Elder Law—Legal Issues Affecting Senior Citizens
The field of elder law focuses on the needs of older people and the issues they encounter. Elder law generally addresses three general concerns:
- Long-term care issues, including planning for the payment of the costs of assisted living or nursing home care
- The effect of health issues on the management of personal affairs
- Estate planning and administration
Attorneys who specialize in elder law typically address a wide range of legal issues, including:
- health care and long-term care planning
- government benefits (including Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security)
- decision-making by others on the senior’s behalf (including powers of attorney, conservatorship and guardianship)
- the ability to understand and make legal decisions by the senior
- management, inheritance and administration of a deceased’s estate (including trusts, wills and probate)
- taxes (including real estate, gift and estate taxes)
- retirement benefits (including Social Security, disability and veterans’ benefits)
- litigation of will contests and probate challenges
Health Care Issues
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As our population ages, and as medicine allows us to live longer, more and more people need end-of-life medical and living assistance. The costs of assisted living or nursing home care can be substantial, and without proper planning, the estate you worked to build may go to the long term care facility, instead of your loved ones. There are ways that you can protect your assets, and there are alternative methods for paying for the costs of care. An elder law attorney will help you determine the extent to which government programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security can help defray the costs of care. An elder law attorney can also help you put assets where they cannot be seized by nursing home operators, and help you set up other plans to pay for potential care, including private insurance.
Guardianship, Conservatorship and Commitment Issues
If your health deteriorates to the point where you cannot manage your own financial, legal or business affairs, you want a plan in place to allocate that responsibility to someone you trust. An elder law attorney can help you put measures in place that address these concerns. You can set up a guardianship or conservatorship that automatically goes into effect when certain conditions are met—for example, if a doctor declares you incapable of managing your own affairs. An elder law attorney can also ensure that proper procedures are in place to establish when you may be subject to civil commitment, for your own good and the good of your family.
Most elder law attorneys also provide services. The goal of the estate planning process is to put measures in place to ensure the orderly distribution of your estate in the event of your death. Your attorney will gather as much information as possible about your financial situation, as well as your goals. Your attorney may suggest one or more of a number of estate planning tools to meet your objectives, including wills, trusts, powers of attorney and healthcare directives. In formulating your estate plan, your attorney will consider a number of issues, including potential tax consequences, as well as ease of transfer of assets.
The Older Americans Act
The Older Americans Act, enacted in 1965, created the Administration on Aging, the federal agency advocating for the elderly. The Act provides funds for services and programs benefiting senior citizens and their families, as well as measures to help seniors avoid institutional care, improve nutrition and health services and coordinate governmental programs for elders. These programs include home-delivered meals and nutrition services, transportation, adult day care, legal assistance, nursing home supervision and health care promotion. In addition, the Family Caregiver Support Program provides services for people caring for chronically ill or disabled family members.
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