The month of May has been designated as National Elder Law Month by the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). Formed in 1987, NAELA is dedicated to improving the quality of legal services provided to people as they age and for people with special needs. Its membership is comprised of elder law attorneys.
What makes elder law attorneys different? What is the difference in elder law and estate planning?
Maybe the first question is to ask what is a senior? I suppose it is whatever you consider it. I know in our office, we begin providing “senior” services at age 55 and above, but how do those services look differently than typical estate planning?
At least in our elder law practice, our focus is on helping people find, get, and pay for good care. Elder law attorneys generally explore these different areas with families: asset protection; long term care planning; estate planning; Medicaid counseling, advocacy and representation; eligibility for Medicare, Social Security, and Veterans Benefits; guardianships and incompetency, including durable powers of attorney; healthcare needs planning, including medical advanced directives; recognition and prevention of elder abuse; and placement in and advocacy for people in facilities.
Because these areas overlap so much, an elder law attorney needs to be conversant in all the areas to be able to provide the most effective legal advice. Elder law attorneys are uniquely positioned to help navigate the complex web of rules and regulations for long term care and health benefits. Elder law attorneys work with financial advisors, physicians, facilities, seniors, and families to ensure seniors receive the best quality of life possible.
All too often, we discover people wait too long to address these issues. The opportunity for help shrinks the longer the crisis goes.
We try to urge our families that we work with to do advanced planning. Play the what-if game: What if I get sick? What if I do not die, but live a long time? What if I need long term care? What if I cannot make decisions for myself, etc.?
There are basic fundamental documents that need to be in place: a will or trust; a healthcare power of attorney; a financial power of attorney; a living will; and a HIPAA release. Notwithstanding what you may hear in a coffee shop, all such documents are not created the same. All can be and should be customized to fit a person’s particular situation, at that particular moment in time, based on the values, goals and judgement of that person. Certainly when I am doing planning for someone that is healthy, the plan is going to be much different from someone who has a chronic illness.
I hope that you will take this month to make an appointment with a qualified elder law attorney. Talk about what is going on in your life. Talk about what your short-term and long-term goals are. Be sure that you have the fundamental documents in place, but go further. You may need to have a discussion about how to pay for long term care, how to protect a business, how to plan for incapacity, and other such issues.
I urge you to make those decisions, rather than a court.
Finally, seniors have guided this country. May is a month to celebrate all that they have done for us. If you have a senior in your life that is important to you, be sure and thank that person.