“Elder Law” is a shorthand abbreviation for many different practice areas involving helping individuals and families plan for the future, at all stages of life. And the short answer is: No, the services elder law attorneys provide are not just for the elderly.
Part of what I do is Elder and Disability Law planning, focusing on services for people who need long-term care or other disability related planning. More broadly however, I also work on Estate Planning, for folks of all ages, making plans and arrangements for the future through Powers of Attorney, Wills, Trusts, Deeds and similar steps. I also work on Estate Administration and Probate, after someone has died, to wind up their affairs properly, transfer assets from the estate to the heirs or beneficiaries, pay taxes, etc.
Let’s address it in order, based on the lifecycle of a person as they age.
Every adult can benefit from having basic, comprehensive plans in place in case anything bad happens, such as disability or dying. The goal generally is to see that your wishes are carried out. More specifically, I help you make sure that the people you want to be in charge to act for you, are in charge at the right times, to do what you want them to do.
Powers of attorney say who will help you during your lifetime with financial or health care decisions, if needed. A Last Will and Testament says to whom you want to leave your estate and assets when you are gone, and when and how. Your Will also says who will be in charge of doing the paperwork and carrying out your wishes – “executing” the plan as Executor – and who you trust to help beneficiaries with their inheritance in the longer term as a Trustee, such as for a young or disabled beneficiary.
Trust provisions contained in Wills come into effect later, after someone dies, and the Will and estate go through probate. A Lifetime Revocable Trust (or so-called “Living Trust”) can accomplish all the same goals as a Will, while also avoiding probate – the single biggest chunk of avoidable legal paperwork after someone has died. Other trusts can also protect assets against the cost of long-term care, or preserve eligibility for disability benefits, or limit Federal Estate Tax for rich folks.
When to start? As a young adult, and for sure when marrying or starting a family.
Elder and disability law planning
When someone needs expensive long-term care, I represent them to accomplish two goals: first to make sure they are well cared for and get what they need, and second to save as much as possible of their money for them. Sometimes, when there’s not much money to start with, the goal instead is to just make sure that care is paid for, with the scarce resources that are available.
When is the right time to start planning around the cost of long-term care? Obviously, when someone already needs care planning or if abuse and neglect are ongoing, it’s time. Please note that it’s never too late, either. I can often help someone who’s even already in a care facility. I can’t really say it’s never too early – but planning ahead at some point is a key to effective results. Knowledge and information are power! I’d say, when you are starting to think about aging, retirement, and your senior years, it may be time to at least consult with me about planning around the cost of care.
Estate administration and probate
When someone has died, there is often a long list of all the various lifetime activities, assets and dealings that need to be addressed, ended or transferred. In a simple estate situation, someone may not need my help, and may try it on their own.
But for almost any estate of any complexity, size, scope, scale, or substance, the participants often need help to get the job done right. Almost any time a probate estate is to be opened I help clients maneuver through a foreign territory of legal rules and filings. This is true especially if there is real estate to sell or financial assets to access through a probate – that is, assets left behind in the name of the decedent only, with no beneficiary named, that must be accessed by an Executor or Administrator. As an estate/elder law attorney I assist to navigate the legal requirements and paperwork.
Other elder law practice areas
Elder law can also include special needs planning, guardianships, nursing home abuse, Social Security and Medicare, veterans’ benefits, end-of-life treatment, housing, neglect and exploitation, age discrimination and more. It would be rare for any attorney to practice in every one of these areas.
One other note: ANY TIME you are in a business deal with anyone, including family, or you buy a house with an unmarried partner, take my best three pieces of free legal advice: Put it in writing, put it in writing, put it in writing. Think through your deal and the contingencies and possibilities that might occur, agree on the “what if’s,” write it down and sign it.