Elder Law encompasses all legal issues related to aging. The Older Americans Act (OAA), originally enacted in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, is the most significant elder legislation in the United States. The earliest OAA was best known for creating the Administration on Aging, an agency that serves as the primary advocate for issues facing the elderly. Additionally, the OAA granted money to states for the development of research and programs in the field of aging. Later amendments to the OAA added funding for various services and programs benefiting senior citizens and their families. In 2006, the OAA was further amended to help older individuals avoid institutional care, improve state health and nutrition programs for seniors, and increase coordination of federal, state and local services for elders. Key issues in elder law include regulation of federal benefits, estate and financial planning, and elder abuse.
Senior citizens in the United States are eligible for a number of federal benefits, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. These benefits protect individuals from becoming destitute and uninsured after the age of retirement. SSI provides many citizens over the age of 65 with a minimum guaranteed income. A majority of the states supplement this amount with additional state funds, though some do not. Financial need determines eligibility for SSI. Social Security benefits, on the other hand, are not distributed based on need but on income earned during the individual's life. Payroll taxes paid by workers and employees pay for Social Security benefits. Eligible individuals may choose to receive social security benefits starting at age 62. Federal benefits also provide health insurance to the elderly population. Medicaid is a joint federal-state program that provides health and nursing-home insurance to seniors. Medicare is a federal program that covers acute medical coverage to individuals over the age of 65. Eligibility for both Medicaid and Medicare programs is based on age rather than financial need.
Estate and Financial Planning for Elders
A significant portion of senior law is devoted to estate and financial planning. Estate and financial planning services ensure that aging individuals may finance their own expenses and medical bills, as well as provide for their families and loved ones after their death. Estate planning often includes the development of a will or trust that carries out the intentions of the individual. In drafting these instruments, the elderly must consider the tax ramifications and probate laws. Financial planning for elders involves evaluating income and retirement funds, estimating expenses and creating contingencies for long-term care.
Each year, family members, caretakers, and strangers subject many senior citizens in the United States to mental, physical and financial abuse. Elder abuse is primarily regulated by individual state Adult Protective Services (APS) agencies. Physical abuse of elders includes beating, forced feeding and sexual abuse. Serious abuse can also stem from neglect. The National Center on Elder Abuse defines neglect as the refusal or failure to provide an elderly person with life necessities such as food, water, medicine, shelter, comfort or personal hygiene. Financial exploitation of elders may come in the form of stealing personal items, credit cards or check books, forgery of checks or other financial documents, or any form of improper coercion used to achieve financial gain. All states have enacted some form of elder abuse prevention laws. Physical abuse and financial exploitation of elders are considered crimes and may be prosecuted as felonies. Additionally, some forms of emotional abuse and neglect may also result in criminal liability for the abuser.