May is Elder Law month according to the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). During Elder Law Month, NAELA members sponsor special activities designed to educate the public. Keystone Elder Law does that throughout the year.
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 which 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 137 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.
Our organization 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 a social worker, called an Elder Care Coordinator, which is the unique element and service not provided by most Elder Law firms.
Keystone’s Elder Care Coordinator, John Reese, contributes regularly in this column. He has created the following outline to answer the general questions of “what is an Elder Law attorney” and “when or why a person should consult with an Elder Law attorney”:
Elder Law focuses on the legal issues faced by older individuals. This includes: basic documents (Will, Power of Attorney, and Advance Directives), estate planning to minimize probate costs and inheritance taxes, and how to qualify for public benefits (Veterans Administration and Medicaid). In a perfect world all laws and regulations would be coordinated with each other. However, in the real world our present laws and regulations often work at cross purposes. An elder law attorney understands these complexities, and knows how to work through them to help you achieve your goals. The following list is not exhaustive but describes some situations when it would be wise to consult an elder law attorney:
- A need for basic documents
- A will allows you to decide what will happen to your money, property, and belongings after you are gone
- A Power of Attorney (POA) 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.
- Advance Directives (Healthcare POA and Living Will) 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.
- 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.
- A need for public benefits- Elder law attorneys understand the eligibility regulations for Veterans Administration programs and the Medicaid (Medical Assistance) program; as a result, they can help people qualify more quickly for the financial help these programs offer.
- A concern about the high cost of nursing home care- Nursing home costs can quickly devour a person’s lifetime savings. However, with advance planning, an elder law attorney can often help a person protect at least a portion of those assets.
- Changing goals- 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.
- Family change- Changes such as family additions, deaths, or divorces are times when it is wise to update your estate planning documents.
- Health changes- Anytime you or a spouse are diagnosed with a chronic or disabling medical condition, you may find you are facing questions about long-term care. An elder law attorney can help with financial planning for long-term care.
Many issues related to aging can be complicated and stressful. Opportunities exist to become educated about available options.
Keystone Elder Law will be having a free public seminar on Thursday May 23rd at the Rossmoyne Business Center in Mechanicsburg. Additionally, presentations can be arranged for small groups, such as service clubs. Keystone is a for-profit organization which receives no public funding and therefore must charge fees to provide services to individuals. The Cumberland County Office of Aging can offer some free and basic services. In cooperation with the Cumberland County Bar Association, Keystone will occasionally offer pro bono service.
In further observance of Elder Law month, we welcome your questions or suggestions for future articles. If we get a question or two which seem broad enough to be of interest to others, and we have not recently covered the topic in our column, we will write an upcoming column in May in response. You can see the many articles we have previously written for the Sentinel by searching Keystone Elder Law in the Cumberlink website. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.