Estate plans, healthcare proxies, and more. Some short-term work with the right lawyer can bring long-term peace of mind and independence.
Before you retired, did you have a picture in your mind of how your days would look? Were you sitting in a law office talking about your will? Probably not.
Planning for life’s hard moments may not be on your bucket list. But that doesn’t mean you can skip it.
What happens if you need long-term care? Who do you want to make medical decisions on your behalf if you’re not able? What will happen to your home and other valuables if you die?
Answering these questions and creating the necessary documents to see your plans through takes a bit of work. Thankfully, you don’t have to do it alone.
Many knowledgeable attorneys specialize in elder law. This area of legal practice can help older people keep their independence through financial and long-term care planning. According to the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, an elder law attorney can help with:
- Estate planning
- Planning for situations where you can no longer make your own decisions
- Planning for possible long-term care needs
- Locating the right care and coordinating financial resources
- Ensuring your right to good-quality care
Any lawyer — and even some websites — can create a will or other documents. But a specialist in elder law can get to know your needs and help you make decisions that are in your best interest. Here are four ways an elder law specialist can make planning for the future easier.
1. You (and your loved ones) will get the facts
A trusted elder law attorney can help you separate fact from fiction.
“There’s so much word-of-mouth legal information out there,” says Martin J. Kane. “I can say, ‘No, that’s not how it works. This is how it works.’” Kane is an attorney who concentrates in elder law and Medicaid planning at the law firm Hinman, Howard & Kattell in Binghamton, New York.
Even if the answer isn’t what you want to hear, you can move forward knowing the truth.
“A lot of people provide bad advice, whether intentionally or not, and that can really mess you up,” Kane says.
For example, if you ever need long-term care or someone to make decisions for you, your loved ones may argue about what’s best based on whatever advice they’ve heard. By getting the facts from an elder law expert and planning for these situations, you can save yourself and your loved ones from disagreements down the road.
2. Your assets will go where you want
Everyone should have a will in place. But if you don’t, you’ve got company. According to a survey by Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, only 55% of Americans age 55 and up have a will.
If you haven’t created a will, now is the time to do it. Without one, the state where you live determines what happens to your estate after you die. And if you don’t have this document finalized, chances are any valuables you own will be sold and the money will be divided among your living relatives. Who makes the cut varies by state.
So if you want specific items to go to certain people or places, you need to make that clear in your will.
You can create a will with an online template. But that’s what you’ll get: a template. It may or may not include the things you need for your situation. And without a legal adviser on your side, you may not know what’s missing.
“The issue [with templates] is that people don’t know what they’re looking at,” says Sabrina A. Dolan, an estate planning attorney who practices in Edina, Minnesota. “It’s worthwhile to work with an attorney to ensure your wishes are conveyed.”
And if you already have a will, all you may need to do is review it with an elder law attorney.
Things change. Grandchildren are born. Houses are sold. So it’s a good idea to review your will every few years.
You may need to make any number of changes, Dolan says. You may need to add or subtract beneficiaries. Or you may need to add instructions about how to distribute new valuables.
Related reading: How to talk to your adult kids about money
3. Your health and finances will be in good hands
While you’re taking care of your will, your lawyer will likely recommend a power of attorney and healthcare proxy as well.
“If somebody comes in for a will, we always have them do a healthcare proxy and power of attorney as well,” Kane says.
A power of attorney gives another person the authority to make financial decisions on your behalf, if you’re unable. This is the person you appoint to handle your financial to-do list.
You’ll need to choose someone you trust to do things like pay your bills, file your taxes, or even sell your home, according to Kane.
A healthcare proxy gives another person the authority to make medical decisions for you. Again, you need to choose someone you trust.
This person should know and understand your values and wishes. You’ll need to discuss with them what types of treatments you do or don’t want in a medical emergency. If you’re ever receiving life support or other extreme measures, your healthcare proxy will be the one to decide if or when to stop those treatments.
When you appoint a power of attorney and a healthcare proxy, your elder law attorney will help you provide specific instructions for them to follow. That way, your health and finances will be handled the way you want.
4. You’ll be protected if you need long-term care
It may be tough to hear, but there’s a chance you or someone you love will need help with basic tasks at some point. That may mean hiring a caregiver, moving to care facility, or getting help with errands and housekeeping.
It’s a good idea to involve your attorney if you find yourself in need of a caregiver. “If you find a person or agency, we can review those contracts,” Kane says.
It’s also important to consult with your attorney if you’re paying a friend or relative for in-home help, especially if Medicaid is involved.
“There are a whole bunch of issues that come into play that relate to insurance, workers’ compensation, and tax withholdings that people need to be aware of,” Kane says. For example, if your friend or relative gets hurt while they’re caring for you, they may be able to claim workers’ compensation.
When you’re going into any care scenario, it’s smart to be aware of the risks so that you can prevent issues down the road.
How to find an elder law attorney you can trust
Laws can vary widely from one state to another. Even counties within the same metro area can have different rules. So it’s really important to find an attorney near where you live, Kane says. He recommends checking for a governmental office that provides aging resources in your area and asking for referrals.
“Those offices are great because they have experience with a lot of different attorneys,” Kane says.
Your local office for aging services can also help answer any initial questions you may have about elder law. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers a list of state resources you can use to start your search.
Once you’ve found someone, give them a call. Tell them what you’d like to talk about and ask how much it will cost to have that conversation.
You want to work with an attorney you trust, so if you’re unsure about someone, you may want to look elsewhere. “Trust your gut,” Dolan says.
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