According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, anyone over the age of 65 is considered to be an older American. More than 40 million Americans fit this description.
That amounts to only about 13 percent of the population, according to the US Census Bureau. And that number is rising slowly but surely. By 2060, almost one quarter of Americans will be over the age of 65.
As the country ages, the legal issues that matter most are changing. Older Americans have more wealth, but also more health problems. Their finances and possessions are more complex, and at the same time they are often beginning to experience memory and cognitive issues that make it harder for them to manage that property. For many, for the first time in their lives, they’ll also be encountering vast government social programs like Medicare and Social Security Insurance, each with its own rules that can add to the complexity of a situation that already has many complex layers.
Growing old in American is now more complex than it ever has been. More than ever, older Americans are relying on elder law paralegals for the professional legal assistance they need.
Elder Law Paralegals Practice a Subset of Family Law
Elder law is a specialized subset of family law practice, encompassing common age-related legal issues such as:
- Estate planning.
- Will and probate work.
- Establishing and managing trusts and other financial instruments.
- Creating powers of attorney.
- Guardianship, advocacy, and health care matters.
As we age, physical and mental infirmities create a different set of issues for each of us. Questions of capability and competency arise, as well as questions of long-term healthcare and the eventual disposition of assets when we pass away. These factors often come up in the realm of interpreting the law and legal agreements and require professional help to sort out.
Elder law paralegals help the elderly and their families ease their way through these difficult transitions.
The Older Americans Act was first passed in 1965 and has been frequently amended since. The Act provides funding for services such as Meals on Wheels, and generally has the aim of enabling older Americans to have fruitful and functional lives outside of nursing facilities by promoting independence and securing legal rights. Paralegals in elder law use OAA provisions and familiarity with ancillary laws and services to help their clients maintain their dignity and health through their golden years.
Death and Disability Come With The Territory in Elder Law
One of the most difficult aspects of working in elder law is discussing death. Many people avoid considering the legal aspects of dying until there is no way to put it off, which complicates matters enormously. Paralegals may have to consult with families who are about to lose a parent or who have just lost one unexpectedly. They have to be able to rapidly assess the situation, analyze the estate, and help an attorney draft the proper instruments to complete probate.
This frequently means going through many disorganized financial documents, attempting to track down possessions and holdings of the decedent, and deciphering bank statements and tax returns. A knowledge of tax law is essential and an accounting background is helpful.
Most important, however, may be patience, sympathy, and understanding. Paralegals often serve as the primary point of contact for elderly clients or their families. You must have empathy for their varied situations and a willingness to deal with both extreme emotion and the occasional lack of clarity.
Protecting Assets and Respecting Wishes Is a Primary Goal
Much of the purpose of wills and testaments is to preserve wealth and possessions and pass them along to inheritors or causes in accordance with the decedents wishes. The laws regarding inheritance are not well understood by most people, however, so it is left to lawyers and paralegals to use their knowledge and understanding to attempt to create documents and structures for legal protection that best conform to the client’s wishes.
Techniques include creating trusts, advising clients on proactively gifting some assets, or consolidating accounts to prepare for distributions. All of this has to be done with a view toward paying various estate taxes and other costs associated with funeral services.
This means paralegals in elder law need to keep up with changes in the evolving debate over estate taxes, as well as with legal and financial instruments useful in dealing with them. Paralegals often take the lead in drafting these documents and explaining them to clients.
Health and Finance Concerns Rank Highly in Elder Law
A knowledge of insurance and health care issues is also handy for elder law paralegals. In particular, dealing with the sometimes byzantine structure of Medicare and Social Security is an area of expertise that is in great demand. Obtaining SSI and Medicare benefits can require a considerable amount of paperwork and substantiation. Some practices specialize exclusively in this sort of work, as well as representing elderly clients in administrative courts when benefits are denied.
Unlike regular courtrooms, in some administrative courts, paralegals are actually allowed to fully represent their clients much the same way an attorney would. The Social Security Administration allows non-attorneys to represent clients at hearings, for example. They can argue cases before administrative law judges and provide counsel to the client, making this type of work particularly rewarding for paralegals looking for more independence.
Planning in these areas is fraught not just because of the sensitive subject matter, but also the uncertainty—no one truly knows how long they will live. Paralegals may use actuarial data as well as their own experience to help clients ensure they will have enough money to live comfortably during their twilight years, while still having enough left to take care of funeral arrangements and taxes.
Becoming a Paralegal Specializing in Elder Law
Some colleges with paralegal certificate and undergraduate degree programs for those just entering the field offer the option to focus in elder law through the selection of electives.
For those already working in the legal field, graduate certificate and other advanced certificates, as well as master’s degrees in legal studies can also be tailored by selecting courses within the domain of elder law, or otherwise offer a specific track in elder law. Programs of this sort would include additional coursework in wills, trusts, and estates, and would cover OAA provisions and Social Security and Medicare litigation.
Advanced certification programs in elder law are available to paralegals that hold the Professional Paralegal (PP) and Core Registered Paralegal (CRP) credentials:
- NALS: The Association for Legal Professionals Specialty Certificate Program in Elder Law is available to paralegals that hold the PP credential
- The Advanced Paralegal Institute offers a certificate in Elder Law Specialization, recognized by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) with courses that can be applied toward the NFPA’s RP credential
Advanced certification programs in elder law would involve additional coursework in:
- Estates and Trust Law
- Social Security, Medicare, and Pensions
- Elder Law
- Estate Planning
Coursework, seminars and workshops of any kind in these topics would provide a solid footing for paralegals looking to further specialize in elder law.
Experience working with older people is also a benefit. Volunteer time spent in nursing homes or senior services agencies can help burnish some of the soft skills that law firms look for when hiring elder law paralegals.