Planning for the future is important no matter how old or young you are. For older adults, one of the best ways to ensure you are prepared for seniorhood is by meeting with and retaining an elder law attorney. These specialized professionals deal specifically with the legal issues of senior adults and are well-versed in many tactical and legal aspects that may face you as you age.
“Elder law attorneys can help seniors navigate life issues that arise due to simple aging,” says Michelle Pelham, Executive Director at Bridges® by EPOCH at Nashua, a memory care assisted living community in Nashua, NH. “Not only can they assist with things like wills, powers of attorney and the like, but they can also offer counseling on how to prepare for long-term care, settling your estate, choosing retirement plans and other senior-specific issues. They are also one of the best resources for determining what government benefits and federal programs may be available.”
Since elder law isn’t something you generally deal with every day, we’ve put together some of the most common questions about elder law to give you insight into what types of topics an elder law attorney may assist you with as well as inform you of what sort of things you should be thinking about as you go through your senior years.
When should I contact an elder law attorney?
There is no wrong time to contact an elder law attorney. It’s highly suggested that you should start the planning process by the age of 60, because the sooner you start, the sooner you can protect your money and plan for unforeseen health crises. Starting earlier rather than later also gives you the maximum time to develop tools, think through your options and set up your plans for the future.
What is probate, what goes through it and how do I avoid it?
Probate is the judicial process where a person’s will is “proved” in a court of law to be their last will and testament. It’s the first step of administering a person’s estate, and is also where an executor is assigned to dispense the individual’s assets. Assets that don’t have a designated beneficiary – in other words, assets that haven’t been specifically delegated in a person’s will – have to pass through the probate court. This can end up being a lengthy and expensive process.
There are a variety of different ways to avoid ending up in probate. Some individuals choose to set up a trust, while others simply name beneficiaries to all their worldly possessions. Probate laws do differ across states and jurisdictions, which is why it’s necessary to meet with an elder law attorney who’s knowledgeable about what’s required in your area. He or she can help you navigate your assets and help you avoid ending up in probate court.
What’s the difference between a power of attorney, a guardian and a conservator?
A power of attorney (POA), unlike a guardian and a conservator, refers to an official document and not a specific person. It’s a written authorization that appoints an individual to act or represent on your behalf. There are two types of POAs: one for health decisions and one for financial decisions. While one individual can hold POA for both your health and financial decisions, you need to set up documentation to specify that.
A guardian deals with non-financial decisions. This is someone who has been appointed by the court to have legal authority and control over the personal care of another individual. A guardian may be appointed if the person is unable to take care of themselves; for example, if they are special needs, a minor child or a senior adult with a disease such as dementia.
A conservator is someone who the court appoints to protect and manage the estate of someone who has been deemed incapable of making decisions. Unlike a POA, however, a conservator is appointed only after a petition has been made to the court. In other words, a POA is the “planning ahead” version while a conservator is the “I didn’t plan ahead” version.
What non-legal aspects can elder law attorneys assist with?
Elder law attorneys also provide guidance and advance for a variety of other issues facing seniors. For example, they can help with end-of-life care decisions, assist with funeral arrangements and suggest others who may be able to assist with things such as finding in-home healthcare, counselors and other professionals.
Do I need estate planning?
The short answer is “yes.” Estate planning isn’t just for rich people. All of your personal belongings constitute your estate, so estate planning helps you develop a plan of who will receive what after you pass away. Otherwise, everything ends up in probate court and the state decides how assets will be distributed. Estate planning also encompasses things like assigning powers of attorney – making it even more important for everyone to do. In short, estate planning is all about protecting your assets now and in the future.
What questions should I ask when seeking an elder law attorney?
You want an elder law attorney who you feel comfortable with, so don’t necessarily go with the first person you find. It’s best to connect with two or three different solicitors and schedule face-to-face meetings with them to determine who best aligns with your personality and what you want to accomplish. Here are some sample questions to ask when meeting with different attorneys:
- How long have you been practicing elder law?
- Where did you get your education? How do you keep up-to-date with current laws and regulations?
- Here is a list of the services I need. Can you fulfill them, and how?
- Do you have experience in litigation?
- What organizations do you belong to? (There are a number of organizations that are specific to elder law.
- What is your fee schedule? Do you have a sliding scale or do pro bono work, if necessary?
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