Alumna Explains Intracacies of Elder Law
As each guest twirls a black umbrella and moves ceremoniously to the sounds of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the ashes of Nancy T. Baldwin (JD 93) will be scattered at the water’s edge. The ceremony is part of her funeral plans that she has carefully detailed and shared with her family and friends. Although the elder law attorney doesn’t advocate others to follow a similar plan, she does believe that given adequate time and assistance to consider one’s values, beliefs and goals it is possible to create a plan for both living and dying that will empower individuals.
The specialty of elder law is different than other areas of law. “It is usually not adversarial; it can be intergenerational,” she said. It can involve entire families and be geared towards clients planning for their own future. “One gets to be involved in the planning for his or her own life,” she said.
“Recent studies allege that more than one-third of the U.S. population over 71 will suffer from declining mental abilities or mental illness. The elder lawyer is increasingly in demand,” Baldwin said. It is important to make plans early for yourself before it’s too late and family members or the government have to begin to guess what you might want regarding your health, valuables, money and funeral arrangements.
Elder law attorneys help individuals plan for the future through information and communication including counseling over an extended period of time. “One objective of the elder law attorney is to assist individuals in taking control of their own lives,” she said. “This process includes assisting clients with the creation of vital documents, such as health care surrogates and directives, power of attorney, preneed guardian and wills.”
Too often individuals call on elder law attorneys in emergencies and at the last minute. “The preparation of important legal documents becomes an exercise done for or to the elderly or impaired individual rather than in cooperation with the older or impaired client,” Baldwin said.
Some people are hesitant to meet with an elder law attorney and face the reality of aging to plan for unexpected accidents or illnesses because of the negative label of “elderly” and the concept of mortality. “In our society the term elder or elderly is often not a term of respect but almost a pejorative term, a label that can be dehumanizing or debilitating,” Baldwin said. But the experience of planning early in regards to one’s life provides the opportunity to be empowered, she insisted.
As the baby boomer generation ages, more elder law attorneys will be necessary. Even though Baldwin enjoys working with the older generations, her ideal clientele includes a wide age range of individuals. “My goal is that when they are children or grandchildren they can come to talk about how they can be best prepared to live and to die,” Baldwin said.
In an ideal situation, individuals would meet with an elder law attorney early enough to provide adequate time to carefully craft a long-term plan and the necessary legal documents for their future. “Rather than use the documents as instruments of control, punishment, reward or ways to divide families, the documents developed with the elder law attorney can facilitate the individual’s opportunities to say thank you and effectively and efficiently distribute valuables, treasures and memories,” she said. The documents can facilitate decision making and health choices.
While a personal will can cause family strife, Baldwin is adamant that it can also serve as a helpful and sentimental value for loved ones. A written statement included in a will is the last chance to share memories with loved ones and say thank you. It is never too early to begin this compilation of messages to be left behind for family and friends to cherish forever, she said.
“Elder law is an invitation,” Baldwin said. “It is an opportunity for individuals to dare to assume the responsibility for one’s life plan and have the courage to ask others to share and assist in the implementation.”