DEFINITION of Elder Law

Elder law, also known as elder care law, is a legal specialty focusing on the rights and needs of older people.

BREAKING DOWN Elder Law

An expansion of the traditional trust and estates practice, elder law encompasses a range of age-related legal matters, including access to and issues regarding healthcare and government benefits, age discrimination in employment and housing, elder abuse/fraud, dementia/disabilities and guardianship. Elder law attorneys often offer financial planning and estate-planning services, such as creating wills, setting up trusts, and drawing up power of attorney forms (see Power of Attorney: When You Need One).

There is no official age at which a client falls under an elder-law attorney's purview, though 65, a traditional retirement age, is often seen as a benchmark. Some elder law attorneys work on behalf of clients with any sort of mental or physical disability, regardless of age.

History of Elder Law

As a legal specialty in the U.S., elder law claims its roots in the Older Americans Act of 1965, which made senior citizens’ law programs a permanent fixture in the aging network and which led to the Administration on Aging (AOA), a division within the Department of Health and Human Services. Support programs, such as the National Senior Citizens Law Center and the American Bar Association's Commission on Law and Aging, nurtured the beginnings of a national identity of this type of law. Gradually, the field matured to include national private bar groups, such as the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), which emerged in 1987, and the National Elder Law Foundation, which offers educational and certification programs. On the state level, some 39 state bar associations have elder law sections or committees encompassing both aging and disability issues.

While not new, the practice of elder law has become increasingly prevalent in the 21st century, paralleling the graying of the population (as the first members of the Baby Boom generation turned 65 in 2010) and the increase in life expectancies.

Currently, a major aspect of elder law involves long-term healthcare plans, particularly Medicaid planning and eligibility. A joint federal and state program, Medicaid pays some nursing home, assisted living and home care bills for people of limited means. In addition to understanding the complexities of the Medicaid program, which vary by state, elder law attorneys can suggest legal strategies to help older people qualify for benefits without having to impoverish themselves (see Top 5 Strategies to Pay For Elder Care).