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Elder Law is Not Just for the Elderly

Working at an Elder Law firm, we regularly receive questions about whether a certain person counts as “elderly” to receive our services, or if we can help someone who is not “elderly.”  There is no magic age when a person is old enough to need services that fall under the umbrella of Elder Law. 

What is Elder Law exactly?  Elder Law refers to any of the legal services that become increasingly urgent as a person ages.  Those services include preparing Estate Planning Documents (a Financial Power of Attorney, a Health Care Power of Attorney/Living Will, a Last Will and Testament, and sometimes a Trust), Long-Term Care Planning, Guardianship, and Estate Administration.  It might include succession planning for a business, or changing the title to real estate holdings to provide for them to pass on to someone else after you are gone.

The trouble is that most people assume they must be “elderly” before they need Elder Law services.  The general consensus among people I have met is that “elderly” is always a bit older than they are at the time they are defining it.  A child may think a 25-year-old is elderly.  A 25-year-old may think they will be elderly at age 50.  At 50, they may think age 70 is elderly.  At 70, they think 85, and at 85 they may think they won’t be elderly until they are at least 100.  “Elderly” is something most people think only applies to other people, and never to themselves. 

Unfortunately, the words “elder” and “elderly” have a bad reputation in our society right now.  Elder does not have to be a bad word.  An Elder is someone to be respected.  An Elder is a respected position in a church or in a community.  An Elder is someone who has gained wisdom and authority through experience.  There are reasons to be proud of being an Elder. 

It might be helpful to think of it this way.  Elder Law is not planning that you do because you are an elder right now.  Elder Law is planning you do right now because some day you will be an elder.  It is something you should consider urgent to do in advance, before there is a triggering event that creates an emergency.

Typically, people start worrying about their estate plan or long-term care planning based on triggering life events.  You might first think about estate planning when you buy your first home or when you have your first child, but then you are likely to find yourself too busy with those life changes to follow through, and it may go undone for decades.  The next triggering event to think about estate plans and long-term care planning might be when a parent or other family member passes away or needs long term care, though the thought of planning for yourself might fall to the wayside while you are overwhelmed by grief and your parent’s crisis.  All too many people wait until they perceive themselves to be “elderly,” when they receive a terminal diagnosis, when they are on their deathbeds, or may never do any planning at all.  Sometimes the first real attempt at planning happens when a family member caregiver finds themselves in a crisis trying to care for a loved one who is already incapacitated and in need of skilled nursing care, and who never gave anyone the legal authority that is needed to provide for their care.  At that point, the options are very limited, and very difficult. 

The trouble with waiting until you believe yourself to be “elderly” or in dire need before you consider Elder Law services is that you are likely to wait too long, or worse yet, never do any planning at all.  There are planning options that are time sensitive.  A Power of Attorney can only be signed while you still have the mental capacity to know who your family is, understand what you have, and to fully understand what authority you are giving to your named agent.  At the time when it is most urgent that you have a Power of Attorney, it may already be too late for you to sign one.  Long-term care planning and estate planning should be done well before you need them.  So at what age should you talk to an Elder Law attorney?  Probably right now.  You are old enough to begin your estate plan when you are legally an adult.  Anyone aged 18 or older can benefit from estate planning.  The younger you are when you start estate planning, the better your options will be for long-term planning.  Once you have a plan in place, you should review it every 5 years to confirm if it is still consistent with your current wishes and with current law, or if it is due to be updated.

Kelly Walsh Appleyard, Attorney