Good Life

County offers several options for getting legal advice

Janet Cantolina hands paperwork to a volunteer during a tax assistance program at the Millheim Community Action Outreach Center in 2013.
Janet Cantolina hands paperwork to a volunteer during a tax assistance program at the Millheim Community Action Outreach Center in 2013. CDT file photo

When seniors and their families aren’t sure where to turn for legal advice, Centre County offers a variety of options to answer questions that include both county-run and private agencies.

Amos Goodall, a State College-based certified elder law attorney, said the most important tips he has for seniors or those taking care of them is to get all affairs in order before it’s too late.

Creating a will and choosing a medical power of attorney may be the top priorities, Goodall said.

“Everyone is subject to medical crises,” Goodall said. “Everyone needs medical documents providing information of someone who makes the decision, specifically with seniors.”

A power of attorney is formal authorization for someone to act on behalf of another in private affairs or business or other legal matters when that person cannot make decisions for themselves.

If no guardian is chosen, the court will assign one, Goodall said.

Planning a will for during life and after death is crucial, Goodall said. A will should be updated approximately every four years.

In addition to spelling out where money and assets go, the way the deceased is remembered is also important.

“What happens to memory after death? Is it ethical with who I am and what I was? Memory will serve as resource for generations down the line,” Goodall said.

Goodall said when drafting a will, to put it in the hands of an expert.

“Don’t do it yourself,” Goodall said. “There’s nothing wrong with doing your homework online, but then go to a professional who does this for a living and can draft something appropriately.”

If no will or trust is made, some people may fear that the deceased’s belongings go into the hands of the state.

In 38 years practicing law, Goodall said he’s never heard of that happening.

What likely happens is that the situation will go to court, where it will be decided what assets are dispersed to family or close friends. This is called a testate succession, Goodall said.

And while getting affairs in order can become expensive, Goodall said that legal fees in Centre County are much lower than in other metro areas. He said locally, costs are usually in the hundreds of dollars compared to a couple thousand.

For those who need further assistance or meet certain financial requirements, Centre County Office on Aging can be a valuable resource.

Acting director J.R. Reed said the office has a contract with MidPenn Legal Services — a private non-profit corporation that offers legal services at low cost or free, depending on financial eligibility.

Anyone 60 or older can use services provided by the office, Reed said.

“The Office of Aging is the watchdog for everyone,” said Kathy Cella, pro bono coordinator at MidPenn Legal Services. “If you have questions, they have answers. When our services are necessary, then we step in.”

For those seniors who meet a certain financial income limit, MidPenn Legal Services offers programs and attorneys who help with drafting end-of-life documents, debt collection and real estate issues, getting into subsidized housing, preparing a power of attorney, health care issues, wills and trusts, and more.

Cella said the most frequent cases that cross her desk are senior housing issues.

“We hear, ‘It’s cold out and the landlord won’t provide sufficient heat,’ ” Cella said. “Our job is to take care of those issues.”

Other common cases are power of attorney documents, housing evictions and representing seniors who aren’t being cared for or are negligent to themselves.

“When that happens, our priority is to make sure they’re not in harm’s way,” Cella said. “We see some predatory cases and people who take advantage of older people.”

Reed said elder abuse is the third largest issue with seniors. By next year, he expects elder abuse to hit the No. 2 spot.

The Office of Aging created an elder task force to help target those issues, Reed said.

“We’re trying to be more proactive and create prevention-type programs,” Reed said. “We go out and talk to different groups of people and to the elderly, and let them know of their options.”

The office also takes phone calls, gives advice and makes home visits when necessary.