The Elder Law Center

Can you remember your very first day of work? We suspect that not many years, or even days, went by before you began dreaming of your retirement. As we all know, for that dream to become a reality you must plan, work and wait for the day when you can afford to enjoy the wonders of the world without relying on a salary. But what happens when all of your hard work and your plans become a nightmare?

Imagine receiving a telephone call from a 75-year-old man who nervously tries to explain to you that in the midst of trusting his adult son with “great investment opportunities” that apparently never existed, the retirement funds that he and his wife worked 50 years to establish and rely on have been depleted – leaving them destitute. As a result, the elderly couple’s home, which has been the one and only family home for decades, is facing foreclosure. What’s even more heart-wrenching is learning that the husband and wife admit that they are both looking to go back to work, at least part-time, to increase their monthly income in order to support themselves. After hearing this and learning that the son is also facing foreclosure, we know you would find it virtually impossible to quote your hourly rate, let alone the potential total amount of attorney’s fees that might be incurred in trying to assist this couple. Fortunately for residents of Contra Costa County, there are resources in place to assist the elderly with these kinds of situations.

In 2005, former School of Law Dean, Terri Cannon, with the support of an extremely broad-based advisory board, brought an innovative idea to life when she established The Elder Law Clinic at John F. Kennedy University. The clinic appeared to be the only full-time clinic west of the Mississippi devoted solely to combating elder financial abuse.

It was clear that there was a critical need for this type of clinic and, under the direction and supervision of Virginia M. George, the Elder Law Clinic exceeded all annual projections in only its fourth month of operation. It operated successfully for several years and the clinic became an important provider of critically needed legal services. However, in June of 2010 John F. Kennedy University determined that it could no longer financially maintain the Elder Law Clinic and closed the program as it was originally designed.

At the same time, the California Department of Aging estimated that there were approximately 203,146 citizens in Contra Costa County 60 years or older. The 85+ age group is the fastest growing portion of the elderly population in Contra Costa County. Over the next 10 years, the 85+ age group is predicted to increase by 55% and the 65+ age group is projected to increase by 37%. During the fiscal year of 2006-2007, Contra Costa County Adult Protective Services alone received 486 reports of elder financial abuse. During 2007-2008 the number of reports increased to 528 reports. As evidenced by these statistics, there is an obvious and growing need for senior legal services.

To allow the Elder Law Clinic’s program to cease operating could have been disastrous to the increasing senior population of Contra Costa County. The Law Center, a non-profit agency that assists low income residents of Contra Costa County, and the Contra Costa County Bar Association were committed to continuing the work of the Elder Law Clinic. The reconstituted program, the Elder Law Center (ELC), is now under the auspices of The Law Center (TLC) and continues to be a vital resource for those Contra Costa County residents who are 65 years of age or older who are often victims of financial abuse and who need pro bono representation.

In addition to having a part-time staff attorney handling pro bono cases and referring overflow cases while providing legal support to a pro bono panel of well over a hundred county attorneys, the ELC will work in collaboration with the CCCBA Lawyer Referral & Information Service (LRIS) and CCCBA Moderate Means Program (MMP) which provide services to those elders who are in need of services and are able to afford legal services at standard, market rates (LRIS) or at a reduced rate (MMP).

The ELC is also working proactively to combat elder financial abuse by educating the public through various programs, including organizing six annual durable power of attorney and advance health care directive workshops. Each workshop occurs over two evenings. During the first evening, volunteers provide information regarding how durable financial powers of attorney and advanced health care directives operate, the powers that each bestow on the nominated agents, and why these documents are important. At the return appointment each client is requested to have discussed their decision of nomination with each agent and then obtain the contact information of each agent. Volunteer attorneys review all documents with each client and notaries are available onsite to execute both documents. All services are provided free of charge and carry no obligation. The goal of this workshop is to try to place trusted individuals in control of each client’s health care and financial decisions in an effort to alleviate the potential for abuse.

Though the ELC has only recently been reconstituted, there continues to be a powerful Advisory Board in place to help support clients’ needs. Because elder law so often requires a multi-disciplinary approach, the advisory board is made up of representatives from various senior service provider agencies. One of the goals of the ELC is to promote collaboration between like-minded organizations in order to more wholly and efficiently serve each client’s needs.

For example, over two-thirds of elder abuse perpetrators are committed by someone the victim knows, loves and trusts. Overcoming the emotions and the stress of finally seeking help can regularly require a team of support for the victim. Therefore, the support of available counseling programs, such as Senior Peer Counseling, is often necessary to allow the victim to move through the emotional turmoil while an attorney navigates and pursues the legal issues.

The need for elder legal services will continue to grow and the Elder Law Center is looking forward to meeting the need by developing further collaborations with the other existing senior legal services, including Contra Costa County Senior Legal Services, the Senior Self-Help Clinic and John F. Kennedy University’s new Legal Clinic for Elders. In addition to the need for collaborations between the existing organizations, there is a great need for additional panel attorneys who are willing to donate their time, their money, or both, to continue these important programs so all residents receive access to justice. Please become a part of the solution.

– Samantha Sepehr is the staff attorney of The Law Center and Elder Law Center Director.

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