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What is Elder Law?

By Harry S. Margolis


What is “elder law?” Some years ago, for the introduction to the elder law book for the Massachusetts Practice series published by Thompson Reuters, written by my partner, Jeffrey A. Bloom, I wrote the following definition:


Most simply put, elder law is a legal specialty focusing on the legal needs of seniors. But that begs the question a bit. What are those legal needs? How do they differ from the legal needs of non-seniors? How do we define “seniors”?

Unfortunately, many of the legal issues seniors face arise from their loss of mental capacity or the onset of physical incapacity. The increased likelihood that we will need care as we age, especially after age 85, the failure of the American health care system to provide for such care under standard insurance, the high cost of such long-term care, and the complicated and piecemeal public “system” of subsidizing long-term care combine to create the need for legal expertise to guide seniors either experiencing or anticipating long-term care needs. This is the core service of elder law.

However, elder law also includes more standard estate planning, simply with an eye towards the future need for long-term care, and more urgency given the higher age and likely sooner death of the client. Elder law also includes guardianship and conservatorship proceedings over seniors who may have lost or be losing their mental capacity (or defense against such proceedings), protection of seniors from those who may take advantage of them, the resolution of disputes with nursing homes and assisted living facilities over care and related issues, and the resolution of disputes among family members about the care of their parents and the financial cost of such care.

The term “seniors” often refers to anyone over age 65. While individuals age at different rates, as a group there’s a huge difference between those between 65 and 85 and those over 85. The vast majority of those in the first age group are healthy and enjoying their so-called “golden years”, while over half of those in the latter group need some assistance getting through the day. In fact, often it is those in the first group who are caring for their parents in the second group. Elder law attorneys help those in the first group prepare for their post-golden years, and help those in the second group deal with the legal and health care issues they come up against.


What’s your definition? I’d be curious to hear how you would define “elder law” and how you that definition may have changed over the years.

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