What Is NELF?


NELF is The National Elder Law Foundation. We are a non-profit organization dedicated to the nationwide development and enhancement of the professional competence and expertise of lawyers who practice law affecting issues relating to elder law and special needs law. We focus on certifying the most qualified and experienced elder law practitioners across the country and supporting the continued education, training, and ethics of elder law attorneys. NELF is the only national elder law organization fully accredited by the American Bar Association to certify qualified elder lawyers with the CELA designation, identifying them as among the most accomplished, experienced elder law attorneys with the highest level of expertise and integrity.

What Is Elder Law?


Elder law is the practice of law affecting clients as they age and plan for elder life. It also involves planning for and facilitating the protection and preservation of assets for people of all ages with special needs without threatening their eligibility for Medicaid and other public benefits. Elder law attorneys also draft estate plans that minimize or eliminate unnecessary tax liability. In addition to counseling and creating solutions to health and financial planning, elder law attorneys are specially trained to recognize and respond to situations in which abuse, neglect, or exploitation of an older or disabled person is occurring. 

What Is a CELA?


A CELA is a Certified Elder Law Attorney. Only attorneys who have concentrated a substantial portion of their legal practice to elder law issues every year for three consecutive years, and who have represented at least 60 elder law matters each of those years, and who produce supportive recommendations from other elder law attorneys, colleagues, and judges are qualified to seek the CELA certification.

Every candidate for CELA certification must sit for and pass a full-day, rigorous, written examination covering matters relating to elder and special needs law. The exam is administered two times each year and the current pass rate is less than 50 percent. Only the best, most qualified candidates earn NELF’s CELA designation.

Why Are Elder Law Specialists Preferred Over General Practice Lawyers?


Just as doctors specialize in areas of medicine to treat specific health problems, some lawyers limit their practice to a specialized area of law to better serve the needs of a particular group of clients. Certified elder law attorneys are legal specialists whose credentials are earned only after demonstrating a highly developed level of expertise in elder and special needs law, maintaining a constant pursuit of legal education, and by submitting to recertification testing every five years.

When someone needs medical treatment for a serious health problem, they find the doctors who specialize in that area. Oncologists are sought out for cancer treatment, cardiologists treat heart-related illness, neurosurgeons perform brain surgery. Certified elder law attorneys specialize in serving the needs of older clients and clients with special needs who want to protect assets for themselves or others in the years ahead, to secure financial interests and medical decision-making powers should they become incapacitated, and plan for the efficient and economical distribution of their assets to loved ones and others when their life ends. 

Federal and state laws and regulations affecting trusts, estate and income taxes, retirement savings accounts, pensions, Medicaid eligibility, and other issues change too often for non-elder law specialists to keep current. Your family, your health, and your life savings are too important to risk by relying on a general practitioner who may be unaware of recent developments in the law.

Why Do You Need a CELA?


When you engage an elder law attorney who has earned CELA designation, you and your family can be confident that their advice and services meet the highest standards of legal compliance and will facilitate the goals you informed them you wanted to achieve. A CELA will consistently act with integrity and care in dealing with elder clients and persons with special needs and disabilities. CELAs maintain a course of ongoing legal education to keep up to date with every important development that might affect your estate plan, your tax exposure, your eligibility for public benefits, and the best means to transfer or position your assets to preserve them for the purposes you direct.

According to the ABA Committee on Specialization, “[t]o meet the rigorous standards set by certifying organizations, a lawyer must achieve an enhanced level of experience and knowledge in the specialty field.”

Working with a CELA for your elder law matters, or for any issues relating to special needs law, assures you that your lawyer is better prepared or a more capable elder law attorney than others who have not earned the CELA credentials.

Elder retired white couple dementia care planning walking toward woods

Can a CELA Plan to Protect Children and Adults with Special Needs?


Certified elder law attorneys specialize in planning and drafting legal documents to serve the needs of disabled children and adults and their families. To preserve a disabled person’s eligibility for Medicaid and other public benefits, a CELA can create trusts and other instruments into which assets will be preserved to provide for the person with special needs and to enrich their lives. When executed properly, a Special Needs Trust or Supplemental Trust will be out of reach of creditors and will not be used to limit the person’s eligibility for public benefits.

How Do You Find a CELA Near You?


There are more than 500 CELAs in the United States and other candidates are working every day to meet the strict criteria to achieve certification from the National Elder Law Foundation. You can find the CELA near you by clicking on your state in the CELA directory here.

How Does a Lawyer Become a Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA)?


Lawyers must meet strict requirements before they can sit for the CELA written examination. They must meet each of the following criteria and undergo recertification every five years:

  • Licensure. The attorney must be licensed to practice law in at least one state or the District of Columbia.
  • Practice. The attorney must currently be practicing and have practiced for at least five years immediately preceding their application of certification.   Full time probate judges or full-time professors at accredited law schools may receive credit for this time toward the practice requirement from the standards committee.
  • Integrity and Good Standing. The applicant must be either a member in good standing of the bars in all places in which you are licensed or have been a member in good standing at the time any license was voluntarily surrendered.
  • Substantial Elder Law Involvement/Experience. The applicant 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 their application. In addition, they 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. The applicant must have participated in at least 45 hours of continuing legal education in elder law during the preceding three-years.
  • Peer Review/Professional References. The applicant must submit the names of five attorneys familiar with their practice who will provide references as to their competence and qualifications in elder law. These persons must themselves satisfy specified criteria. They will be contacted directly by NELF, and each person’s response will be confidential and unavailable to the applicant.
  • Written Examination. The applicant must sit for the certification examination within two-years of filing their application.

Is NELF’s Elder Law Certification Accredited by the ABA?


Yes. NELF is the only national organization accredited by the American Bar Association to confer certification of elder law specialization. ABA accreditation is only granted to organizations that consistently demonstrate they comply with Standards for Accreditation of Specialty Certification Programs for Lawyers. The certifying organization must consider only candidate lawyers who are substantially involved elder law, who are licensed and maintain bar membership in good standing, who continue to attend continuing legal education, who are recognized and endorsed by qualified peers, and who pass comprehensive written examinations may be certified. The CELA state level designations are recognized on a state by state basis.

 A Concise Guide to Lawyer Specialty Certification, The ABA Standing Committee on Specialization