A Trio of Guides to Legal Issues Affecting the Elderly

[This article was originally published on January 19, 2003.  The links were updated on August 24, 2018.]

Life is supposed to get a bit less complicated as we enter our "golden years," isn't it? In fact, things often seem to grow more complex. Much planning is needed to ensure that we will have enough income after retirement, that our living situation will be safe and appropriate, and that the right kind of care will be there if we need it. Not surprisingly, bookstore shelves are bursting with titles to help the elderly and their families prepare for later life and understand the legal planning involved. Below, ElderLawAnswers.com reviews three of the best reference works we've found so far.

Book cover: The American Bar Association Legal Guide for Older Americans.

1. The American Bar Association Legal Guide for Older Americans: The Law Every American Over Fifty Needs to Know. Charles P. Sabatino, et al. The American Bar Association/Times Books. 1998. 250 pages. Available on Amazon.com (click book cover to find).

Compared with the many competing books on the legal needs of the elderly, this handy guide's most compelling virtue is its brevity. In a volume about the size of a short paperback novel, the authors manage to concisely review the legal rights of older persons under the major government programs and federal statutes. In clear, jargon-free prose, the book steers readers through the ins and outs of the Big Three federal programs'”Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The authors also explain other legal areas of frequent concern to older Americans, including age discrimination laws, retirement income rights, consumer protection statutes, estate planning tools, grandparents' rights, reverse mortgages, and the rights of the disabled.

On all these topics, the guide gives readers just enough information to make an informed decision on what to do or where to turn next. Frequent checklists, boxes, and lists of contacts help break up the text and provide useful reference tools. This area of the law is constantly evolving, so it's no surprise that a few things have changed since the book was published in 1998. Nevertheless, the guide will give seniors and their families a solid grounding in the areas that concern them the most without taking up much space in a briefcase or handbag.


Book cover: Social Security, Medicare and Pensions.

2. Social Security, Medicare and Pensions, 7th Edition. by Joseph L. Matthews with Dorothy Matthews Berman. Nolo.com. June 1999. Available on Amazon.com (click on book cover to find).

Could reading about Social Security regulations actually be entertaining? The authors of this comprehensive guidebook come close to achieving this feat. As they point out, many Americans are not receiving all the benefits they deserve under our current system. By explaining the various benefit programs and laws in conversational English, they hope to help readers ensure they are getting everything to which they are entitled. It's also helpful that the text is presented in a visually interesting two-column format with plenty of headings, boxes, and even the occasional illustration.

Each chapter explains a different benefit program or set of laws designed to protect the rights of older Americans. Security and Medicare take up more than half the book. The discussions of Medicare claims and appeal procedures are particularly thorough, complete with samples of Medicare summary notices explaining what the sometimes confusing columns of numbers mean. There also are chapters on Medigap policies, Veterans benefits, private pensions and 401(k) plans, and federal civil service retirement benefits. However, if you're looking for in-depth information on Medicaid coverage of nursing home costs, this is not your best resource. While Medicaid's basic eligibility rules are briefly discussed, the complexities of transferring assets to qualify for Medicaid benefits are not.

The authors mainly stick to the facts, but every once in a while they reveal their view of our society's tattered safety net. For example, they call our failure to enact a comprehensive, universal health care plan a "national disgrace."


Book cover: The Elder Law Handbook.

3. The ElderLaw Handbook: A Legal and Financial Survival Guide for Caregivers and Seniors, by Peter J. Strauss and Nancy M. Lederman. Facts on File. 1996. 330 pages. Available on Amazon.com (click book cover to find).

This hardcover volume is one of the most thorough and informed discussions you're likely to find on legal issues affecting the elderly. The authors, who are both elder law attorneys, begin with a quote from Milton Berle: "I've got enough money for the rest of my life, unless I want to buy something." They wrote the book, the authors say, to give readers "more than a punchline" with which to face their future. After reading it, you'll be able to face your future as something of an expert yourself.

Peter Strauss and Nancy Lederman dispassionately lay out rights and legal options so that readers can make decisions now regarding their health care, retirement income and living arrangements in later years. While expected topics like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are well covered, the authors address sometimes neglected areas, such as choosing a hospital, obtaining home care, and planning for a disabled child. The book features a particularly comprehensive section on "Meeting Your Housing Needs" that includes discussions of rental assistance, reverse mortgages, and adult living communities.

For all its detail, The Elder Law Handbook is clearly and engagingly written and benefits from frequent section breaks. And although it is intended for the layperson, it could be of use to professionals seeking general information on areas of elder law. The Handbook was published in 1996, so a few rules and regulations have undoubtedly been tweaked since its writing. The book ends with a helpful and comprehensive resources section.