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  • Nicole J. Zuvich

What is the difference between elder law and estate planning?

Updated: Sep 27

Two terms appear frequently in popular media in discussions of the legal needs of an aging population: estate planning and elder law. While the two fields often overlap, they are separate and distinct areas of the law. Understanding the difference will help persons shopping for legal assistance find the right lawyer for their needs.

Understanding elder law

As individuals age, they develop many legal issues regarding their property and health care. An elder law attorney helps these persons deal with issues such as health care, disabilities, subsidized housing, and individuals already receiving long-term health care. An elder law attorney helps people with the many legal issues that occur in facing these issues.

Most people over the age of 65 automatically qualify for Medicare; those with especially low annual incomes may also eligible for Medicaid. The regulations governing these programs can be complex and confusing, and an elder law attorney can help elderly people sort out the eligibility regulations and income requirements. For example, an elder care attorney can draft a special needs trust for a family member with a long-term disability. An elder law attorney can also assist an elderly client dispose of or protect assets while preserving eligibility for Medicaid. Anyone interested in exploring eligibility for Medicaid should be warned that Medicaid is administered by the individual states, and each state has different regulations governing eligibility and benefits.

Understanding estate planning

Estate planning focuses on helping individuals dispose of their property after they die. An estate planning lawyer uses various legal devices to assist their clients in minimizing estate taxes and ensuring that their assets are distributed to their heirs according to their wishes. Any who dies without a will or other estate planning documents is entrusting the disposition of their assets to the probate in the county where they died. Among the devices employed by estate planning attorneys includes revocable and irrevocable trusts, special needs trusts, and, of course, written wills. These documents are often used in combination with one another to ensure that the decedent’s property ends up in the hands of the chosen heir on the terms specified by the testator.

While elder law and estate planning are closely related fields of law, no one should leave their assets to the vagaries of the laws in the state where they live. A conference with a knowledgeable estate planning attorney can answer many questions that need to be answered and perhaps suggest other questions that also require answers.

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