May is Elder Law Month, according to the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). If you have been reading our weekly column in The Sentinel, you have a pretty good idea of what elder law is. But here is a definition provided by NAELA: “Elder law is a specialized area of law that involves representing, counseling and assisting seniors, people with disabilities, and their families in connection with a variety of legal issues, from estate planning to long-term care issues, with a primary emphasis on promoting the highest quality of life for the individuals. Typically, Elder Law attorneys address the client’s perspective from a holistic viewpoint by discussing legal, medical, financial, social and family issues.”
Because much of elder law is based on regulations that vary from state to state, NAELA encourages statewide chapters. In Pennsylvania, the organization is known as the Pennsylvania Association of Elder Law Attorneys (PA/ELA). This organization has 175 members listed on its website. About half of that number meets together regularly, twice each year — in February and July — to listen to expert presentations and share experiences.
Keystone Elder Law P.C. is also part of the Life Care Planning Law Firms Association (LCPLFA). This organization describes itself as “a national network of holistic law practices that offer legal services, care coordination and advocacy services to help elderly clients and their families navigate the health care and long-term care maze.” The care coordination and advocacy services are provided by professional who is familiar with the health care system, such as a nurse or social worker. These services are the unique element which is not provided by most elder law firms.
An elder law attorney understands the complex regulations which affect the many situations older adults and their families may encounter, and knows how to work through them to help you achieve your goals. The following list is not exhaustive, but it describes some situations in which consulting an elder law attorney would be wise:
• You have a need for a will, which allows you to decide what will happen to your money, property and belongings after you are gone.
• You have a need for a power of attorney (POA), which allows you to appoint one or more trusted individuals to take care of your legal and financial matters any time you are incapacitated. A POA does not take away your right to make your own decisions as long as you have the ability to do so.
• You have a need for advance directives (health care POA and living will), which allow you to decide who will make any health-related decisions if you are incapacitated; they also allow you to state any treatment preferences for care at the end of your life.
• You have a need for estate planning. Elder law attorneys understand the rules and the costs of probating your will and any inheritance taxes that would be incurred by your beneficiaries; consequently, they are able to help you develop strategies to minimize those expenses.
You are a caregiver for an older adult. Caregiving can have social, emotional, physical, and financial implications for a family. A holistic elder law practice can help you navigate the challenges of caregiving and maximize the experience for the caregiver(s) and care recipient(s).
• You have a need for public benefits. Elder law attorneys understand the eligibility regulations for Medicaid. As a result, they can help people qualify more quickly for the financial help this program offesr.
• You are concerned about the high cost of nursing home care. Nursing home costs can quickly devour a person’s lifetime savings. However, with advance planning or during a care crisis, an elder law attorney can often help a person protect at least a portion of those assets.
• Your goals have changed. As a person grows older, the goals for the use of their assets often change from providing for family, to preparing for retirement, to leaving a legacy. Anytime your goals are changing, it is wise to review your situation with an elder law attorney to see if your documents and plans will help meet the new goals or if new plans and documents are needed.
• There has been a change in your family. Changes such as family additions, deaths or divorces are times when it is wise to update your estate planning documents.
• There has been a change in your health. Anytime you or a spouse is diagnosed with a chronic or disabling medical condition, you may find you are facing questions about care needs. A holistic elder law practice can help you locate, access, and manage care both at home and in a care community.
By Dave Nesbit, Attorney