Why is Certification Important to You?

The Board of Certification of the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) has issued its Rules and Regulations regarding certification of elder law attorneys.

What Is The National Elder Law Foundation And The Board Of Certification?

NELF was founded by the Board of Directors of The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) in 1993. It is a non-profit organization, dedicated to the development and improvement of the professional competence of lawyers in the area of elder law, and which is working to have the specialty recognized by judicial authorities and the organized bar in the United States. NELF created the Board of Certification to implement and administer a system to certify elder law attorneys. The board of certification (board) and its committees are made up of persons working in the elder law field as private attorneys, in the public sector, and as professors teaching elder law and related fields in law schools. Not all of its members are attorneys, and not all of its members are members of NAELA. The American Bar Association’s House of Delegates approved the National Elder Law Foundation as the certifying entity for specialization in elder law in February 1995.

What Is Certification?

The purpose of the certification program is to identify those lawyers who have the enhanced knowledge, skills, experience, and proficiency to be properly identified to the public as certified elder law attorneys. If all of the requirements of the board are satisfied, the attorney may announce that the attorney is “Certified as an Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation.”

How Is Elder Law Defined For Purposes Of The Board’s Certification Program?

Section 2 of the Rules and Regulations of the Board of Certification defines elder law for purposes of certification by NELF.

Section 2


2.1 “Elder Law” is the legal practice of counseling and representing older persons and their representatives about the legal aspects of health and long term care planning, public benefits, surrogate decision-making, older persons’ legal capacity, the conservation, disposition and administration of older persons’ estates and the implementation of their decisions concerning such matters, giving due consideration to the applicable tax consequences of the action, or the need for more sophisticated tax expertise.

2.2 In addition, attorneys certified in elder law must be capable of recognizing issues of concern that arise during counseling and representation of older persons, or their representatives, with respect to abuse, neglect, or exploitation of the older person, insurance, housing, long term care, employment, and retirement. The certified elder law attorney must also be familiar with professional and non-legal resources and services publicly and privately available to meet the needs of the older persons, and be capable of recognizing the professional conduct and ethical issues that arise during representation.

All the experience, task, and examination requirements relate to these areas of law.

This definition of elder law is the result of a lengthy process, which began in 1988. It involved those who formed NAELA, NAELA board members during the years 1988 through 1993, the Fellows of NAELA, the membership of NAELA, the members of the board of certification, and the ABA Standing Committee on Specialization. NAELA and its members have been involved at every step in the process of defining this new and growing specialty.

Who Sets The Standards For Certification?

The minimum standards for certification are set out in Section 5 of the Rules and Regulations adopted by the board of certification. The standards were adopted after much debate by NAELA’s Board, NAELA’s members and the board of certification itself. However, to some extent the board was limited in how it could set those requirements.

In order for certification to be useful to an attorney the certification process must be approved by the ABA and the state bars. Under ABA requirements, a certification applicant must have been in practice for at least five years and must have been substantially involved in the specialty area during the three-year period immediately preceding the date of their short form application to the certifying organization. Substantial involvement, as defined by the ABA, is measured by the type and number of cases or matters handled and the amount of time spent practicing in the specialty area. Also required are a minimum of five favorable references from attorneys, a majority of whom are attorneys who practice in one or more areas constituting elder law, a written examination, and a minimum of 45 hours of participation in continuing legal education in the specialty area in the three-year period preceding the lawyer’s short form application.

Who May Become Certified?

Certification is open to all who qualify, without regard to age, race, religion, color, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation, or physical ability and without regard to membership in NAELA. Once certification is granted, it is effective for five years. Re-certification is not automatic, and requires satisfaction of criteria similar to that necessary for initial certification.

What Are The Criteria For Certification?

The following briefly describes the minimum standards, which must be met to become certified. These standards are more fully specified in Section 5 of the Rules and Regulations.

  • Licensure. The Attorney must be licensed to practice law in at least one state or the District of Columbia.
  • Practice. The Attorney must have practiced law during the five-years preceding the Attorney’s short form application and must still be practicing law. If The Attorney were a full-time probate judge or a full-time professor at an accredited law school, the standards committee of the board may credit such time toward this requirement.
  • Integrity and Good Standing. The Attorney must be either a member in good standing of the bars in all places in which The Attorney are licensed or have been a member in good standing at the time any license was voluntarily surrendered.
  • Substantial Involvement/Experience. Attorneys must have spent an average of at least 16 hours per week, practicing elder law as defined by Section 2 of the Rules and Regulations during each of the three-years immediately preceding the attorney’s short form application. In addition, The Attorney must have handled at least 60 elder law matters during those three-years, with a specified distribution among subjects as described in Section of the Rules and Regulations.
  • Continuing Legal Education. Attorneys must have participated in at least 45 hours of continuing legal education in elder law during the preceding three-years.
  • Peer Review/Professional References. Attorneys must submit the names of five references from attorneys familiar with the attorney’s competence and qualifications in elder law. These persons must themselves satisfy specified criteria. They will be contacted directly by the board of certification, and each person’s response is confidential and unavailable to the attorney.