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What Is Elder Law?

More people today live longer, healthier lives than their grandparents and great-grandparents did. Instead of retiring and dying in a few years, people can plan to live active retirements into their 70s and 80s. As a result, it's now more important to plan for long-term care and financial needs for older adults.

Elder law is a legal specialization in the legal issues senior citizens face. These issues include legal documents such as wills and trusts, disability planning, powers of attorney, and advance directives. It also includes elder care matters faced by the family and friends of seniors, like elder abuse and nursing home placement.

This article reviews some of the special needs of elderly people and what you should look for in an elder law attorney.

What Is Elder Law?

Elder law focuses on age-related issues. Some are the same legal matters that affect everyone: healthcare, housing, and public benefits. Just because the person involved is elderly does not mean they need an elder law attorney. A probate lawyer can manage some issues, such as a basic will and testament, living trusts, and a health care power of attorney.

The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) recommends an elder law attorney for issues that involve long-term care and housing, Medicare/Medicaid planning, and special needs planning. Elder law services help you get peace of mind ahead of situations where you or a loved one won't be able to make all your decisions for yourself.

Long-Term Care Options

As people get older, they need to plan for when they won't be able to live alone. Nursing homes have given way to assisted living, skilled nursing, hospice, and in-home care. Most of these options are expensive. An elder care attorney may recommend a financial advisor to plan for these future costs.

If family members plan to act as caregivers for aging parents or relatives, they need legal advice on how to proceed. Medicare and Social Security have plans for paying benefits to family caregivers. But they must meet specific eligibility requirements.

Health Care Concerns

Even the healthiest older people have age-related health problems. Health insurance, Medicare/Medicaid, and veteran's benefits only go so far with covering these costs. Today, the biggest concerns are Alzheimer's and related dementia. An elder law attorney can explain the benefits and risks of a living will with a durable power of attorney. These documents help prepare for a time when the older person may be unable to make their own choices and be unable to sign legal documents. Sometimes, an attorney can arrange a conservatorship before it becomes necessary.

Estate Planning and Wills

You should carry out estate planning and asset protection throughout your life. You should have a living will providing guardianship and financial support for dependent children until they turn 18. Even if you don't want to see an attorney immediately, planning documents for wills and trusts are available online.

Older adults should update their wills regularly. They should ensure their current will provides a "pay on death" transfer of assets to whoever has their power of attorney. This allows their attorney or relative to cover any costs immediately after they die. An elder law attorney or estate planning attorney can explain the details to you.

The courts take over if you die without a will ("intestate"). If you have no dependents and no property, that may not matter. But if you have any minor children or leave property behind, they may be in trouble. In the case of older adults, dying intestate means that any heirs or beneficiaries must wait in limbo or in court. They'll have to prove that the decedent intended for them to have property or a treasured heirloom.

Older Adult Abuse

Older adult abuse may involve litigation. It can involve personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits against nursing home operators or others responsible for older adults. It may also involve criminal charges against abusive caregivers in nursing homes or facilities or even complaints to the state for regulatory compliance.

If you spot signs of older adult abuse, you should first remove your family member from the facility. You should report the suspected abuse to the facility management and your state Department of Elder Protective Services. You should also consult an elder care attorney to determine your next steps.

When You Need an Elder Law Attorney

When you or a loved one need legal services for an older adult matter, contact an older adult law attorney. You can also contact your state's bar association to find attorneys who will take your case pro bono (no charge).

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