Recently I volunteered with the West Virginia State Bar to answer phones on Tuesday night when we offer free information by calling a toll free state-wide hotline. I answered number of calls, but one of them concerned me.
This caller, an elderly woman had hired a very well respected “personal injury” attorney to represent her after she was in a car accident. The elderly woman lived alone. The attorney negotiated a good settlement for her, based on her relatively minor injuries and she was satisfied with the $9000.00 settlement.
Satisfied, until she went to fill out some paper work pertaining to her Medicare and Medicaid. The settlement amount caused her to lose many of her benefits, including the part-time in-home caregiver who assisted her with meal planning, medical appointments and housework. She was instructed that once she spent all of her settlement money, she may be eligible again and could reapply and perhaps be placed on a wait list to get another caregiver, but that could be up to a year.
During the call, the very kind lady told me that she wished she’d never received the money. She was attached to her caregiver and without one, she was afraid that she would need to move to a nursing home. She had no idea how she should spend the settlement and was devastated by the loss of her caregiver.
What is wrong with this picture? This attorney did not plan for the settlement. I look forward to sitting down with my clients and talking about their settlements. We plan, from the outset of the case, about the settlement. What could the money be used for? How could a settlement make their lives better? Had this attorney understood the situation, he could have planned much better. The client could still have received a settlement, but with proper planning she also would have retained the benefits she needs.
What can you do?
- Before you call an attorney: Look for attorneys who have experience in working with public benefits, such as Medicare and Medicaid. I spent three full years working with legal services and in that position worked extensively in this area. I represented several persons in "fair hearings" at the DHHR and also represented parties against the DHHR regarding the receipt of public benefits. In my private practice, I've represented many clients who were receiving public benefits and worked to maximize the benefits of their settlements.
- Before you hire an attorney: When you are hiring attorney, look for one who seems to care about you, your family and your needs. If the only thing the potential attorney is talking about is blaming the person who injured you and filing documents with the court, you may want to keep looking.
- While you are recovering: Talk to your attorney. A lot! Set up regular appointments and let him or her know how you are doing. The attorney needs to know about you, and your life, and how the settlement can make your life better, not just be a dollar figure.
- Before the settlement: More talking. Be sure your attorney knows all of your sources of income and how your bills are paid. Ask lots of questions. How much of the settlement do I keep? Do you keep? Will be used to pay bills? Will I have to repay anything to my health insurance or Medicare? How will this settlement affect my future health insurance needs? Will it affect my ability to get child care payments, public housing assistance, or future medical treatment? How long? Is there anything we can do to change that? Figure out if you will need to “spend down” to be eligible for any programs or if it might be best for you to go off of a program until your settlement is in and you’ve been able to spend it down. Keep asking the most important question: Why is this settlement good for me? The question is not is this the most money you get, but why it makes your life better!
- During the settlement: Be sure you understand everything. Ask for a disbursement schedule before you accept the settlement. Meet with the attorney, in person, to be sure that you are not going to have any surprises down the road!
- After the settlement: Keep copies of everything that your attorney pays. Follow up on the strategy that you develop with the attorney to be sure you maximize the potential for your settlement to really make your life better.
Please email me or call me if you have any questions about this. We can help you figure out how to navigate this difficult issue!
(Please note: I have changed some of the details of the facts of this call to protect the privacy of the caller. Those changes did not affect the issue or outcome of this legal problem.)