Legal Help for Seniors: What New York Families Need to Know

Discover key insights on estate planning and other legal help for seniors in this guide from Amazing Home Care.

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Aging adults face legal challenges that their younger counterparts don’t. New York State hears cases involving elders throughout the court system, from eviction issues in housing court to potential abuse cases.

The best defense seniors have is maintaining an awareness of potential issues, secure in the knowledge that help is available. To get you started, here’s a basic explanation of the most common legal issues affecting elders — estate planning, proxy decision-making, and fraud avoidance. You’ll also learn about available government benefits and how to find quality legal help for seniors in New York.

Understanding the Legal Needs of Seniors

As we age, we start to face different legal and logistical challenges. Things we rarely even considered become daily worries, often well before we’re ready. Examples include:

  • Estate planning: Documenting what you want to happen to your assets after you die or become incapacitated
  • Guardianship: Choosing who should make your financial and personal decisions if you lose the ability to do so
  • Healthcare directives: Specifying your preferences for medical care when you can’t communicate your wishes
  • Fraud prevention:  Avoiding and reporting scams, which disproportionately affect older adults

If you or a family member are struggling with any of these issues, read on. Legal help is available for seniors.

Essential Legal Documents for New York Seniors

Having the proper paperwork makes all the difference when legal problems arise. Here are three types of documents that all elder New Yorkers should have in place or take immediate steps to prepare:

Last Will and Testament

A will is a legal document that specifies where you want your possessions to go after your death. If you have children or adult dependents, your will should also name their guardian.

If you die without a will, the state decides what to do with your money and belongings. After paying funeral expenses, the court will distribute your remaining assets (if any) according to New York State’s hierarchy of recipients.

Power of Attorney

Before you find yourself in a situation where you are unable to make legal and financial decisions for yourself, it’s a good idea to appoint a representative to act on your behalf. Whoever you choose will be granted an individual “power of attorney” (POA), a legal instrument that allows them to make decisions in your best interest. For example, if you suffer brain damage or dementia and lose the ability to manage money, your representative will manage your finances. They can pay your bills, sign your checks, and buy things on your behalf.

If you become incapacitated without a named representative with POA, the court will choose someone to manage your affairs without any input from you at all.

Health Care Proxy and Living Wills

A healthcare proxy makes medical decisions on your behalf, much like a POA-empowered representative manages your finances. Your proxy can choose your providers, give or deny consent to treatment, and choose whether to provide life-extending care.

A healthcare proxy settles any disagreements about “what you would want.” Although it’s comforting to think your family knows your wishes, they can be wrong, and their emotions can affect their choices. Selecting a proxy gives that person the final say.

If you have specific wishes about life-sustaining treatments, you can express these in a living will. Living wills specify what methods you do or don’t want doctors to use to prolong your life. They allow you the peace of knowing your end-of-life care will happen according to your wishes while relieving loved ones of having to make such decisions.

Guardianship in New York

If a senior in New York State becomes incapacitated and has not named a proxy or representative with POA, a loved one can petition the court for guardianship.

Guardianship is a court order giving someone the right to make certain decisions for another person. Most guardianship cases involving seniors give the guardian specific decision-making rights, such as the right to manage finances or personal care needs.

To become a guardian or assign a guardian to someone, you must petition the court to prove the person is incapacitated. If a judge agrees, you or the proposed guardian will receive an official Commission and complete an official training program. As a guardian, you will have the right and responsibility to make decisions in the person’s best interest.

Financial Scams Targeting Seniors

Elders are disproportionately vulnerable to fraud. In 2023, individuals aged 60 and above reported more cases of internet fraud than any other age group. Elders lost $3.4 billion to online scammers — at least double the losses of any younger group.

Common scams affecting New York elders include:

  • The IRS Scam: A caller informs the victim of past due taxes and demands immediate debit or wire transfer
  • The jury duty scam: The caller tells the victim they missed jury duty and must pay a fine to avoid arrest
  • The grandparent scam: The caller impersonates a loved one, usually having researched the person in question. Some pretend to be the loved one’s doctor or a police officer. They claim an emergency and say they need a wire transfer of money immediately.

These scammers can be persuasive. The best way to prevent them is to avoid answering the phone for unknown callers and to hang up immediately if the caller has a robotic voice.

Never give personal information over the phone, especially credit card numbers. If a “company” asks for your payment, get the representative’s name and call them back. Enroll your phone number in the National Do Not Call (DNC) Registry.

If you or someone you love has lost money to fraud, call the bank or credit card company and ask them to reverse the transaction.1

Finding and Choosing Legal Assistance in New York

If you or a loved one needs an attorney, search a reputable directory such as Martindale-Hubbell or the New York City Bar Legal Referral Service. In reviewing your options, consider cost, location, credentials, and experience dealing with your issue.

Another option is to contact the Center for Elder Law and Justice. Any New Yorker age 55 or older can request assistance through the Center or call the Free Legal Advice helpline.

Government Benefits and Programs

Federal, state, and local governments offer benefits to seniors in need. From Social Security and Medicare to nutrition and energy assistance, there is a program for almost every need.

Seniors can apply for aid through the myBenefits system or the 311 portal for New York City residents. The state Office for the Aging publishes helpful resources for applying, or you can contact a local Area Agency on Aging. Local agencies often provide more personal advice.

Real-Life Examples

If making arrangements sounds overwhelming, consider the many families and seniors who have successfully navigated the process.

Take the Lisman siblings, who created a POA for their mother using resources available in their hometown of Rochester. Or 85-year-old Sylvia, whose friends worked with an attorney to get her a power of attorney, allowing her to move smoothly into an assisted living facility.

Final Thoughts: Getting Legal Help for Seniors

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When elders face legal challenges, preparation can be the line between surviving and thriving. It’s essential to take action as soon as possible and set up future directives, including POA, healthcare proxies, and wills.

Amazing Home Care is committed to helping families navigate the journey of health and aging. Call us today at 718-863-3300 or email info@amazinghc.com to explore your options, or contact any of the organizations described in this article.