It is a common misunderstanding that elder law is only for the elderly and that only wealthy people in the latter part of their lives should take up estate planning. But neither is true. Everyone has an estate — it just depends on what is a part of it. Elder law is an area of law that touches anyone at any age who wants to be old in the future. Well before reaching old age, many people wonder:
- What will happen to me if I cannot make decisions for myself anymore?
- Who will make decisions for me?
- Are there special benefits I could qualify for?
- How will I deal with any financial obligations?
- What will I do with some of my belongings?
- Where will I live when I am old, and how will I pay for it?
These types of questions are what elder law is meant to answer. Engaging an elder law attorney and considering concerns and options means taking a proactive, forward-thinking approach, especially for people with health and medical concerns. Estate planning is often a part of elder law, but elder law goes beyond just estate planning because it also addresses quality of life, housing, familial, financial, and even medical concerns.
What Does an Estate Planning Attorney Do?
Everyone can benefit from an estate plan, and not even the wealthy are immune to the damage that can be done to families in conflict when the deceased left without a plan in place. Anything you own is part of your estate: car, home, bank accounts, life insurance, furnishings, and personal property. You should start thinking about an estate plan early and regularly update it throughout the course of your life.
An estate planning attorney helps people think ahead, prepare, and make arrangements while still living for disposition of their estate after death. Estate planning helps to minimize taxes and probate costs. If you do not work with an estate planner to create an estate plan ahead of time, then your estate may be distributed according to default state rules and courts. If you die without a plan, then the default probate law will govern how your estate is distributed, which may mean that your spouse, children, or other relatives will not be provided for in the way you would have wanted.
Estate planning attorneys discuss wills, trusts, beneficiary designations, powers of attorney, gifts, financing arrangements, or insurance with clients to prepare potential estate plans. Some of the ways estate planning attorneys help include:
- Help provide instructions regarding who gets what and when so that your wishes are carried out
- Minimize taxes, court fees, and other expenses
- Health care directives including instructions on what should be done if you become disabled
- Take care of minor children by naming guardians and ensuring the right person will manage any inheritance
- Provide for special needs relatives
- Insurance, including life, disability, and long-term care
- Ensure wishes are carried out as to any business plans including transfers of ownership
What Does an Elder Law Attorney Do?
Elder law is very broad and actually encompasses many areas of law. Elder law can include all the functions of estate planning, but it goes further. Special financial and life concerns come along with all stages of life. People are living longer, healthier, and more exciting lives than ever, but this means people need to plan more carefully for themselves and their families. More people are thinking ahead and thoughtfully planning out their lives whether it is budgeting finances so you can go travel, understanding veterans benefits, or figuring out how to finance housing. Anyone at any age should be planning their finances and making arrangements so that none of life’s twists and turns will catch you off guard. An elder law attorney can represent, counsel, and assist individuals across many areas of law including:
- Estate planning: wills, living trusts, insurance
- Conservatorship / Guardianship
- Medicaid, Medicare, social security
- Retirement benefits
- Long-term care and housing, including financing
- Retirement income
- Age discrimination
- Elder abuse and neglect, including abuse in nursing homes
- Healthcare and medical decision making, including durable power of attorney
- Disability planning
- Veterans planning
- Insurance issues
- End of life decisions
An elder law attorney is good at handling and finding solutions for the financial, physical, and even emotional needs of clients thinking about life concerns and priorities that need to be thought out and arranged for. The attorney can serve as a resource to navigate handling finances, determining benefit eligibility, discussing medical care contingency plans, or helping you understand your rights. Prudent decision making today will mean easier decision making later. You never know when a you or a loved one will get too sick to make decisions or live independently. Medical costs can quickly rack up, so it is important to think ahead.
People often get overwhelmed and don’t know what to do if they haven’t made a plan and they or a loved one becomes very sick or needs nursing care. Many people don’t even know where to start when considering how to pay for nursing homes or protecting finances. Nursing homes can cost $75,000 or more per year. Too many seniors exhaust all their savings, thinking they have no choice, when planning ahead could have offered better alternatives. Another misconception is that in order to protect their assets, they need to gift them at least five years prior to entering a nursing home. Many people don’t realize that improper gifting could forfeit your eligibility for Medicaid benefits.
An elder law attorney holistically considers all the unique features of a person’s life, weighing advantages and disadvantages, to best plan for life’s necessities and wishes. It is never too early to start thinking about planning out your finances, benefits, medical care decisions, and housing issues — concerns, dreams, expectations, and preferences should all be addressed now.
Elder Law and Estate Planning: Partnering with You for Your Future
Aside from the fact that elder law largely encompasses estate planning, it may be helpful to point out how these areas of law function for clients. Both estate planners and elder law attorneys protect their clients. Estate planners help clients protect their estates and make sure their wishes are carried out. Elder law attorneys protect their clients many additional ways — counseling prudent financial choices, holding caregivers accountable for medication errors, setting up powers of attorney so the right person is making decisions, or fighting against age discrimination. Elder law attorneys and estate planners are also similar in that they both act as partners with their clients: listening, collaborating, and communicating about what would be the best plan for each individual’s special circumstances.
Written by Don L. Rosenberg, Attorney and Counselor, with the Law Firm of Barron, Rosenberg, Mayoras & Mayoras, P.C. in Troy, Michigan. Attorney Rosenberg and his firm are Featured on ElderCare Matters – America’s National Directory of Elder Care / Senior Care Resources to help families plan for and deal with the issues of Aging.