What Is Elder Law?
An elder law attorney deals with long-term care planning, end-of-life issues, housing assistance and options, elder abuse, neglect and exploitation, age discrimination in employment, veterans’ benefits, services of the Area Agencies on Aging, the legal rights of residents of nursing facilities, and federal and state legislation affecting the elderly.
Elder Law: What It Means to You and Your Future
Until just a few years ago, the legal needs of the “elderly” weren’t significantly different from the needs of the general population, and “elder law” was an obscure niche legal practice. Today elder law is a widely recognized and often specialized area of law. Elder law has come of age.
Thanks to medical advances, preventive health measures and increased information on nutrition and exercise, an unprecedented number of Americans are living longer, healthier lives. For many, however, the extended aging process does require adjustments in living arrangements and thought needs to be given to developing plans for when the ability to live independently becomes a challenge. Elder law attorneys understand the legalities of aging and can be instrumental in the creation and implementation of these plans.
The Pennsylvania Association of Elder Law Attorneys (PAELA) currently has more than 170 members. These attorneys provide legal counsel and assistance to those looking to the future, and to those currently dealing with the struggles and unique complications of aging.
An elder law attorney’s value goes well beyond their ability to draft estate planning documents. An elder law attorney deals with long-term care planning and public benefits, end-of-life issues, housing assistance and options, elder abuse, neglect and exploitation, age discrimination in employment, veterans’ benefits, services of the Area Agencies on Aging, the legal rights of residents of nursing facilities, and federal and state laws affecting the elderly.
Many potential clients ask, “When should we meet with an elder law attorney?” Consider the following:
- Do you and your loved ones have valid power of attorney documents? This critical paperwork is foundational and can ensure the proper handling of financial and healthcare decisions should you or a loved one become unable to do so independently. The terms of such a document should be customized to delegate either limited or broad authority to family members or trusted individuals.
- Where there is no power of attorney in place, an elder law attorney can help a family pursue guardianship proceedings in court for an incapacitated person, if necessary. The annual reporting requirements are significant, and an elder law attorney can help with this paperwork.
- Do you suspect financial abuse? If there is reason to believe that someone has misappropriated an elderly person’s money, legal action can be initiated to force the return of funds.
- Are you or a loved one considering a move? Elder law attorneys regularly review contracts for in-home care agencies, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and continuing care retirement communities because they are familiar with the unique issues associated with these contracts.
- How can assets be protected under the law? Elder law attorneys have a working knowledge of the very complex federal and state Medicaid laws that govern access to public benefits that pay for long-term care. There are differences in the laws of eligibility for single and married individuals. There is significant asset protection available for a married senior who lives at home while a spouse lives in a nursing home. There are some circumstances in which assets can be transferred to others such as disabled children without adversely impacting eligibility for benefits, but rules need to be followed, and trusts are sometimes necessary. There are other situations where asset transfers are inappropriate and can cause major problems. Elder law attorneys have experience in these matters and can explain the options.
- Can family members be compensated for providing care? Family members often give up working in order to care for an aging parent. Elder law attorneys can explain when reasonable compensation is appropriate and can put the arrangements to paper in a “caregiver’s contract.”
Elder law attorneys are also concerned about current and future legislation impacting the elderly. PAELA has an active public policy committee that monitors pending legislation on the both the state and federal levels. PAELA members provide subject matter expertise to policymakers and build coalitions to support, oppose, or improve proposed laws. They communicate regularly with state lawmakers, representatives of the Department of Human Services, Department of Aging, and other stakeholders. Whether it is directly helping a particular client or advocating on a broader level for legislative change, elder law attorneys are work diligently to ensure that the best interests of the elderly are being protected.