Rotary Clubs identify members by their profession. My name badge says “Elder Law.” I’ve always been uncomfortable with the term because people either think they know what it means or have no idea what it means.
Until the mid-twentieth century or so, the “elder law,” as such, didn’t exist. For one thing, the average life expectancy in the US was under 50 until 1900. Elderly poverty was simply poverty, not caused by age, but rather more in line with extremely high poverty rates and taken care of by charity, the local community, or family. The 20th century, however, brought about great changes. By the 1960’s, the US Government recognized that demographic trends – longer life expectancy, smaller families, more people left behind – meant that “older Americans” needed more support. In response, Lyndon Johnson signed the Older Americans Act into law to provide services and supports to an increasingly vulnerable population. (Read the “Declaration of Objectives for Older Americans” from the original bill.)
As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, elder abuse is a major concern, scams are ubiquitous, and long-term care is a serious and expensive reality for more and more people, not just in the US but around the globe.
While the roots of elder law were primarily in “Medicaid-planning,” the field has grown. Today, a full-blown elder-law practice will include lawyers knowledgeable about Medicaid, guardianships, so-called “traditional” estate planning and administration, supplemental needs (also called “special needs”), disability, Social Security, subsidized housing – in fact, a panoply of issues niche estate-planners would not touch. These are some of the most complex and frequently changing areas of the law, requiring a broad view and coordinated action. This requires a different approach.
Indeed, elder law is so named because its original proponents wanted to address issues associated with aging, rather than a specific “niche” practice area. The focus is on the needs of the person seeking help, or for whom help is sought by family and friends. The method is collaborative, often involving multiple generations, family friends, social workers, and financial advisors.
Often times, we aren’t dealing with “elder issues” at all, but rather a disabled child or worries that beneficiaries may have addictions or are going through a messy divorce. Sometimes, it’s early-onset dementia. (How many 45-year-olds you know would call themselves “elders”?) Sometimes, it’s an unexpected inheritance. In the best cases, the person in our office has realized that aging, death, and (often) incapacity are part of life, and he or she wants to make things easier on their family and friends by “putting his or her affairs in order” with powers of attorney, an advance directive for healthcare, an estate plan, and a strategy for business succession. In other instances, planning is less of a concern than figuring out benefits eligibility or a guardianship for someone in crisis. In each case, the job isn’t about “filling out forms” as a relative of mine once derisively characterized estate planning. It’s about doing what’s best for those who come to us for help.