As the elderly population began to grow several decades ago, it started to become clear that the legal issues that impact them needed to be addressed. Consequently, the relatively new area of the law known as “elder law” began to evolve. An elder law lawyer, therefore, is a lawyer who has chosen to focus much, or all, of his/her practice on legal issues that impact the elderly and those who care for them. Unlike other areas of specialty, however, an elder law lawyer does not focus on learning everything there is to know about a single area of the law. Instead, an elder law lawyer is more concerned with how the elderly, and their caregivers, are impacted by various legal issues and problems.
The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, or NAELA, was formed in the late 1980s as a way to better serve this growing segment of the population. Five years after the creation of NAELA, the National Elder Law Foundation was formed. The purpose of the non-profit NELF was to help improve the professional skills of attorneys who choose to focus on elder law. Toward that end, NELF then developed a national certification program for attorneys known as the Certified Elder Law Attorney, or CELA, certification program. Attorneys who wish to gain certification in the area of elder law may do so through a rigorous and selective certification program recognized by the American Bar Association and administered by NELF.
An elder law attorney handles legal issues that impact the elderly and those who care for them, such as:
- Denial of SSI, SSDI, or other benefits
- Guardianship – petitioning for, or objecting to
- Housing discrimination
- Long-term care planning
- Estate planning
- Elder abuse
- Health insurance issues
- Preparing advance directives
- Retirement planning
- Nursing home abuse
- Medicaid planning
- Veteran’s benefits
Recent figures indicate that 65.7 million informal and family caregivers provide care to someone who is ill, disabled or aged in the U.S. Lost income and benefits over a caregiver’s lifetime is estimated to range from a total of $283,716 for men to $324,044 for women, or an average of $303,880.30. Caregivers face emotional stress, financial hardship, and often legal struggles as a result of the care they provide. As a result, caregivers frequently benefit from the help of an experienced elder law attorney for things such as getting a loved one approved for Medicaid benefits, pursuing a claim of elder abuse against a paid caregiver or family member, or petitioning for guardianship over a parent.
Neither Medicare nor most basic health insurance plans will cover the costs associated with long-term care. Unless you have the resources to cover the high cost of nursing home care out of pocket and indefinitely, you will likely find yourself turning to Medicaid for help. To be eligible, however, you must contend with very low “countable resources” limits that can put your retirement nest egg at risk if you failed to plan ahead. An elder law attorney can help you incorporate Medicaid planning into your overall estate plan to ensure that you are eligible for Medicaid if you need it without losing assets in the process.
Making the decision to seek guardianship over a parent is never easy; however, it may become necessary to prevent serious injury and/or victimization by those who prey on the elderly. An elder law attorney can help you pursue guardianship to ensure that you have the legal authority necessary to protect and care for your parent.
Most people who care for the elderly do so with kindness and patience; however, there are those who prey on society’s most vulnerable, including those in nursing home care. Conservative estimates indicate that more than 40 percent of nursing home residents have reported abuse, and more than 90 percent report that they or another resident of the facility have been neglected. Sadly, however, the majority of the time it is a family member who is the perpetrator of elder abuse. Elder abuse is a crime; however, it can also form the basis of a civil lawsuit against the facility. If you suspect that a loved one is the victim of nursing home abuse, an elder law attorney can discuss your legal options with you.
The facts and figures for Alzheimer’s disease are shocking. One in three seniors with die with Alzheimer’s or another form of age related dementia. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is typically followed by a period of heightened emotions and confusion, making it difficult to focus on the practical and legal ramifications of the diagnosis. Do not wait too long to consult with an elder law attorney though, as there are some important legal steps that should be taken as soon as possible to protect you, your parent, and your parent’s estate.