May is National Elder Law Month, as designated by the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. It is a way to acknowledge the profession that supports seniors and their families with all of their planning needs. And while that sounds great, many people still ask, “What do elder law attorneys do?” Part 1 of this series, “Why May is Special for Elder Law Attorneys” will explore several ways elder law attorneys help seniors and their loved ones.
Elder law attorneys help seniors and their loved ones plan for the possibility of needing long-term care.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 1 in 10 people age 65 or older has Alzheimer’s dementia. This number is predicted to double by 2050. Alzheimer’s is also the most expensive disease in the country, with no known cure. In 2017, the average lifetime cost of care for someone with dementia was $341,810.
A diagnosis of dementia can wreak emotional and financial havoc on a family. Elder law attorneys help take the financial stress off of families by discussing options to find and pay for appropriate care without losing the family home or a lifetime of savings.
The emotional and financial cost to family caregivers is also quite alarming. 83% of all caregiving comes from family members, friends, or unpaid caregivers. 30-40% of family caregivers suffer from depression. In 2011, a MetLife study estimated that women caregivers lose over $324,000 in lost wages and social security benefits over their lifetime. Male caregivers lose an estimated $283,000 in lost wages and social security benefits over their lifetime.
The family caregivers who are trying to work and provide care to a parent or loved one also need a legal plan. Elder law attorneys work closely with family members and caregivers to make sure they have proper legal documents in place should their health fail, or if they lose employment due to unpaid caregiving.
If it’s not in writing, it won’t be honored.
Elder law attorneys work closely with seniors to understand what should happen if they can no longer make financial decisions or health care decisions. For example, if mom develops dementia and can no longer pay the monthly bills, who will she want to have authority to access her bank account in order to get the bills paid? What type of care does she want if her dementia advances to the point that she can’t communicate her wishes? Does she want to live at home as long as possible? Does she want a private room if she’s in a facility? These are just a few questions that elder law attorneys discuss with clients, which then get put into legal documents so that mom’s wishes will be fulfilled.
My loved one is in the hospital and can’t come home – now what?
It can be very stressful for a spouse and children when a parent becomes ill and can no longer live at home safely. It can also be very expensive, putting the family’s home and savings at risk.
Elder law attorneys help families find and pay for the best long-term care possible. Unfortunately, 24 hour care at home or in a facility can cost families thousands of dollars a month. Therefore, it is often appropriate to look at other funding sources, like Medicaid or Veterans Benefits, to help offset the cost of care. Elder law attorneys help families explore options, and make the best decision for the loved one needing the care.
Protection from financial exploitation
According to the National Adult Protective Services Association (NAPSA), one in nine seniors reported being abused or exploited during the past twelve months. Of those who are abused or exploited, only 1 in 44 cases of financial abuse is reported. Sadly, 90% of the abusers are family members or trusted others.
Exploitation or abuse can take many forms, including telemarketing scams, reports of false lottery winnings, a family member taking advantage of a joint bank account or misusing a power of attorney, or in-home caregivers over billing the senior, charging the senior for personal expenses, or outright stealing from the senior. Elder law attorneys deal with these types of issues regularly and can help families protect against potential abuse or exploitation. Attorneys also work with banks to ensure accounts are titled correctly, and that the proper legal documentation is registered with each financial institution.
Estate planning documents can also play a big part in preventing financial abuse or exploitation from a family member, professional, or stranger. The documents are the result of thoughtful discussion with the senior about who should have access to the senior’s assets, and under what circumstances access should be granted. An ongoing relationship with the attorney allows the senior to modify the planning documents as needed to reflect changes in the senior’s health or financial circumstances, or a change in the family situation.
Discussing end-of-life wishes
In 2016 the country heard about the plight of a husband in Oregon whose wife had advanced dementia and would no longer take the food she was offered. The husband lost his battle in court to force the nursing home to stop spoon-feeding her. Although her health care directive stated that she did not want artificial food or hydration, the court said that the nursing home had an obligation to provide her basic essential needs, including food and water. As a result, other states have become more aggressive in allowing individuals to specify whether they want to be provided food and water if they are suffering from advanced dementia.
Elder law attorneys routinely discuss issues like this with seniors. A related topic includes where the senior wants to live if care is needed, who should provide that care, and how it will be paid for. Most importantly, attorneys make sure the senior’s wishes are documented properly. This helps alleviate the stress that a serious illness can place on the family, especially when decisions about end-of-life care have to be made.
It’s all about the senior
Elder law attorneys focus on needs particular to the senior. While a few of the issues elder law attorneys help with have been highlighted here, there are numerous other areas that they help seniors with every day, including review of facility admission agreements, help with family disputes, and proper distribution of assets upon a loved one’s death (often referred to as probate).
If you would like to learn more or we can be of assistance to you or a family member, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Please contact us or schedule a meeting to discuss your particular situation. We are here to help.
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Kevin Snyder is a husband, father, and an Orange County estate planning attorney and elder law attorney at Snyder Law, PC in Irvine, California. He's all about family and passionate about estate planning, elder law, and veterans. He founded Snyder Law to help people be prepared and have the peace of mind they are protecting their families and aging parents for when life happens.