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Elder Law: The Basics

Specialists Can Provide
Answers to Complex Questions
By: CaregiverZone

Thousands of federal and state laws govern the many decisions you as a caregiver will help a senior make or will be responsible for carrying out yourself. Whether you are navigating the Social Security system, looking out for an elder's money and property, discussing powers of attorney and living wills or dealing with questions of long-term care, you will run into a tangle of legal rights and obligations. These various requirements can be confusing and sometimes conflicting.

Elder law is a legal specialty to help seniors and their caregivers make the right decisions. For example, it takes only a few simple steps for a senior to protect home and savings from being depleted to cover long-term care. An attorney specializing in elder law can improve your life and your senior's by explaining the best way to prepare for every eventuality.

A strong legal safety net will reduce stress and save time and money at crucial points. Elder law experts and resources are widely available; depending upon the complexity of your situation, you may need to consult a lawyer.

What areas does elder law address?

Among the many questions elder law addresses are:

  • Is a senior making the most of health insurance options, including private policies, Medicare, Medicaid, disability and prescription coverage? What is the proper procedure for appealing adverse decisions?

  • What rights does a nursing home patient have?

  • What is the best way to ensure that the appropriate people have the legal power to make prompt medical and financial decisions when a senior no longer can? How does a senior set up a living will and durable powers of attorney?

  • Is a senior getting the full benefit from pensions, investments and Social Security? How can those benefits be passed along to survivors with a minimum of hassles and expense?

  • How will you know when to ask a judge to appoint a guardian or conservator to handle the affairs of an incapacitated senior? And how do you make it happen?

  • What should you do if an elder is being abused or defrauded?

  • If you will be handling a will, trusts or other means of transferring a senior's money and property, are the documents in order? Are they the right ones to accomplish the senior's desires and avoid unnecessary taxes or legal hang-ups?

Elder law also covers such issues as age discrimination, housing, probate, estate planning and mental health, among others.

Do you always need a lawyer?

The easy answer is no. But it depends upon how much work you and the senior can do on your own. A huge amount of free information and simple do-it-yourself legal documents are available in self-help books, on the Internet, from government agencies and from private organizations devoted to the concerns of the ill and aging.

But the terminology and legalese can be daunting, and many complex federal and state laws come into play. It's essential to know the law before you and the senior make your decisions - and sometimes it pays to do your homework and then consult briefly with a lawyer. This keeps your legal costs down but assures that no costly or painful surprises will pop up later when it may be too late to make changes.

If you hire an attorney, does it have to be an elder law specialist?

Again, no. Many attorneys understand the legal issues related to trusts, investments, insurance, disability, discrimination and so on.

But when it comes to many areas, including wills, long-term care and housing concerns, asset preservation, retirement planning, durable powers of attorney and taxation, you may make different decisions depending upon factors such as age and health. Elder law attorneys can be better attuned to an older person's needs, more aware of the subtleties involved and more knowledgeable about the intricacies of the law as it applies specifically to a senior's situation.

What elder law resources are available?

Many states maintain Web sites where you can track down laws specific to your jurisdiction. You can get referrals from your local bar association, agencies and organizations that deal with aging, and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, which has a nationwide directory of practitioners in all aspects of elder law.

Ask any lawyers you contact about their areas of expertise and experience. Even within the area of elder law, some attorneys may specialize. You don't want a tax expert if what you really need is to set up a conservatorship or guardianship.

The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys maintains an extensive directory of elder law specialists. Visit its Website at or contact:

National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys
1604 N. Country Club Road
Tucson, AZ 85716
(520) 881-4005

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