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PLANNING AHEAD: What certification means in Elder Law

Recently, I had the opportunity to review my certification in Elder Law, a designation referred to as Certified Elder Law Attorney or CELA, and it occurred to me that many, probably most, people do not know what certification in elder law means, or how attorneys receive that designation.

There are only about 500 certified elder law attorneys in the United States according to the National Elder Law Foundation that bestows this description. One reason why, is that certification is not easy to get. My co-chair of the Elder Law Section of the Chester County Bar Association, Karyn Seace, Esq. in West Chester, is a certified Elder Law attorney as am I, and a few others in Chester County.

Most attorneys who indicate they are elder law attorneys do not have the CELA designation and, by the way, that does not mean they are not good or experienced in their practices in the elder law field, but only that they did not go through the rigors needed to qualify as a Certified Elder Law Attorney. I spent several years practicing in elder law myself before applying for certification.

So why obtain certification? Lawyers, unlike some other fields like medicine where a person could be considered “board certified” can, strictly speaking, practice in virtually any area, but are expected to read up in the field.

I could, for instance, but would not ever, handle a bankruptcy, since I do not know enough about bankruptcy. It is not my area. Instead I would refer such a case to one of many bankruptcy attorneys I know who are excellent in their field. I do, however, handle real estate for older clients since I have many years’ experience in real estate as well.

So what is certification in elder law? It is a designation issued by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) which foundation was established by the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), the only nationally recognized group for elder law attorneys.

The CELA designation, issued by the National Elder Law Foundation, is recognized and approved by the American Bar Association, and also carries with it recognition as specialization in elder law by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

To become a Certified elder Law Attorney, an applicant must be licensed and continuously in good standing with the bars of every state in which they practice. The applicant must have practiced law for at least five years prior to application (most have much more) and still be practicing law. That is the easy part.

Next, the applicant must show substantial involvement in the field of elder law for the three years prior to application. This includes documenting at least 60 elder law matters or cases within the three years prior and those matters must fit certain specific categories. No identifying information of clients is given.

On renewal in five years, the attorney must again show another 60 elder law matters or cases within the three years prior.

Next, the applicant must have completed at least 45 hours of continuing legal education in elder law during the three years preceding the application.

Then, the applicant must submit names of five referring attorneys familiar with the applicant’s competence and qualifications in elder law. Three of the references must themselves have devoted a minimum number of hours to the practice of elder law.

Generally speaking, these three referral sources are also Certified Elder Law Attorneys. The referring attorneys must not be related to the applicant attorney and must not be engaged in legal practice with the applicant.

The applicant submits a short form application and a long form application. The long form application contains the information regarding the background on the 60 elder law matters handled.

Finally — and a stumbling block for most attorneys who attempt the designation — there is a 5½ hour examination in elder law, much of which is an essay which describes real life situations and asks the attorney how the matter should be handled.

The attorney applicant must sit for the exam within two years of filing the short form application and the pass rate for the exam is challenging. The exam and, specifically the essays, are judged by a panel consisting of Certified Elder Law Attorneys.

This article was originally posted at

Janet Colliton, Esq. is a Certified Elder Law Attorney and limits her practice to elder law, retirement and estate planning, Medicaid, Medicare, life care and special needs at 790 East Market St., Suite 250, West Chester, Pa., 19382, 610-436-6674, She is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and, with Jeffrey Jones, CSA, co-founder of Life Transition Services LLC, a service for families with long term care needs. Tune in on Wednesdays at 4 p.m. to radio WCHE 1520, “50+ Planning Ahead,” with Janet Colliton, Colliton Elder Law Associates, and Phil McFadden, Home Instead Senior Care.