Since 1963, the United States has recognized May as Elder Law Month. Now, before you pull out your party hats and streamers, let’s talk about what elder law is. A common misconception is that elder law refers to any legal issue involving an elderly person. While it’s true that elder law does cover a range of issues and the clientele is seniors, elder law refers specifically to planning for seniors so that they may protect their rights and their assets, preserve their autonomy, and ensure that they receive the highest quality of care possible as they age.
Attorneys who practice elder law handle estate planning issues and counsel clients about planning for incapacity. They may also assist the client in planning for possible long-term care needs, such as nursing home or assisted living care. Some attorneys even assist in locating the appropriate type of care, coordinating private and public resources to finance the cost of care, and working to ensure the client’s right to quality care.
As laws and regulations become more complex, legal woes that affect the elderly are growing in number. And because the systems in place to aid seniors – like Medicaid and other government programs – are often so complex, navigating them alone or without keeping the big picture in mind can cause unintended legal consequences. Elder law encompasses many different fields of law, making it one of the more difficult practice areas. Therefore, it is very important for attorneys dealing with the elderly to have a broad understanding of the laws that may have an impact on any given situation, to avoid future problems.
Most elder law attorneys do not specialize in every area that affects seniors as it would be almost impossible for the attorney to have expertise in all of these areas of law. So when an attorney says he or she practices elder law, find out which specific matters he or she handles. You will want to hire the attorney who regularly handles matters in the area of concern for your particular case and who will know enough about the other fields to question whether the action being taken might be affected by laws in any of the other areas of law. For example, if you are going to prepare a new will and your spouse is ill, the estate planner needs to know enough about Medicaid to know whether it is an issue with regard to your spouse’s medical care planning.
But a good attorney knows more than just the law. They should also bring a knowledge of the elderly that allows them and their staff to see through myths about aging, while taking into account the true physical and mental difficulties that often accompany the aging process. This understanding of the afflictions of aging should allow them to direct their client to a system of social workers, psychologists and other elder care professionals who may be of assistance.
Before you start looking for an elder law attorney, make sure you actually have a legal problem in which an elder law attorney needs to be involved. For example, if a senior wanted to sue his neighbor over a property line dispute, it wouldn’t be considered elder law, even though one of the parties in this case is elderly. If you’re not sure, you can always contact your local bar association to get a referral for an attorney who handles the types of cases that match your problem.
Once you determine that an elder law attorney is needed, there are many places to find one. The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, Inc. (NAELA) is a professional organization of attorneys dedicated to improving the quality of legal services provided to the elderly. NAELA sponsors continuing legal education programs on elder law for attorneys throughout the year, and provides publications and educational materials to its members on a wide range of elder law topics. The NAELA website (www.naela.org) includes a searchable directory of attorneys who belong to NAELA. You may also want to check with local agencies such as the Alzheimer’s Association; support groups for specific diseases or hospital or nursing home social service departments. If you know any attorneys personally, you may also want to ask them for a referral to an elder law Attorney. Attorneys who practice in other areas of the law may be in a good position to know who handles such issues in your area and whether that person is reputable.
So, in honor of Elder Law Month, if you or a loved one is at the age where you are thinking about long-term care, take a moment to answer these questions: Do I have a plan for my housing, medical care, and finances if I am no longer able to live independently? If the answer is no, consider finding a qualified elder law attorney to help you navigate the way.