The U.S. is on track to support an ever-increasing aging population. “The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2035, for the first time in American history, there will be more adults age 65 and older than children. By 2060, nearly a quarter of Americans will be age 65 and older, while the number of people age 85 and older will triple,” The American Bar Association (ABA) Journal writes.
With these numbers climbing higher and higher, one thing is certain: the elderly will need even significantly more legal representation. Here is a deeper look at elder law, aging Americans’ legal needs, and the process of finding the very best elder law attorney for your elderly loved one.
What is an Elder Law Attorney?
When it comes to finding the best elder law attorney, it is important to understand exactly what elder law is first. Many people reasonably misunderstand the role of an elder law attorney. Because of the media coverage of elder abuse and elder fraud cases, many Americans assume that is what elder law attorneys do — and that is only what they do.
In reality, elder law is a surprisingly large and comprehensive field. The practice of elder law litigates Medicare appeals and claims, social security appeals and claims, the transfer and preservation of assets, estate planning matters and disputes, wills, trusts, probates, and the management and administration of those estates and trusts. The best elder law attorneys also represent clients with disabilities and special needs trusts as well as those who are, as previously discussed, victims of elder abuse or elder fraud.
There are a lot of myths about elder law. One of the prevailing myths is that an elder law attorney can help you with an elder abuse claim — and that’s it. The responsibilities of an elder law attorney are much more far-reaching. Team up with an elder law attorney if you have legal concerns about your Medicare coverage pr if you need legal help with funeral planning.
Health and Insurance
As we age, the specifics of our care becomes increasingly important. Unfortunately, when it comes to healthcare, seniors are one of the most neglected groups. Having a clear plan and a clear legal understanding of your loved one’s insurance can go a long way to prevent neglect and ensure high quality of care.
For instance, if a loved one knows that he or she is dealing with a particular type of cancer or a terminal illness, like Alzheimer’s Disease, it is wise for them to lay out a tentative plan for their ongoing healthcare as soon as possible before their symptoms grow worse.
That plan can include treatments specifically related to their condition as well as unrelated physical and mental health needs as well. For example, an elderly woman with breast cancer or cervical cancer will need ongoing womens health. That same woman may also have age-related macular degeneration. She may need regular eye exams and glasses as she ages. Similarly, her hearing may be going and she may require a hearing aid device to comfortably listen to and respond to the people around her.
Whatever her needs may be — whatever any loved one’s needs may be — you can sit down with a lawyer, draft a detailed plan for their care as they age, with their considerable input, and go through the legal motions to ascertain that nurses and doctors follow that plan as best as they can.
Similarly, a quality attorney can also help you work out whether the items on your loved one’s health care plan are covered by their current insurance or whether they will need supplemental health insurance coverage. Remember the best elder law attorney will be able to walk you and your loved one through the entire process step-by-step.
Elder law looks well into the future — to your loved one’s estate and the eventual transfer or sale of that estate (whatever their will or trust dictates). Even if your loved one works with one of the best elder law attorneys to clearly layout their plans for the estate, the transfer of that estate will still likely take some time.
An elder law attorney can help you and your loved one maintain their estate during that interim. This includes making arrangements for necessary services, like property maintenance and lawn care. Too few Americans realize that these responsibilities will typically fall on their shoulders if they are the executor of their loved one’s will. “It’s your job to see that the property receives basic regular maintenance. The yard must be mowed, the snow shoveled, the gutters cleaned out. In cold weather, you need to know that the furnace is working, so pipes don’t freeze and burst,” according to Nolo.com. Executors may even be responsible for major repairs, like roofing repairs and water damage if they were to occur. Meeting with an attorney well in advance gives you the opportunity to plan for and litigate these duties to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
In addition to basic property maintenance, you will also be asked to take over the behind-the-scenes maintenance for your loved ones. It will be your responsibility to make certain the property remains safe and insured. The best elder law attorneys can help you ensure that properties remain seemingly active and thereby safe and that insurance premiums will be paid while you take the necessary steps to inherit or sell the estate.
Possessions: Where Will They End Up?
What will happen to your loved one’s possessions after they pass away? That is a great question and one to consider while they are still with us, not when it is too late to ask for their personal input.
These decisions may come down to several different factors, including the actual value of these possessions as well as their sentimental value. For example, no matter what they are worth, wedding bands tend to be viewed as an inherently valuable item. Many people arrange to have them with them in their coffins or choose to pass them on to loved ones for generations to come.
When it comes to less sentimental items or items where these determinations may be less clear-cut, work closely with an attorney. Your loved one can lay out exactly what they would like to happen to their possessions, down to the last detail.
When your loved one passes, Nolo.com warns to secure the property and your loved one’s possessions until you can systematically work through their legal documents. Otherwise, well-meaning or not-so-well meaning relatives may attempt to take possessions prematurely to keep for themselves or sell to a professional, like an auctioneer or gold buyer. If you secure possessions, you can ensure any inheritances or sales remain legitimate.
If securing the property and your loved one’s possessions on a temporary basis causes friction among friends and family, Nolo.com recommends reminding them that everyone is waiting on the probate court and legal proceedings — not just particular relatives or select people.
Finances and Protecting Assets
In addition to protecting your loved one’s estate and possessions, the best elder law attorneys will protect their finances, assets, and investments as well.
In order to safeguard your loved one’s assets, you can start with a meeting with an elder law attorney and your loved one now. “Building relationships with advisors and professionals while your parents are alive is extremely beneficial,” Senior Vice President of Financial Planning, Andy Smith, tells A Place For Mom. The idea is for your loved one to have a very tangible and active role in protecting their finances. Establishing that relationship now, while your parent or loved one is relatively well, gives them greater agency to do that.
Next, counsel your loved one on their Power of Attorney and will. An overwhelming number of Americans do not have a will. In fact, that number is as high as 66%. A Power of Attorney (POA) or living will is also important, especially if your loved one is fighting a tough medical condition. A POA will give you or another designated person to make important decisions should they be unable to do so.
Lastly, help build a strong professional team for you and your loved one. The best elder attorney knows not to go it alone. In addition to an elder law attorney, it is wise to work with a trusted and reliable financial planning professional, like a Certified Financial Planner (CFP). A CFP is a fiduciary, meaning they have a responsibility and legal requirement to act on your loved one’s behalf.
Planning ahead is an extremely complex process. The best elder law attorney will help you square away future real estate taxes and help you and your loved one find professionals who will work in your best interests.
Protection Against Elder Fraud and Abuse
Unfortunately, elder abuse and elder fraud are all-too-common.
Let’s start with elder abuse. What exactly is it? “Elder abuse includes physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, exploitation, neglect, and abandonment. Perpetrators include children, other family members, and spouses—as well as staff at nursing homes, assisted living, and other facilities,” the National Council on Aging (NCOA) writes. As many as 5 million Americans 65 and up suffer from elder abuse per year, and only one in 14 elder abuse cases result in an official report to authorities.
An elder law attorney can help if your loved one should suffer from elder abuse. Carefully document any evidence, and report the incident or incidents to the authorities right away. If your loved one should fall or otherwise injure themselves while residing in an assisted living center, they may still have options for legal recourse if a pothole, slippery floor, or burning hot food was responsible for their injuries. Talk to a premises liability injury attorney to see if they have a case.
Elder fraud is another significant problem. Unfortunately, there are a surprising number of fraudulent scams targeting seniors. Another 5 million seniors fall victim to elder fraud scams every year. Plus, those scams can be difficult to trace and are often described as “low-risk crimes” and “the crime of the 21st century,” according to the NCOA. These may include health insurance scams, funeral scams, telemarketing scams, investment scams, and reverse mortgage scams. If your loved one is a victim of elder fraud, report the problem right away. Keep in mind that, unfortunately, people who are close to seniors are among the most likely to commit fraud against them. Also keep in mind that, no matter who is responsible, the best elder law attorneys will be able to help.
Safety and Long-Term Care
It is not enough to plan for the healthcare of your loved one. You must also think about their safety right now and going forward.
Do your research. If your loved one will be living in an assisted living center for long-term healthcare, find out about their anti-fall and anti-slip measures. Find out what types of fire suppression systems they use, and what steps they take to prevent the spread of disease and infection.
The best elder attorney will encourage you to consider all aspects of your loved one’s care, including their safety.
Funeral preparation is an important subject to talk about. It can be an uncomfortable conversation, but it is an important one. Many people have preferences about the funeral preparations for their own funeral.
When working on legal documents with your loved one, ask them if they have any preferences for their burial and/or funeral. Does your loved one want to be buried, cremated, or entombed in a mausoleum? Would they like their ashes buried or scattered in a significant place? Ask all these questions and more. From there, you, your loved one, and one of the best elder law attorneys can take steps to ascertain that you will carry out their wishes.
The best elder law attorney will be able to address all your loved one’s concerns, even in a broad and complex field.
The field of elder law is complex — as is aging Americans’ long-term health care, safety, and estate and funeral planning. Work with one of the best elder law attorneys to address all of these areas and work to adequately and satisfactorily reach resolutions to your loved one’s concerns.