Elder law isn’t just for the elderly anymore.
“The term ‘elder law’ is a misnomer,” says Ellen G. Makofsky, an elder law attorney with Makofsky & Associates in Garden City. “You don’t need to be old to use or require the services of an elder law attorney, because elder law is really concerned with planning for the possibility of disability and death, and putting a plan in place if something should happen.”
The things to gather
In his book Be a Planner, Not a Gambler, Robert Abrams, an elder law attorney with Abrams, Fensterman, Fensterman, Eisman, Formato, Ferrara & Wolf, in Lake Success, outlines 11 steps to create such a plan.
The first step is to gather the necessary documents, including the following:
- birth certificate
- Social Security card
- marriage license
- divorce decree
- family tree
- list of professionals: attorney, financial adviser and accountant
- list of passwords for email and other accounts
Having all this information in one place, Abrams says, will help create the plan and allow family members to access it when necessary.
“You need to understand the relationship between your finances, projected longevity, personal obligations and lifestyle,” Abrams says.
Who’s eligible for Medicaid?
Long-term care is a big issue. The cost of a nursing home in New York is about $145,000 a year, and the maximum net income to qualify for Medicaid is $9,900 a year for a single person.
“Twenty-five years ago, Medicaid was clearly the de facto long-term-care insurance for older people,” says Abrams. “But now, given the eligibility rules, many people need to pay for the tremendous cost of long-term care.”
But tools can be used to help someone become Medicaid-eligible, says Peter J. Strauss, an elder law and estate planning and probate attorney with Drinker Biddle & Reath.
New York has a Medicaid Surplus Income Program, which allows people to qualify for Medicaid if they spend their excess income on medical bills. Strauss also advises people to look into long-term-care insurance while they are young, so that they can get a reasonable price before costs go up. With people living longer, planning for old age is important.
Everything changes so fast
Family structures have also changed over time: divorces, second marriages, marriages for same-sex couples. Abrams says he has seen the needs of his clients change so much that he believes elder law attorneys should now be trained differently.
“You can plan, but then all of a sudden [clients] have an issue, which is why I think elder law attorneys need litigation skills,” says Abrams.
Wills and other documents should be reviewed periodically to keep them up to date. That can get expensive, but Strauss notes, “there are organizations like NYLAG [New York Legal Assistance Group] that provide free and low-cost legal services for elderly people—as long as the elderly meet the guidelines.”
What to ask yourself
Here are Makofsky’s four major questions to answer when making a plan:
- Who should make medical decisions for you if you are unable to make your own?
- Who should manage your finances if you can no longer do so?
- What is your plan for long-term care if something catastrophic happens?
- How do you ensure that your assets are left to your heirs in the way you want, and in a way that protects them?