If you’re a lawyer looking to practice in a different field or you are a law student, you might be considering elder law.
Is this something that you would enjoy? Is it a specialty you can pay off your student loans quickly with and see a good return on investment? What exactly does an elder law attorney do?
I am not a lawyer, but I have worked with plenty of them, elder law attorneys included. I’ve referred seniors to them, and I’ve help problem solve with them. I feel I have a pretty good understanding of elder law even if I’ve never practiced it. I have at least enough experience around elder law to help an attorney (or aspiring attorney) determine if this is the right type of practice for them.
What Does an Elder Law Attorney Do?
There are many specialties within elder law, but overall, an elder law attorney is going help older adults with estate planning, living wills, and trusts. He/she will need to know a little bit about a wide scope of elder-related legal realms. Among these are:
- How to prepare advanced directives
- Helping people to navigate Medicaid
- Helping people to navigate Social Security
- Long-term planning
- Estate planning
- Disability planning
- Ensuring that one receives their full veteran benefits
As you can see, an elder law attorney is involved with helping older Americans navigate their way through the plethora of legal problems that one faces as they age. Keep in mind that this is some of what an elder law attorney may specialize in. Basically, if it is a common legal problem that elders face, this is going to fall within the realm of practice of an elder law attorney.
Why Would Someone Need an Elder Law Attorney?
There are several reasons somebody may need an elder law attorney.
As soon as an American turns 65 years old they qualify for Medicare. This is an incredibly complex government-run insurance program that can be very difficult to work one’s way through. There are five different sections of Medicare, some of them have multiple names, and it is very confusing to determine what one qualifies for, what one does not, and to ensure they are having their bills paid by Medicare.
An elder law attorney helps to ensure that a client has the correct Medicare packages, knows what their benefits are, and knows how to be reimbursed for healthcare costs. Work could involve everything from explaining the Donut Hole to fighting Medicare for coverage on a client’s behalf.
Another very complex government-run program, Social Security is a program that retiring adults often struggle understanding. An elder law attorney can help older adults ensure that they are making wise choices on when to draw their social security income, when they qualify, etc.
Long-Term Care Planning
Sometimes seniors must consider the likelihood that they will need long-term care services at some point. In fact, this is a point at which many referrals come to elder law attorneys. A loved one is unexpectedly needing to go into a nursing home and the spouse, family, etc. is wondering about how to pay for it, what Medicaid will cover, how to protect family assets, etc.
One often needs to have a plan in place to ensure that they are covering their legal bases here. Will one’s home, bills, and other finances be taken care of if one has to spend two months at a nursing home recovering? In the event of dementia, are one’s legal affairs in order if they are to spend several years in a nursing home?
Grandparents’ Visitation Rights
Divorces are rarely clean, and they can often result in grandparents being caught in the middle, no longer able to visit their grandchildren. This is an emotionally devastating experience. An elder law attorney can help to ensure that grandparents are able to see their grandchildren through filing legal documents, court action, etc.
Crafting Estate Plans
Of course, creating a will is part of the process here, but it is only one brick in the wall here. One also needs to determine what will happen with their life insurance policy, should they create a trust to protect their assets, what will happen with a 401k or Roth IRA, etc. An elder law attorney can help to craft a complete and well-rounded estate plan to ensure all a client’s bases are covered.
Distribution of assets after a death is a very common cause of familial dispute and even of familial disintegration. Nobody wants to throw a stumbling block in the way of their family that will serve as a wedge to drive the family apart, and an elder law attorney can help to ensure that all the borders are strictly delineated so that there is as few problems post-funeral as possible.
Everybody will know what they get, what they do not get, everything will be spelled out clearly, and there will be as few causes for arguments and as minimal stress on the family as possible because of the work that the elder law attorney has put in on the situation.
Combating Age-Related Employment Discrimination
According to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act it is illegal within the United States to discriminate against an employee or potential employee based on age. This law specifically applies to those who are over 40 years of age.
Elders often live off of a limited fixed income, having to rely on a job to ensure that they can afford their medical bills, medicines, and other life expenses. If they are discriminated against based on their age, elder law attorneys can help.
Combating Elder Abuse and Elder Fraud
Elder abuse can involve emotional, physical, sexual, or financial abuse. Elder fraud can entail the stealing of funds from an elder by using fraud to collect their Social Security, Medicaid, or other insurance-related monies – and you might be surprised who is most likely to financially exploit seniors.
An elder law attorney can help to ensure that any of these above activities is put to an end.
Career Opportunities for Elder Law Attorneys
There is no shortage of job opportunities for elder law attorneys. This comes due to the increasing litigious nature of the United States as well as the graying of America. According to US census data, by the year 2034 there will be more older Americans (over 65 years of age) than there will be children. This will be a demographics milestone within the United States with far-reaching implications.
Just one of those implications is that there will be no shortage of prospective clients for the elder law attorney. What can an elder law attorney expect to earn per year though?
The average pay of an elder law attorney is going to vary wildly based on the state you’re practicing in, specialty, competence, and more. As such, you will find different estimates on what can make practicing elder law.
According to ZipRecruiter.com, the average elder law attorney makes $75,395/year with roughly $36/hour being common. However, if you look at LawCrossing.com you’ll find a significantly higher average listed at $117,000/year being an average salary.
Either way you look at it, both numbers are a very respectable salary, and with the graying of America taking place, there will not only be no shortage of work as an elder law attorney, but one will be able to make a good living within the realm of elder law.
What Does an Elder Law Attorney Charge?
Again, this is going to wildly vary from place to place. In general, however, an elder law attorney will offer their first consult for free or at a reduced rate to prospective clients. Beyond that first visit, and depending on what the client needs, what the specialty one works in, where one works geographically, and so on, it’s virtually impossible to nail down a figure. Elder law attorneys charge what they can, what they’re worth.
What are the Best Law Schools for Elder Law?
Elder law is a growing aspect of the law field and virtually all law schools within America will offer some courses in elder law. In many cases courses in elder law are required by the school in order to graduate. However, if one is looking to specifically focus in elder law, some of the schools that offer specialized programs include:
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the schools within America which offer elder law programs, but they do have specialized programs/clinics, and they may be good spots to begin your search for law schools – serving as benchmarks – as you begin to gather data on all the schools you may be interested in, what their costs are, what courses you will take, and who you will be studying under.
What is the Difference Between Estate Planning and Elder Law?
While there are interlockings between the two regions of estate planning and elder law, they are distinct regions of expertise.
Estate planning is predominantly involved with planning for death. It is here that one is getting their affairs for death. Are their assets going to be distributed in the manner that they wish? Are their funeral expenses taken care of? What is happening with the life insurance policy?
All these factors fall under the domain of estate planning.
In contrast, elder law is a much broader look at things, and is predominantly focused on planning for life. It is here that one is looking at planning for long-term care, advanced directives, and other aspects of life that involve the client still being alive. Estate planning can fall under the umbrella of elder law, but it is very much a specialty within it.
Where to Find Elder Law Attorneys
If you’re considering becoming an elder law attorney or you’re looking to hire one, a great place to start is with the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). This is easily the most comprehensive collection of elder law attorneys within the US and serves as both a great source of information for the prospective elder law attorney as well as for the potential client.
You can often find elder law attorneys within specific specialties by looking at organizations that focus on Alzheimer’s, diabetes, dementia, or the like, but for the most part you’ll be able to find everything you’re looking for at the NAELA website. An attorney is unlikely to consider themselves a true elder law attorney unless they are connected with NAELA, meaning this is the first place you are going to want to look.
Searching for a new law specialty is a daunting task and choosing how one is going to make a living is a big decision. Whether one should delve into the realm of elder law or not is not a decision to be taken lightly. However, by fully understanding what such a scope of practice involves and by spending time considering the factors at play one can come to a decision they are happy with.
Elder law can be an incredibly rewarding occupation. One is getting to help give clients peace of mind, ensuring they are getting the justice they deserve, ensuring that they can live without a constant state of worry about their health insurance, and so on.
People need elder law attorneys, and they have quite the degree of latitude in which to work. Should you quickly discover the estate planning is not your forte, it is not as difficult to move into a different facet of elder law as it may be to switch completely over to something such as divorce law.
This can give you some degree of freedom without feeling as if you have painted oneself into a corner with zero latitude.