Elder law expertise allows attorney to offer clients more options

By Cynthia Price

Legal News

Miller Johnson attorney Lauretta K. "Laurie" Murphy can attest that most people have a strong aversion to thinking about aging.

"None of us wants to think about getting older, or even about our parents getting older, because then we're confronted with our own aging," Murphy says. "So then it's an emergency, and people ask, where do I begin?"

Murphy tries very hard to break that mindset by educating people about the worst consequences of avoiding planning for the future. She says she probably gave 50 speeches last year alone.

Though she is not the only attorney out there with expertise in elder law and estate planning, it seems the natural flow of Murphy's interests have made it a passion for her.

"I know it's weird, but I was a nursing home volunteer even in high school," she says with a smile.

Later, Murphy's first husband died after a long illness, so she has first-hand experience in what people may face. After getting her B.A. from Aquinas College, and her J.D. from University of Notre Dame Law School, graduating magna cum laude, Murphy started at Miller Johnson -- about 24 years ago. She had an interest in tax law, but says it was almost a foregone conclusion that she would expand on that to practice in the area of estate planning, which she began barely two years into her career. "I have a heart for it," she says.

Now, Murphy is the chair of Miller Johnson's Elder Law and Disability Planning practice group. The group is small, consisting of Murphy, Kathleen Hogan Aguilar, and Kathy Metzler in the Kalamazoo office, plus some support personnel, but it is growing as the client base expands.

In addition to receiving honors within her area of practice (she was selected as a member of the prestigious American College of Trust and Estate Counsel), Murphy is the current president of Elder Law of Michigan, and her history of community service shows a prodigious commitment to promoting sound estate planning. She has served as president of the Grand Rapids Bar Association Probate Section and of the West Michigan Estate Planning Council as well as secretary and treasurer of the State Bar of Michigan Elder Law and Advocacy Section.

She is also a volunteer for the Area Agency on Aging and for the Gerontology Network, and is a former president and still on the board of directors of the Council on Aging of Kent County.

At the same time she is president of the board for Disability Advocates of Kent County. She has developed a subspecialty on planning for care of people with disabilities, working particularly with the parents of those who need protection due to greater vulnerability.

In fact, vulnerability is a key word for Murphy. She has long been an advocate around elder abuse. "One of the things I've done in my world is advocate for protection, vulnerable adult laws, enhanced penalties for elder abuse," she says. She currently serves as a volunteer on the Triad - Council Against Senior Exploitation, and was formerly chair of the Kent and Ottawa Council Against Senior Exploitation.

"Because older people are kind of uniquely vulnerable, partly because they have a vision of the trustworthiness of others, another piece is, how do you prevent their exploitation?" Murphy asks. She regretfully reports that the vast majority of financial and physical abuse is perpetrated by family members, but she does not believe all of that is necessarily ill-intentioned. "It's often overwhelmed family members who are desperate themselves. If I'm constantly caring for my loved one and getting two hours of sleep a night, at some point I'm liable to make bad decisions just because I can't take it any more."

Of course, advance planning is one way to avoid such situations. Murphy stresses that it benefits everyone when individuals work up the courage to address the future despite the unpleasant images it calls up. "If you didn't plan for who you want to make decisions in the event you're not able to, and it takes you unawares, your family is left without the tools they need to get you respectful and appropriate care."

Murphy's observations have led her to make a lot of distinctions that are not obvious to others. She refers to "old and old-old," and says people should ask questions about overall capacity to avoid inappropriately lumping all people over the age of 70 together. "If mom forgets to use her walker once in a while, she shouldn't be treated the same as someone who's extremely impaired." She adds the "scary" fact that, although the population in Michigan is living longer, statistics show the onset of Alzheimer's is still about the same as it has been for decades.

Murphy considers it her job and her mission to get to know her clients well and customize the options she offers.

A lot of planning questions have to do with resources, and Murphy is widely recognized as an expert in protecting assets and in Medicaid and Medicare. She edited the fourth edition of the ICLE publication "Advising the Older Client or Client with a Disability" and co-authored the chapter on "Medicare Benefits and Procedures," as well as serving as a go-to authority for TV and newspaper journalists.

"What I like about what I do is, I think I have the ability to empower people to maximize their choices as they age, open people's minds to things they wouldn't have thought of," Murphy says. "And I do feel like that's fun."

Published: Mon, Jan 16, 2012

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