VA Accreditation, Board Certification, Degrees, Designations–
What Are These and Why Are They Important?
Attorneys and other professionals can sport many different titles, certifications, and letters after their name. When it comes to VA benefits to pay for assisted living or private duty nursing or Medi-Cal to pay for skilled nursing, what do they all mean and why are they important? Since the advisor that you are considering often times will be giving you recommendations affecting your very financial survival, I would suggest that you obtain the best advice available.
Many people profess to have expertise in the VA benefits arena. They include insurance agents, paralegals, representatives of Veterans Organizations, and attorneys. Some know what they are talking about; most do not!
Those who have some knowledge of the VA benefits field often know little or nothing about Medi-Cal (known as Medicaid outside of California). This applies especially to insurance agents and financial advisors who have recently decided that this arena is a fertile field for new business. Techniques used in qualifying veterans or spouses for the VA benefit can often affect eligibility for Medi-Cal down the road. Medi-Cal is a government program that pays for skilled nursing facilities. Each state has its own version, so a Colorado attorney typically does not know the California Medi-Cal idiosyncracies or California law in general.
It is important to have knowledge of both fields. For example, let’s consider Harry. Harry is in an assisted living facility. All he has is a house. On the advice of his insurance agent, the house is sold, Harry nets $100,000 and transfers it all to his children so that he can qualify for the VA benefit. That money is then placed into an annuity sold by the insurance agent. Later that year, Harry’s health takes a turn for the worse. He transfers to a skilled nursing facility. The monthly cost triples from $3500 to $10,500. Harry, of course, has nothing as he transferred it all away to his children. The children don’t have an extra $7000 per month to pay for Harry. The family now looks to Medi-Cal to fill the financial gap. But because of Harry’s transfer of the $100,000 he is subject to a Medi-Cal penalty disqualifying him from Medi-Cal benefits for approximately 15 months. The $100,000 is then withdrawn from the annuity to fill the financial gap. Unfortunately, the withdrawal is subject to an obscene surrender charge (often in the 10% neighborhood). (A surrender charge is the amount the insurance company keeps for itself when the money is withdrawn early.) Had the transfer been accomplished by other means, the penalty period could have been zero and the surrender charge completely avoided.
The VA recognized that there were people who were not qualified to advise on Veterans benefits and passed regulations in 2009. In order to be accredited, individuals must do some or all of the following: pass an exam, periodically attend a certain number of hours of classes dealing with VA benefits, and be determined by the VA to be of suitable character. There are three types of people that are accredited by the VA. The VA recognizes a number of Veterans Service Organizations (VSO). These organizations include such entities as Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, etc. Representatives of these VSO’s can be accredited. Similarly, others can be accredited. Non-attorneys are referred to as “Accredited Claims Agents” and attorneys as Accredited Attorneys. (Claims agents are rather rare.) In any case, none of these people are supposed to charge to prepare, present, or prosecute a claim. And except in rare circumstances, others are not supposed to perform these acts even for free. It is a Federal Crime to violate these restrictions.
VA accreditation is the only way that a consumer can be sure that the individual knows the laws and regulations that apply to the VA benefit programs. Mr. Miller is accredited by the VA and holds accreditation number 9055.
As pointed out above, when advising on VA benefits it is critical to also have knowledge of Medi-Cal. So an advisor having VA accreditation alone is not enough for anyone with anything beyond nominal assets. The consumer must demand more. California has a board certification program in various specialty areas. The specialty area for California encompassing Medi-Cal is called Estate Planning, Trust, and Probate Law.
An attorney certified as a specialist in Estate Planning, Trust, and Probate Law has completed extensive specialized legal education beyond that required to initially obtain a license to practice law. Many attorneys, even those who claim to “do Living Trusts”, no matter how long they may have been in practice, do not have this specialized training. See Is Your Attorney Board Certified? Why Should You Care? for details on this program. Mr. Miller is certified as a specialist by the California State Bar’s Board of Legal Specialization. (This is a government agency.)
There are various degrees that one might have after one’s name. Master’s degrees are the most common. They indicate that one passed the requirements of the particular college that issued the degree. Requirements vary from college to college. Some colleges are accredited by well recognized accreditation organizations, some are not. (Note, that we are not talking here about the U. S. Government that “approves” a college or school for purposes of educational loans—-that is a completely different subject and would not be what I, personally, would look to in order to determine the quality of the institution.) Nevertheless, degrees indicate the education that one obtained but not necessarily any continuing education or experience. So the knowledge that one obtained could be woefully out of date. Mr. Miller holds a Master’s Degree in Financial Services with emphasis in Estate Planning from the College for Financial Planning, Denver, Colorado.
Designations also abound. Many are acquired with a payment of a fee and minimal effort. So unless you are prepared to do research on the particular designation and what is required to obtain it, my view is that you simply take all of them with a grain of salt.
Since the advisor that you are considering will be giving you recommendations affecting your very financial survival, I would suggest that you obtain the best advice available. Insurance agents are fine for advising on insurance products, not legal strategies to obtain government benefits. We often call in an insurance agent or financial advisor to provide valuable input, but not to make these determinations alone. So an attorney who is VA Accredited (if VA benefits are part of the goal) and who is California board certified in Estate Planning, Trust, and Probate Law (or certified in a similar subject matter by an entity that is approved by the California State Bar) is what you should be demanding. Anything less is playing with fire!