October 22, 2017

Social Media Abuse of Elders

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Barbara Cashman’s Denver Elder Law Blog on August 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

CashmanBy Barbara Cashman, Esq.

I recently came across this horrifying article published Monday in ProPublica, entitled “Federal Health Officials Seek to Stop Social Media Abuse of Nursing Home Residents.” It seems that some staff members of nursing homes are publishing photos, audio and video recordings of some residents in the social media like Snapchat, Facebook or Instagram, or sent in text messages as multimedia attachments. These pictures, audio, and video files often depict elder residents of the facilities in demeaning and humiliating ways so as to result in mental abuse. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has recently sent out a memorandum concerning this to the State Survey Directors.

Do the skilled nursing facilities have prohibitions against such intrusions in place? Some evidently did not, but there can be little doubt that nearly all will have such protections in place soon in light of these disturbing developments. Here’s an article about such violations in Ohio nursing facilities.

The CMS memo referred to above defines mental abuse as that abuse which:

[M]ay occur through either verbal or nonverbal conduct which causes or has the potential to cause the resident to experience humiliation, intimidation, fear, shame, agitation or degradation.  Examples of verbal or nonverbal conduct that can cause mental abuse include but are not limited to: nursing home staff taking photographs or recordings or residents that are demeaning or humiliating using any type of equipment (e.g., cameras, smart phone, and other electronic devices) and keeping or distributing them through multimedia messages or on social media networks.  Depending on what was photographed or recorded, physical and/or sexual abuse may also be identified.

ProPublica has been following this following these developments for many months; this article from December 21, 2015 details some of the incidents this mental and physical abuse of incapacitated elders perpetrate by the nursing home staff members. In a case in New York where a nurse aide took photos of an incontinent resident’s genitals covered in fecal matter and shared them with another staff member on Snapchat, he was fired and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of willful violation of health laws. What I found particularly disturbing was the comment of one home’s administrator to ProPublica that “[t]echnology is a problem for us, for everybody, these days… The resident involved was not harmed but certainly it was a serious incident.” Are incapacitated nursing home residents not entitled to any human dignity and to be free from such exploitation for someone’s entertainment?

One of the incidents described by ProPublica is from August 2015. It occurred in a rural area of Colorado and involved a youth volunteer at a nursing home who took a selfie which showed a 108-year-old resident urinating. The volunteer apparently shared the photo with her friends at school and the facility did not learn of the offending photo until months later. The volunteer was not monitored by the facility but did report to the local police, and was later charged with invasion of privacy.

What is human dignity when it cannot be defended by an incapacitated elder? What is human dignity when it is not readily apparent or recognized in places where people are institutionalized for the paramount concern of their safety?

Dignity, as in the legal right, is not easily defined. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find many references to it in our laws. International law, specifically the international law of human rights, has much more to say about human dignity, but that is another blog post!

I will close with just a couple observations and questions.

If humiliation is the opposite of being treated dignity and respect, is our system of laws really equipped to deal with this type of new frontier of the rights of incapacitated persons to be free from intrusions by others who humiliate them for sport or humor?

Is the dignity of or respect for elders a right in this context or is it overshadowed by our concerns for safety, and how does an incapacitated elder’s diminishing bailiwick of autonomy factor into this equation?

On this note, here is a link to an interesting article about the dignity of elders. More to come on this very challenging topic.

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Barbara Cashman is a solo practitioner in Denver, focusing on elder law, estate law, and mediation. She is active in the Trust & Estate and Elder Law sections of the CBA and is a past chair of the Solo/Small Firm section. She is a CAMP mentor and blogs weekly on her law firm blog, where this post originally appeared. She can be contacted at barb@DenverElderLaw.org.

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

Let’s Raise Awareness About Elder Abuse!

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Barbara Cashman’s Denver Elder Law blog on June 29, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

CashmanI wanted to circle back on the importance of raising awareness of elder abuse. You can read the Presidential Proclamation on June 15, 2016, for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day right here and if you’re curious about the language of the Elder Justice Act, passed as part of the Affordable Care Act (as Title VI subtitle H, §§ 6701, et seq.), read this link.

In Colorado, as in nearly all other states, adult protection units are responsible for the reporting and investigation of elder abuse (along with law enforcement agencies). The Elder Justice Act is federal legislation that requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “to oversee the development and management of federal resources for protecting out seniors from elder abuse.” Additionally, the U.S. Department of Justice is charged with taking action to prevent elder abuse.

The effective coordination of these county, state, and federal efforts is of course a work in progress. What we do know about raising awareness of elder abuse and exploitation is that it will lead to more reporting of such abuse. Here is a link to a recent article in the Sacramento Bee which links the raised awareness of such abuse to a dramatic increase in reports to local law enforcement. This is important to bear in mind as the baby boomers begin to become a greater proportion of the cohort affected by elder abuse and exploitation. In my practice, I have unfortunately become familiar with national and international internet scams which relieve elders of their hard-earned retirement money. This is a particular area in which the federal government might play a unique role as so much of our law of the internet is based in federal law.

Another tragic side effect of the victimization of elders, besides the shame, victimization and impoverishment which results from financial exploitation is that these elders, along with elder victims of all types of elder abuse — including physical and sexual abuse — are likely to die much sooner than their peers who were not victimized. But many pieces of this puzzle remain unidentified due to the lack of long term studies which collect valuable statistics about elder abuse of various types! This is of course another aspect of the importance of raising awareness. Because so much of elder abuse still remains unreported, this is a major quality of life challenge not just for elders and their loved ones and community, but also for those of us of “a certain age” who might be looking forward to a safe and meaningful elderhood. How can we make things better for elders at risk now and in the future?

What is elder abuse and who are its primary victims of such elder abuse? By the numbers, they are largely women and the “old” of the elder population — meaning folks over 80. Sadly, the vast majority of the abusers are family members of the elder or trusted friends or advisors. Because most elders live in the community — not in institutions — this is a particular challenge for all of us who are community members to become familiar with the signs so that we can report concerns about safety, suspicious behaviors and the like to local law enforcement.

First — what are the kinds of elder abuse that we’re talking about? Here is a helpful listing from the U.S. government’s Administration on Aging website, which also has many helpful resources:

  • Physical Abuse—inflicting physical pain or injury on a senior, e.g., slapping, bruising, or restraining by physical or chemical means.
  • Sexual Abuse—non-consensual sexual contact of any kind.
  • Neglect—the failure by those responsible to provide food, shelter, health care, or protection for a vulnerable elder.
  • Exploitation—the illegal taking, misuse, or concealment of funds, property, or assets of a senior for someone else’s benefit.
  • Emotional Abuse—inflicting mental pain, anguish, or distress on an elder person through verbal or nonverbal acts, e.g., humiliating, intimidating, or threatening.
  • Abandonment—desertion of a vulnerable elder by anyone who has assumed the responsibility for care or custody of that person.
  • Self-neglect—characterized as the failure of a person to perform essential, self-care tasks and that such failure threatens his or her own health or safety.

And what about the warning signs of elder abuse of which we can be more aware?

  • Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions, and burns may be an indication of physical abuse, neglect, or mistreatment.
  • Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, a sudden change in alertness, and unusual depression may be indicators of emotional abuse.
  • Bruises around the breasts or genital area can occur from sexual abuse.
  • Sudden changes in financial situations may be the result of exploitation.
  • Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene, and unusual weight loss are indicators of possible neglect.
  • Behavior such as belittling, threats, and other uses of power and control by spouses are indicators of verbal or emotional abuse.
  • Strained or tense relationships, frequent arguments between the caregiver and elderly person are also signs.
  • Changes in the elder’s personality or behavior, especially if the elder becomes withdrawn or despondent, questions to her or him can be very important in identifying a situation which may be the cause of the elder’s silent suffering.

Lastly, here is another helpful self-help resource specifically for Colorado residents – from Colorado Legal Services.  That’s all for now – but don’t forget . . . . Denver’s Senior law Day is coming up on Friday July 29, 2016 and will be held at the Denver Police Protective Association’s Event Center.  More details later.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2016   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Barbara Cashman is a solo practitioner in Denver, focusing on elder law, estate law, and mediation. She is active in the Trust & Estate and Elder Law sections of the CBA and is a past chair of the Solo/Small Firm section. She is a CAMP mentor and blogs weekly on her law firm blog, where this post originally appeared. She can be contacted at barb@DenverElderLaw.org.

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

Inherited IRAs in Light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Decision in Clark v. Rameker

This post originally appeared on Barbara Cashman’s Denver Elder Law blog on June 18, 2014.

CashmanBy Barbara Cashman

Everyone knows what an IRA is – right?  We think IRAs have been around a really long time, but they only came into being in 1975 with ERISA legislation, and Roth IRAs came in 1997. IRAs are classic nonprobate property that someone can pass to others without probate in many circumstances.

Q: What happens if I complete the beneficiary designation form?

A: Your beneficiaries will have much more flexibility and protections (especially on the tax front).

Q: What happens if I don’t bother with the beneficiary form?

A: Well, you won’t be around to find out – right?!  Here’s a link to a Colorado Business Magazine article about the importance of designating a beneficiary to maintain that flexibility.

Some handy IRA vocabulary words:

  • RBD – required beginning date (701/2 years of age), after which you are required to withdraw the
  • RMD – required minimum distribution, an annual distribution.

Here it is important to consider whether the decedent died after his or her RBD.  If she or he was already receiving RMDs, you will want to determine whether the distribution for that final year needs to be paid. Be sure to check with the account custodians to determine if the distribution was made before the date of death.  There are two basic types of IRAs that can be passed along to survivors:

  1. Spousal IRA 
    This is generally the simplest to accomplish and a spouse will want to consider among several choices –  to roll them over into an IRA, start receiving benefits, have them paid out in a lump sum, or disclaim some portion to minimize estate taxes in the spouse’s estate.
  2. Inherited IRA
    There is an important distinction initially regarding whether the beneficiary designation was made out to the beneficiaries or left blank. . .  There is generally much more flexibility when the designations are completed.

So here’s a question . . . . Whether inherited IRAs are generally exempt from creditors depends on where you live! Are these funds still qualified and exempt, or are they just another inherited asset?

In an inherited IRA scenario, a beneficiary (often an adult child) will need to take out the RMD in the parent’s IRA every year and declare that as income. In addition, the IRA cannot be added to by the inheritor. You might be wondering what types of protections are afforded inherited IRAs from the creditors of the inheritor. Well, I can say with all lawyerlike confidence . . .  it depends. Under Colorado law, specifically Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-54-102(1)(s), there is an exemption from judgment creditors for certain types of retirement accounts and benefits. The definition includes IRAs “as defined under Section 408 of the Code” (this would be 26 U.S.C. § 408(d)(3)(C)(ii)). Under the Bankruptcy Abuse Preventive and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA), many states opted out of the federal bankruptcy exemptions in favor of state law exemptions. Read more on this topic here from my learned colleague Laurie Hunter.

It is important to consider that there are at least three different layers to the inherited IRA treatment: federal tax law, state law relating to bankruptcy and what creditors can collect, and bankruptcy. Until just a few days ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a writ of certiorari on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit’s 2013 decision, In re Clark, there was a split among the federal circuit courts of appeal – you can read more about it here.

The Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal Were Split Over the Meaning of the Phrase “Retirement Funds”

Two federal courts of appeal – the Fifth and Seventh Circuits (whose decisions were binding in the regions that they cover – Colorado is part of the Tenth Circuit) had come to opposite conclusions while interpreting the meaning of the same term. In 2013, the Fifth Circuit decided that the phrase “retirement funds” in the bankruptcy exemption statute quoted above means any funds “set apart” in anticipation of “withdrawal from office, active service, or business” and that the statute does not limit “retirement funds” solely to funds of the bankrupt debtor, so long as the funds were originally “set apart” for someone’s retirement. In re Chilton, 674 F.3d 486 (5th Cir. 2012). Once the funds were set apart for retirement, they maintained that same character for bankruptcy exemption purposes. The court thereby permitted the debtor in Chilton to exempt all of a $170,000 IRA inherited from her mother.

In Clark, the Seventh Circuit expressly disagreed with the Fifth Circuit, adding that it “do[es] not think the question is close.” The Seventh Circuit observed that, while inherited IRAs do shelter money from taxes until it is withdrawn, they lack many of the other attributes of an IRA. That court noted in particular that the beneficiary of an inherited IRA is prohibited from rolling those funds over into his or her own IRA and from adding her own funds to the inherited IRA. The beneficiary must take distributions from the inherited IRA within a year of the original owner’s death and complete those payouts over a defined period, often as little as five years, regardless of the beneficiary’s age and employment status. In short, once the original owned died, “the money in the inherited IRA did not represent anyone’s retirement funds.” That court of appeals declined to extend the character of a decedent’s retirement funds into the inheritance context and therefore decedent’s daughter could not then use that money as her own retirement savings, and it became no different from an inherited certificate of deposit or money market account: non-exempt and available to distribute to the daughter’s creditors.  That was the essence of the split in the circuits.

Just a few days ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Clark v. Rameker that inherited IRAs are not protected in bankruptcy. Here’s a link to the SCOTUSblog coverage of the decision. The US Supreme Court followed the line of reasoning of the bankruptcy court and the Seventh Circuit, disallowing the attempt by petitioner in bankruptcy court, Hedi Heffron-Clark, to exclude the funds in the IRA from the bankruptcy estate using the “retirement funds” exemption under Section 522 of the Bankruptcy Code, which exempts tax-exempt retirement funds from a bankruptcy estate. Just in case you are an insomniac and want to read the entire decision, rendered June 12, 2014, here it is in pdf format.

I still think that, notwithstanding the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, inherited IRAs are  an important legacy for a parent to leave an adult child, and it is important to not underestimate the “emotional” value of the money from a deceased parent’s retirement savings for the use of a child’s retirement. But beware, they won’t be protected from an adult child’s creditors in a bankruptcy proceeding. So please remember that an IRA and an inherited IRA are not really the same animal!

Barbara Cashman is a solo practitioner in Denver, focusing on elder law, estate law, and mediation. She is active in the Trust & Estate and Elder Law sections of the CBA and is the incoming chair of the Solo/Small Firm section. She contributes to the SOLOinCOLO blog and blogs weekly on her law firm blog, where this post originally appeared. She can be contacted at barb@DenverElderLaw.org.

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

People v. Stell: Breach of POA Agent’s Fiduciary Duty is Properly Included in Criminal Indictment

CashmanBy Barbara Cashman

In an 11/7/13 published opinion, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled on substantial questions relating to the Uniform Power of Attorney Act (UPOA) as it relates to an agent’s duties, and the types of activities authorized under a power of attorney (POA). In People v. Stell, 2013CA0492, the court of appeals reversed and remanded with directions a case involving a criminal indictment of an agent who under a POA who liquidated the principal’s assets. This decision has wide and beneficial implications for principals who have executed POAs and whose agent are acting in their own self-interests, are converting their principal’s assets for the agent’s use, or who are otherwise stealing from them. Here’s a sketch of the factual background of the case.

The principal (referred to as “victim” in the opinion) executed a POA in 2009 in Virginia. Both Virginia and Colorado have adopted the UPOA so, even though the statutory citations vary, the law is substantially the same. In the POA, the principal named as agent his son, the defendant, Stell. While acting as agent under the POA, Stell wasted no time liquidating all of principal’s bank accounts, CDs, a 401K account, a piece of real property and the timber sold from that land – to the tune of $453,928.81. The following year, Stell proposed that the principal place other assets into a trust so they would be protected from creditors. The trust document that the principal signed at his agent Stell’s direction did not name the principal as beneficiary of such trust, and so the principal was permanently deprived of the use and benefit of those assets. In October 2010, principal terminated the POA and asked the Denver District Attorney’s office to investigate. As a result of the investigation, a nine-count indictment was drawn, eight counts for theft and one count for conspiracy. The appeal of the trial court’s ruling is based on the dismissal of counts 1, 2, 4 and part of 3 – relating to the authority of the agent, Stell, to transfer the principal’s property as agent under the POA. In its dismissal of those counts, the trial court ruled that because Stell had authority under the POA to do anything with the principal’s property that principal could do with it, Stell could not commit theft against his principal. The court of appeals soundly rejected this line of thinking.

The POA is a document that confers broad powers, but it is no license to steal. In this criminal case, the court of appeals examined carefully the fiduciary duty owed by an agent to his principal under the UPOA. Citing a Virginia Supreme Court decision, the court of appeals stated that “powers of attorney are strictly construed.” (Opin. at ¶17) Going further, the court ruled that the expansive language in a POA should be interpreted narrowly and should be construed in light of the surrounding circumstances. It soundly rejected the argument that, because a POA typically gives a broad grant of authority, it could somehow give an agent the authority to misbehave, commit theft, and otherwise breach fiduciary duties owed as a consequence of the nature of the principal-agent relationship.

The fact that a POA contains a broad grant of authority to the agent does not mean that an agent can abuse that authority. The agent is duty-bound (as in an agent’s fiduciary duty, as described in the UPOA) to exercise authority while acting as agent with the utmost good faith and loyalty. The court of appeals rejected the trial court’s reasoning that a broad grant of authority to the agent implied that an agent’s actions were somehow still “authorized” because agent was acting under a POA, even though the agent’s actions were in violation of his fiduciary duties. In ¶21 of the decision, the court of appeals identified the factual questions appropriate for a jury’s determination of whether an agent under a POA was acting within or outside of his or her scope of authority as determined by agent’s fiduciary duties. They included the following questions of whether agent acted: (1) in accordance with principal’s reasonable expectations and consistently with the principal’s interests and intent; (2) in good faith; (3) loyally for the principal’s benefit; and (4) with the care, competence, and diligence ordinarily exercised by agents in similar circumstances.

In reversing and remanding the counts of the indictment dismissed by the trial court, the court of appeals gives an indication that the days of the POA as a “license to steal” for non-criminal law purposes are over. This is an important development for Colorado – for both the new mandatory reporting of financial exploitation law (read my post about that law here) as well as the ability of exploited elders and other at-risk persons to recover funds improperly taken from them by an agent under a POA. It gives more protection for principals who have been taken advantage of by their agents to establish that the agent’s conduct was improper and to strengthen the ability to recover such funds that were improperly used or converted for the agent’s exclusive benefit.

Barbara Cashman is a solo practitioner in Denver, focusing on elder law, estate law, and mediation. She is active in the Trust & Estate and Elder Law sections of the CBA and is the incoming chair of the Solo/Small Firm section. She contributes to the SOLOinCOLO blog and blogs weekly on her law firm blog, where this post originally appeared.  She can be contacted at barb@DenverElderLaw.org.

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

May is Elder Law Month – a Message for Solo and Small Firm Types to Do Basic Succession Planning for Their Law Practices

CashmanBy Barbara Cashman

In 2013, the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys has a calendar brimming full of Elder Law Month activities in several states. Our bar’s “signature event” for seniors is Senior Law Day and this year’s program is scheduled for July 27, 2013, once again at the Denver Merchandise Mart. So if folks are feeling left out in Colorado, I urge my fellow solo and small firm attorney types to . . . make it a durable Power of Attorney day!?

Say what Barb? Sure, You’re another year older and another year wiser – but have you made any efforts to put your house in order? I presented a CLE in February called “Death of a Solo, Death of a Practice” and it was well-attended. I distributed my forms to several people as a result of the program, but I suspect there are others who are inclined to get started but need a nudge.  So ask yourself:

  • Are you planning on retiring someday or are you committed to die with your boots on?
  • To stretch that expression: what happens if your boots fall off before you die?
  • Who’s got your back in the event of disaster?
  • How will your clients’ interests (and derivatively yours) be protected in the event of incapacity or disability?
  • Do you intend to leave a big mess from your failure to plan for the inevitable or are you just willing to let that happen?

If I’m sounding cheeky, well it’s because I do like to find humor in end of life scenarios. Thankfully, I’m not alone.

Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.
—Hafiz (14th century Persian-born mystic and poet)

Our death-denying culture takes these things far too seriously! Death is part of life, and for many of us who enjoy the benefits of longevity, disability – in the guise of short-term or long-term incapacity – is one of the byproducts of longevity. It’s time to face the music and recognize that every day is precious and a gift, and that we don’t know or have control over how many more days we will have. Here’s another line about our fear of mortality:

Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.
—Rainer Maria Rilke

So if you would like to observe (no, I’m not going to use the term “celebrate”) Elder Law Month by making a plan for your law practice’s survival or for its demise, I can help. Get in touch with me and I can suggest some useful forms. The best place to get started however, is to identify a trusted colleague with whom you can share – perhaps mutually, that’s the best scenario – duties as each other assisting attorney (click here to read the recent Legal Connection article on succession planning by Amy Symons and Julie Davis). Bottom line is that you need to have documents in place. You can read posts from the current series on solo attorney succession planning on the CBA’s SOLOinCOLO blog.

Questions? You can reach me at barb@DenverElderLaw.org.

Barbara Cashman is a solo practitioner in Denver, focusing on elder law, estate law, and mediation. She is active in the Trust & Estate and Elder Law sections of the CBA and is the incoming chair of the Solo/Small Firm section. She contributes to the SOLOinCOLO blog and blogs weekly on her law firm blog.  She can be contacted at barb@DenverElderLaw.org.

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

October 21 through 27 is Pro Bono Week!

Maybe you’ve heard about attorneys and pro bono work. . . . The full length version of the term is pro bono publico – which means for the public good; for the welfare of the whole. Pro bono isn’t just an American phenomenon – check out the Wikipedia entry about it here. I once worked with a marketing person who threw something into a package and called it “pro bono.” But pro bono does not mean free (the Latin word for free is gratis) and I would rather go with the approach of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder:

We are bound by a responsibility to use our unique skills and training – not just to advance cases, but to serve a cause; and to help our nation fulfill its founding promise of equal justice under law…The obligation of pro bono service must become a part of the DNA of both the legal profession and of every lawyer.

He made this statement last year at the National Pro Bono Summit on October 24, 2011. So why do many lawyers perform pro bono work? There are several good reasons including: (1) the highest poverty rate among Americans since 1993 (persons qualifying for no fee or reduced fee civil legal services); (2) ensuring access for the poor helps keep the judiciary independent; and (3) respect for the rule of law.

In Colorado, Chief Justice Michael Bender declared October as Colorado’s first annual Legal Professionalism Month. You can read more about that here. What do professionalism and pro bono have to do with each other? Lots! One of Chief Justice Bender’s four goals identified in his proclamation is to encourage the entire bar to “recognize the broad legal needs of our community and improv[e] public attitudes toward the profession through a renewed dedication to pro bono service.” The month culminates in an “Assembly of Lawyers” at the Boettcher Concert Hall, where the Colorado Supreme Court, sitting in special session, will administer the oath of admission to the newest bar admittees – pretty cool. Read more about it here.

I do the bulk of my pro bono service through Metro Volunteer Lawyers, an organization serving low-income clients in the Denver metro area that sponsors clinics, provides information to the public, and finds pro bono attorneys to represent indigent persons in need of a variety of legal services. I have done pro bono work for MVL clients in my usual practice areas of estate planning and probate but have also represented folks in family law court for MVL. MVL is presenting a CLE this week in honor of pro bono week – check it out here. Volunteering with MVL is easy and very gratifying. Click here for more info.

One last word about helping others through pro bono service. Many people don’t realize that our human brains are wired to help each other out and to feel good about it. Acts of loving kindness to assist others can benefit us in many important ways: improve physical well-being; raise self-confidence and self-esteem; encourage friendships that help your immune system; and it may help you live longer. In fact, we might be able to volunteer our way to a healthier brain – fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) show that the neurology of unselfish acts, such as making a donation, lit up the mesolimbic pathway (the limbic system is often referred to as the reptile or primitive part of our brains) that facilitates the brain’s experience of joy. I must add – as an elder law attorney – that this can be a beneficial thing for older “at risk” or isolated adults. Volunteering by elders helps them in many ways, one of which benefits cognitive function as a consequence of our lifelong neuroplasticity. Here are links for a couple very interesting studies which should be encouraging news for elders wondering about whether there are benefits to volunteering. Volunteer service is a great way to engage in your existing community and also to find a new one! If you are skeptical and want more proof, read this amazing little book, The Hidden Gifts of Helping, by Stephen G. Post (Jossey-Bass, 2011). If you are wondering about pro bono services tailored for legal problems of elders in Denver county, check out Elder Justice, a great public resource. I was happy to interview their executive director, Sharon Mohr, in honor of pro bono week. You can see the vlog (video blog) post here.

Barbara Cashman is a solo practitioner in Denver, focusing on elder law, estate law, and mediation. She is active in the Trusts & Estates and Elder Law sections of the CBA and is the incoming chair of the Solo/Small Firm section. She contributes to the SOLOinCOLO blog and blogs weekly on her law firm blog, where this post originally appeared.  She can be contacted at barb@DenverElderLaw.org.

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

It’s Elder Law Month: Do You Have a Plan for Your Own Disability or Unexpected Events?

May 1 is law day, we all know that, but did you also know that it’s Elder Law Day? Well, technically, May is Elder Law Month. What does that mean for attorneys? Well, for many of us that means taking a look in the mirror! You might have noticed that the average age of attorneys in Colorado is getting a bit older. From what I could dig up, somewhere around 36% of CBA members (April 2011 CBA demographics, supplied by Heather Clark via Reba Nance) are over the age of 55. Based on another statistic (let’s call it anecdotal evidence), I’m pretty sure most of them aren’t reading this post . . . !

For solo and small firm attorneys in particular, the “age thing” has important consequences for our law practices. But the bigger issues for solo and small firm attorneys have not so much to do with age as with planning. I won’t beat around the bush here – I’m talking about disability, destruction, and death. Yep, it’s why my policy is always to eat dessert first! But seriously, as the number of solo attorneys grows and many of us (yours truly included) are eligible for AARP membership, are we making the necessary plans to protect our loved ones, our law practices, and our clients? The ABA’s Law Practice Today has a good article about this, even if it is a couple years old.

If you are like the majority of my trusts & estates colleagues (I informally “interviewed” about a dozen lawyers a couple years ago), you don’t have anything in place. A couple years back I participated in a CLE program called “Planning Ahead” and we prepared some forms as part of the CLE. I think the occasion of Elder Law month is an excellent time to revisit some of the themes in that CLE. Where do we start? At the beginning!

Start with two basic questions. Ask yourself:

  • What would happen if ________?
  • What will happen when _________?

Do you have an idea of the answers? Many of us don’t! So what is the next step? Forms of course! These forms are designed to get the process started and are meant only as guidelines to help you get some strategy or plan in place with documentation to support it.

How do you get started?

How about the 15-Minute Fix? Okay, it will take longer than that – but at least the forms could be easy. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  1. Checklist for An Assisting Lawyer to Protect the Interests of  an Affected Attorney’s Clients (read office/file management policies and procedures)
  2. Checklist for Closing a Law Office
  3. Trust and Bank Account Considerations
  4. Business Access Considerations (agreement between attorneys to manage/close a practice)
  5. Limited Power of Attorney for Assisting Lawyer (you can have an escrow holder for this one)
  6. Casualty Clause for Engagement Letter (to tell your clients you’ve made arrangements)
  7. Will Provisions Relating to Law Practice (mine is three pages long)

If this exercise doesn’t get you thinking about your practice and how it factors into your life and your legacy (read: mindful law practice planning), I don’t know what will.

Need some more thoughts about what to consider in a plan? Another helpful article with a good list is here. If you need to be scared into considering this “for real,” read this cautionary tale from the April 2012 California Bar Journal.

For Colorado information, Colorado Attorney Regulation has a lengthy pdf from 2007 here, which contains several helpful checklists. Please, don’t give inventory counsel more work to do!

You want to read more about this in book form (with a CD with forms)? Go to the CBA lending library and check out “Being Prepared: A Lawyer’s Guide for Dealing with Disability or Unexpected Events” (2008:ABA).

Start planning – even a small plan – right now.

Barbara Cashman is a solo practitioner in Denver, focusing on elder law, estate law, and mediation. She also edits the SOLOinCOLO blog and contributes content for the site. She can be contacted at barb@DenverElderLaw.org.