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New Approaches To Old Challenges IN ELDER LAW

“For me, elder law is estate planning. However, unlike traditional estate planning, elder law focuses on planning for the potential disability of the grantor. This becomes the primary focus of the planning and estate tax minimization, and probate avoidance become secondary issues,” says Scott Stewart.

“This planning approach often includes addressing the issue of benefits planning and accessing various benefit programs that can assist with long-term care costs. California Estate and Elder Law’s practice includes three things: traditional estate planning, elder law, and estate administration or probate. Our unique value proposition is in elder law and our elder law process. We believe legal documents should be the outcome of a great planning process. Effective planning is as much or more about preserving family relationships as it is about preserving family assets. To preserve relationships, we believe in the need to explore a client’s aspirations for their future,” says Scott Stewart, partner with Joseph J. Strazzeri and Stephen J. Mancini in California Estate and Elder Law, LLP (CEEL).

The firm is a leader in the field of California elder law planning—providing unique strategies to help clients preserve assets and educating other professionals in elder care, estate settlement strategies, estate planning, and dispelling misconceptions about Medi-Cal.

“California Estate and Elder Law, LLP is one of four companies in our Family of Resources that are fun places to work,” Strazzeri says. Southern California Institute provides resources, education, and advice through collaborative think tanks, events, programs, online content, and introductions. The Founders Group educates business owners through all phases of business transition. The Law Firm of Strazzeri Mancini LLP helps affluent families get to the heart of highly relevant matters and resolve messes in the areas of estate, business and tax planning, and family wealth counseling.

CEEL focuses on traditional estate planning and elder care planning. Traditionally, estate planning is approached as if it’s a light switch—option A or option B. CEEL addresses the spectrum of planning and focuses strategies and tactics on likely possibilities between the moment the client arrives at their offices and the end of life.

“Families often feel overwhelmed when confronting the incapacity of a loved one and are relieved to find a path to working through these issues. Some of these conversations surround a person’s subtle or obvious changes in capacity such as health, safety and finances. Our process helps key family members effectively contemplate and map important actions in all key areas,” says associate attorney Alexis Bastedo. Associate attorney Brooke Jensen says, “For example, in our model estate settlement isn’t about a rote distribution of assets, but about caring for and promoting harmony of the relationships embedded in the plan.”

Documentation is a key element of all the processes. Without it families face unanswered questions and ambiguities are forced to fill in these gaps in planning with their own conclusions and opinions. The firm offers the compassion and support necessary to anticipate and address these issues in advance, so that the client’s actual wishes are carried out and family relationships aren’t fragmented by misunderstanding.

“We are extremely process oriented, every single department within all the firms has detailed processes. Our systems allow the client’s familial footprint—the manner in which they live in and leave this world—to be an imprint of their greatest clarity and most authentic selves,” Mancini says.

Two cases illustrate the insight, experience and compassion the team brings to their clients.

Recently, the office was approached by a client who was struggling to keep her parents at home. Both served during World War II and both were suffering from dementia. The client had given up her job because she could not afford the cost of in-home care and the entire family was attempting to survive by living off the parents’ meager social security checks. The attorneys identified that this family qualified for both Medi-Cal and Veteran’s Administration benefits. CEEL’s representation effectively increased the household income by more than $5,000 per month. This additional income allowed the daughter to stay home and fulfill her promise to her parents—that she would never put them into a nursing home.

On another occasion a wife of more than 50 years approached CEEL completely overwhelmed and disheartened by the prospect of having to place her husband into a nursing home. The cost of his care was going to exceed $10,000 per month. She was concerned that this would drain all their savings and lead her into bankruptcy. She felt that her only option was divorce. With the firm’s help she petitioned the court to order the state to use the various federal and state laws that allow married couples facing this problem to increase the minimum eligibility guidelines to support the well spouse. This allowed her husband to receive the care that he needed while allowing her the financial security to remain at home.

Experienced and Innovative Leadership

The firm’s approach focuses on finding and implementing realistic solutions on a case-by-case, family-by-family basis rather than automatically recommending a pre-set course of action. That approach is even more important in the elder law field when making decisions about care and placement for a disabled senior who may be suffering from a condition such as Alzheimer’s. Each family is unique and the solutions that may be the most efficient for the law office may not be the best option for an individual family. For example, a family may be struggling to keep an aging parent at home, but hasn’t put together a support network. Many would suggest that the easiest solution would be to place the parent into a nursing home. Although this approach may be easier for the firm to implement, it ignores the family’s specific goals and wishes. CEEL’s approach is to address the problem by identifying all the programs available that would enable the family to achieve their goals.

The unique combination of skills and experience of the partners enhances the attainment of individual family goals.

Richard “Scott” Stewart

Stewart represents clients throughout California with estate, disability, and Medi-Cal planning. He is a member of the California Bar, San Diego County Bar Association, California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and has previously served on the Board of Directors for the Glenner Alzheimers Family Centers. He conducts educational programs and seminars on elder law topics throughout Southern California and appears regularly on various radio and television news channels.

Stephen J. Mancini

Mancini is a Certified Specialist in wills, trust and probate by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. As a former U.S. Navy Radioman and retail business owner, Mancini combines these skills with more than 37 years of experience as an attorney to counsel families and business owners. Through five unique brands and with his partners, he educates wealth advisors, assists business owners in discovering “what’s next,” and protects families and their assets.

Joseph J. Strazzeri

Strazzeri is a former general contractor, land developer, and business owner who combines his real estate and development skills with more than 15 years of experience as an attorney. Like Mancini, his practice also focuses on educating wealth advisors and assisting successful families and business owners to find “what’s next” (while protecting the families and their assets in the process). The common denominator that underlies his efforts is a ‘we-driven’ mindset, in which collaboration itself is a craft. He believes in curiosity as a first impulse—asking questions that expose the full landscape of issues—choices, and solving problems creatively and with deep empathy for clients.

CEEL’s diverse and energetic team includes associate attorneys Brooke Jensen who handles estate settlement, Alexis Bastedo who handles elder law, Executive Director Shelley Lightfoot, six paralegals/strategic assistants, a director of first impressions, and a client relations coordinator.

Providing Options and Educating Clients

One of the firm’s missions is education. Lightfoot says, “We want to dispel all those misconceptions about the benefits that are available to help middle class families. People think that Medi-Cal is for low-income families and it’s not. It is intended for middle class families. People have been trained for so many years to believe incorrectly that it’s really hard to change the general thought out there.”

Stewart cites a case in which an education in the law and the system could have, and eventually did have a dramatically positive effect on an aging family. Several years ago, he was brought in as co-counsel for people he calls a “salt of the earth” family. The client, a man in his sixties, was married to a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He was struggling to support his family by continuing to work every day in his lawn maintenance company. The only real asset of the family was their family home that had increased in value to nearly $1 million. There were no other resources and his income from his business created an income stream of about $2500 a month.

Because of the lack of resources, he felt his only option to take care of his wife was to leave her home unattended. This resulted in the involvement of the state and a conservatorship. When Stewart was retained, her court-appointed conservator and

attorney were asking the court for an amount of approximately $400,000 for attorney fees and costs associated with her care. They had requested an order to sell the home as well as a spousal support order.

During the hearing, Stewart showed that she qualified for benefits that would have paid for her care entirely and that the $400,000 debt could have been avoided. This option was overlooked by both the Court as well as her attorney. It is unclear why this option was overlooked. Stewart speculates that either the attorneys were not familiar with the benefit options or erroneously determined that she was not eligible for benefits.

Preserving Quality of Life. Preserving Legacies.

One of the biggest challenges in elder care and related fields is the unwillingness of those who need professional advice to seek that advice in advance of their need. Less than 10 percent of the population has had a conversation even with their spouse about their long-term care. This aging population is increasing in size. Someone turns 65 about every minute. At 65 someone has a 70 percent chance of needing some form of assistance during his or her lifetime. This disconnect between need and expressed wishes will continue to be a major problem that our senior population will confront.

“That’s really the biggest problem I see in the aging world. We make this assumption that we’re going to age like we saw our grandparents age. And most of our grandparents were fine and then they passed away. There wasn’t this extended stay in a facility where they slowly declined. That’s because our healthcare system wasn’t capable of keeping people alive for as long as it can today. Advances in medicine have dramatically increased life expectancy, which has caused a dramatic increase in the number of people suffering from long-term disabling conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. This change in life expectancy is one that most families have not considered and therefore they don’t have a conversation or even contemplate long-term custodial care planning issues,” Stewart says.

It used to be that estate planning was focused on what happened after you passed away and perhaps minutes or days before you passed away. But the nature of our society and people living longer means that that’s not the path people are living on now. They will likely suffer from some condition that requires some assistance with daily living. And they will need some person—whether it’s a spouse or a child or a professional—to assist them with that. Statistics show that the important questions are not contemplated by most people.

Stewart says, “I don’t see a limit to us being able to assist people in the future. We have all sorts of situations that are going to impact elders physically and financially and they need plans to work within that world. That’s where we come in. We help preserve people’s quality of life. We also help preserve legacies for spouses and if the parents want, we can preserve legacies for their children.”


California Estate and Elder Law
3636 Nobel Drive
Suite 450
San Diego, CA 92122

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