An elder law attorney is often associated with negative connotations and events, such as the loss of independence and a reminder of our own mortality. However, many people would probably agree that planning for the future is a wise idea. The challenge is that, because we cannot see into the future, planning becomes easy to postpone when the need for information or services is perceived to be a long way off.
The legal and financial needs of older adults often differ from those of younger generations, simply because of a person’s advanced stage in life. Retirement vs. career, empty nest vs. young children, fewer mortgage and loan payments, and changes in health status all influence an older adult’s options and choices. Some individuals are diligent and invest time to get professional help to review their personal situations and execute a strategy to meet their goals. Other people create only a last will and testament, and wrongly believe that their needs are covered.
Estate planning is a general term that attorneys use to describe the overall process of preparing legally for future decision-making. Keystone Elder Law uses the term “foundational documents” to describe these four essential items: a last will and testament; a durable financial power of attorney; a healthcare power of attorney; and a living will. Estate planning sometimes also includes other legal tools such as a trust, life estate deed, or pre or post nuptial agreement.
Effective planning in advance offers some protection from a few of the potentially devastating consequences of divorce, business liabilities, sudden disability, or the cost of long-term care. Keystone Elder Law encourages involvement of a team of professionals, including a tax accountant and financial planner. Good planning and teamwork can assist an individual in achieving retirement goals, as well as reducing the financial impact and social complications from events that might not now be under consideration.
Often, adult children may feel confused and conflicted by a crisis involving an aging parent. Sometime such a crisis is sudden and unexpected; and other times, it has been building up and was either ignored or minimized by the parent(s). Getting the help of an elder law attorney at such a time can provide the necessary guidance to discover the best way to find appropriate long-term care, and to get help to pay for it.
The regulations involved in government benefit programs are confusing and inconsistent. There are a myriad of questions which may arise. Common concerns are: how to maximize family economic benefits from sharing a housing arrangement or ownership; proper techniques that enable a family member to be paid for providing care; how to motivate a parent who is in denial of a need; or what legal options remain for planning after an initial diagnosis of dementia has been received. Elder law attorneys are able to provide counseling for individuals who have special needs or require a guardianship due to incapacity.
In addition to estate planning and the management of a long-term care crisis, another area of practice for elder law attorneys is estate administration, which is a service that is also routinely and competently offered by many general practice attorneys. When an individual dies, there are a multitude of details which require attention in order to wrap up the decedent’s financial and legal affairs. The person named within a will is referred to as an executor, executrix, or by the gender neutral term of “personal representative.”
An attorney can help the personal representative to determine if probate is necessary, and if it is, to provide assistance with many related tasks, including: completing required paperwork at the county courthouse; opening an estate account at a bank or credit union; publication of the required legal notices and forms; accessing assets from the deceased individual’s financial institutions; determining the value of the estate and preparing the necessary accounting; dealing with creditors; calculating the state inheritance tax and completing that tax return; and distributing assets to beneficiaries. Depending on circumstances, legal fees for estate administration may be a percentage of the estate, a definite flat fee, or may be invoiced on an hourly basis as incurred. Legal fees may be affected by the amount and diversity of the estate’s assets, the presence of unusual or complicating factors, and the comfort level of the estate’s personal representative. The personal representative may choose to receive a fee, even if a lawyer is retained.
Some people have a hard time asking for help, feel secretive about family finances, or react negatively to the thought of contacting an attorney for advice. However, getting the help of an elder law attorney can simplify complicated events and provide peace of mind for the family. Some questions to consider when choosing an elder law attorney could include:
- Is the attorney certified in elder law? A certified attorney must have at least five years of extensive experience and pass a rigorous and comprehensive examination.
- How many areas of law does the attorney practice? An attorney who is focused on one practice area directs all of his or her time, energy, and resources on acquiring and maintaining in-depth and current knowledge.
- What is the attorney’s reputation? Testimonials or references provided by an attorney can be useful, but the best referral source is often from the experience of a trusted friend.
- Is the attorney’s personality a good fit? A firm with multiple elder law attorneys is likely to have someone whose personality helps you to feel comfortable.
- Is the office staff accessible, respectful and efficient? Some law firms strengthen and enrich the services of the firm with special skills provided by a variety of staff members.
Naturally, our team at Keystone Elder Law hopes you call us. If you do, we will be honored either to serve you or, as we do occasionally, refer you elsewhere if we think your issue can best be served by another resource. If you want to get to know us better before employing us, we invite you to attend one of the many free seminars that we offer regularly on a wide variety of topics.
Dave Nesbit, Attorney