Thank you for coming. And thanks to all our listeners for joining us today. We welcome your suggestions and comments. This is Sally Smith, Age to Age, saying goodbye and wishing you courage and joy on your journey. We are all connected.
If you enjoy listening to Sally Smith, you can buy her book, The Circle. It’s the story of how she personally responded to her mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a wonderful gift of hope for anyone with a parent with dementia. Just click on Sally Smith’s name under the Health Professionals tab on the Podcast home page. All profits support research at the Center on Aging. Thanks.