Elder law is different from fields such as criminal defense law or personal injury law in that the term doesn’t refer to the precise legal issues addressed. Rather, “elder law” refers to a range of legal needs generally shared by people as they age. Some of those legal issues are critical to the health and financial security of older Americans and their families, so it is important to be aware of and address them before urgent needs arise.
What is Elder Law?
The needs typically addressed by an elder law attorney include:
- Estate planning
- Wills and trusts
- Advance directives
- Health care power of attorney
- General or financial power of attorney
Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive, but it provides a good overview of the type of issues that an elder law attorney can help you or your older relatives manage and prepare for.
When is the Best Time to Talk with an Elder Law Attorney
Although “elder law” suggests that an attorney’s clientele will be aged, that’s a bit misleading. This area of law is intended to help protect people when they reach an advanced age, begin to experience medical and other limitations, and perhaps require assistance. However, the right time to prepare for those issues is before they arise. This is true for many reasons. Some of the most important include:
Availability to make decisions: Even as you advance in age, it’s easy to imagine that you have plenty of time to make the type of decisions described above. And you may be right. But, what if a situation arises suddenly? When a person passes away unexpectedly without a will or living trust, the family may be left with a complicated mess, and the outcome may not be what you would have chosen. Further, a sudden medical problem that renders someone temporarily incapable of telling medical personnel what he or she wants can have a negative outcome if no one has been legally appointed to make decisions under those circumstances.
Capacity to make decisions: Certain conditions affecting the elderly, such as Alzheimer’s disease, render the person legally incompetent to make certain decisions. This means that someone who puts off creating a will or designating someone to hold medical power of attorney may find those decisions taken out of his or her hands when illness strikes or aging takes its toll.
Asset protection: While no one wants to think about becoming reliant on Medicaid, health care is very expensive—especially if long-term care is required. In fact, about half of all nursing home residents receive Medicaid assistance. With advance planning, it is possible to protect your family financially while maintaining access to the care you need. However, your options may be significantly limited if you wait until you need assistance with your medical care to take action. In many circumstances, a Medicaid eligibility determination will include a review of financial transactions reaching back five years.
Clearly, it’s in your best interests to get professional advice about elder law issues before those issues arise. However, the second-best time to get help is right away.
If you or an elderly loved one is already experiencing a decline in health, facing the possible need for long-term care or otherwise in need of guidance regarding health and estate issues, talk to an elder law attorney to find out how you can best protect your family.
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