When you think about elder law—if you think about it at all—you probably think about estate planning. Estate planning is something that people tend to think about more and more seriously as they age, and estate planning does make up a significant portion of many elder law attorneys’ practices.
But elder law is much more than just estate planning, and seniors who create an estate plan without planning for their other legal needs may be missing out. Let’s talk about what elder law is, what elder law attorneys can do for you or your family, when you should hire an attorney, and how to find a good attorney.
What is Elder Law?
“Elder law” is an umbrella term encompassing the areas of law that impact the lives of older people. Estate planning and estate administration are part of elder law, but so are legal issues like Medicaid planning and long-term care planning, retirement and tax planning, veterans’ benefits, Social Security, and preventing and responding to the various forms of elder abuse.
Because these areas of the law often impact each other, it’s important not to consider any one of them in isolation from the others. An elder law attorney doesn’t focus on narrow practice areas, but on the interplay of many practice areas as they affect older people. In other words, an attorney looks at the legal “big picture” affecting seniors.
What Does an Elder Law Attorney Do?
Using this “big picture” perspective, an elder law attorney helps seniors and their families plan for the older person’s physical, financial, and emotional well-being. Sometimes an attorney must be consulted in a crisis—for instance, when a senior needs to go into a nursing home and there are questions about how to pay for it, or when an elderly parent can no longer make good decisions and needs a guardian and conservator.
Other times, an elder law attorney works with seniors who are in good health but want to plan ahead to make sure their needs are met and their assets preserved for their loved ones.
When Should I Hire an Elder Law Attorney?
It’s always better to work with an elder attorney before there’s an urgent legal issue, but if you have an emergency, it can be very reassuring to have the guidance of a legal professional who has helped other families navigate a similar crisis.
If you have ever had to help an older family member through a crisis that required an attorney’s help, you probably don’t want to put your own children through the same thing. If you are 65 or older, consulting an elder law attorney now can help you prevent that stress. An attorney can help you plan ahead for:
- Establishing who will make personal, financial, and medical decisions for you if you become unable to make them for yourself
- Minimizing taxes in retirement and making the most of your retirement savings
- Evaluating government benefits that may be available to you, including Medicare, Social Security, and veterans’ benefits
- Coordinating and financing long-term care, whether in or out of a nursing home
- Qualifying for Medicaid assistance and protecting assets for your spouse and family in the event you someday need nursing home care
- Distribution of your assets after your death and minimizing or eliminating estate taxes
Planning ahead with your elder law attorney in your sixties will not only give you peace of mind that your needs will be met and your wishes honored, but it will lift a burden off your loved ones’ shoulders.
How Much Do Elder Law Attorneys Charge?
It’s hard to say exactly what you will need to pay to work with an elder law attorney, because your legal fees will depend on the services you need and the attorney’s hourly rate. For some services, such as the creation of an estate plan and incapacity plan, an attorney may be able to quote you a flat fee.
Elder law attorneys understand that finances are a concern for many of their clients. You should never hesitate to ask an attorney up front what you can expect to pay; your attorney will give you the most accurate answer they can, and explain the factors that might affect your bill.
One thing to consider is not just what it will cost you to hire an attorney, but what it might cost you and your family not to. Without proper planning, you could lose many thousands of dollars to the nursing home or to the IRS.
How to Find a Good Elder Law Attorney
Word of mouth is always a good place to start. If you know someone who has recently worked with an elder law attorney, they may have recommendations. You can also check with respected organizations such as the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) for referrals to a local attorney but you should also do your own research, even with a referral; after all, you are planning for your future or for the needs of a loved one.
Many elder law attorneys offer an initial consultation at a reasonable cost, or at no cost. When you speak with the attorney, you should ask the following questions:
- How long have you been an attorney, and how much of your practice involves elder law? (You don’t want an attorney who is inexperienced or just dabbles in elder law.)
- How frequently do you deal with the issues I’m concerned about (such as long-term care planning, helping a loved one with Alzheimer’s, veterans’ benefits, etc.)?
- How would you tailor your planning to my (or my loved one’s) specific needs?
You should feel comfortable with any attorney with whom you choose to work. An attorney’s experience and skill is important, but you also want to work with an attorney and law firm who are kind and responsive to your family’s needs.
To learn more about finding and working with an elder law attorney, contact Estate Planning & Elder Law Services to schedule a consultation.