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Elder Law vs. Estate Planning: What’s the Difference?


While elder law and estate planning are two areas of law that often intersect, they serve distinct purposes. Elder law focuses on issues affecting people in their old age, such as long-term care and guardianship, whereas estate planning deals with the distribution of an individual’s assets after their death.

A financial advisor can help you manage your assets and make a plan for how they’ll be distributed when you’re gone. Connect with a fiduciary advisor today.

What Is Elder Law?

Elder law is a specialized field of legal practice focused on addressing the unique needs of older adults. Unlike other legal areas, elder law encompasses a wide range of issues that affect seniors as they age. This field is designed to help elderly individuals and their families receive the proper care and protection that they need. Here are five key areas of elder law:

Healthcare and Long-term Care Planning

One of the primary areas of elder law is healthcare and long-term care planning. This involves making arrangements for future medical needs and understanding the various options available for long-term care. Elder law attorneys assist in evaluating and selecting appropriate care facilities, as well as advising on the use of government programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Powers of Attorney

Granting power of attorney is another key aspect of elder law, as well as estate planning. This legal document allows you to appoint someone to make financial and healthcare decisions on your behalf if you become unable to do so.

Guardianship and Conservatorship

Guardianship and conservatorship are legal processes designed to protect individuals who are no longer able to make decisions for themselves due to cognitive decline or physical incapacity. An elder law attorney can help establish guardianships, where a court appoints a guardian to make personal and healthcare decisions for the elderly person. Conservatorships, on the other hand, involve managing the financial affairs of the individual.

Elder Abuse and Exploitation

Elder law also covers the protection against elder abuse and exploitation. This includes physical, emotional, and financial abuse. Attorneys in this field work to safeguard the rights of seniors, helping to identify and address instances of abuse. They may assist in obtaining restraining orders, pursuing legal action against abusers, and coordinating with social services.

End-of-Life Planning

End-of-life planning, including advance directives and living wills, is another key component of elder law. These documents, which may also be included in one’s estate plan, specify an individual’s wishes regarding medical treatment if they become incapacitated. Elder law attorneys help draft these directives to make the person’s healthcare preferences legally binding.

What Is Estate Planning?

A husband and wife sign estate planning documents.

Estate planning is the process of organizing how your assets will be managed and distributed after your death or in the event you become incapacitated. This involves creating legal documents such as wills and trusts, as well as powers of attorney and advance directives. Here are four key areas and components of estate planning:

Wills and Trusts

Wills and trusts are foundational components of any estate plan. A will outlines how your assets will be distributed, naming beneficiaries and an executor to manage your estate. Trusts, on the other hand, are legal entities that take ownership of your assets, managing and distributing them according to your preferences. Trusts can not only provide greater control over asset distribution, but they also help your estate avoid probate and offer potential tax benefits.

Beneficiary Designations

Reviewing and updating beneficiary designations on insurance policies, retirement accounts and other financial instruments is important. These designations take precedence over instructions in your will, distributing your assets directly to intended recipients without delay.

Guardianship Designations for Minor Children

For those with minor children, appointing a guardian in your estate plan is a priority. This decision can allow you to appoint someone you trust for the care of your children if you are no longer able to do so, and provide them with stability and security.

Tax Considerations

Effective estate planning also involves understanding and managing tax implications, including potential estate taxes. Strategies may include gifting assets during your lifetime, setting up trusts, and making charitable donations, all of which can help reduce the tax burden on your estate.

Regular Updates

Lastly, it’s important to regularly review and update your estate plan to reflect changes in your life circumstances, such as marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, or significant financial changes.

Elder Law vs. Estate Planning

A man signs his last will and testament.

As noted above, elder law and estate planning often intersect and cover similar needs. While their differences are subtle, they speak to the different needs that people have as they age.

  • Focus: Elder law primarily addresses issues affecting the elderly, such as healthcare, long-term care, guardianship and elder abuse. Estate planning, on the other hand, deals with the management and distribution of an individual’s assets after their death.
  • Legal Documents: Elder law often involves legal documents like healthcare directives, powers of attorney and guardianship arrangements. Estate planning typically includes wills, trusts and beneficiary designations.
  • Objective: Elder law aims to protect the rights and well-being of seniors so that they can receive appropriate care and support. Estate planning focuses on preserving and transferring wealth, minimizing taxes and honoring the wishes of the deceased.
  • Timeframe: Elder law addresses current and ongoing needs of the elderly. Estate planning is primarily concerned with future events, specifically post-death scenarios.
  • Practitioners: Elder law attorneys specialize in legal issues affecting seniors and may work closely with social workers and healthcare providers. Estate planning attorneys focus on legal strategies for asset management and distribution.

Bottom Line

While elder law focuses on protecting the rights and well-being of seniors through comprehensive care planning and legal safeguards, estate planning ensures the orderly management and distribution of assets after death. Each field addresses unique needs and employs specific legal tools to provide security and peace of mind.

Tips for Finding a Financial Advisor

  • A lot goes into hiring a financial advisor. First and foremost, you’ll want to find an advisor who abides by fiduciary duty, which means they’re legally required to put the best interests of their clients ahead of their own. You’ll also want to work with an advisor who offers the specific services you’re seeking, like estate planning or retirement planning. Here’s a comprehensive guide for choosing a financial advisor.
  • Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

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