Many clients have often asked whether their assets were fully protected from creditors when dealing with Title XIX (Medicaid) issues. Did you know that when you or your parents find it necessary to seek assistance for nursing homes and the like, the majority of your assets are spent down before qualifying for assistance? Furthermore, although the Federal Law trumps in this area, in some cases the State of Connecticut is acting under it’s own laws without regard to Federal Law. It clearly makes sense to prepare for that event since more and more elderly individuals are realizing the realty of losing everything you worked so hard for is a practical scenario.
The Need for Planning
One of the greatest fears of older Americans is that they may end up in a nursing home. This not only means a great loss of personal autonomy, but also a tremendous financial price. Depending on location and level of care, nursing homes cost between $35,000 and $150,000 a year.
Most people end up paying for nursing home care out of their savings until they run out. Then they can qualify for Medicaid to pick up the cost. The advantages of paying privately are that you are more likely to gain entrance to a better quality facility and doing so eliminates or postpones dealing with your state’s welfare bureaucracy–an often demeaning and time-consuming process. The disadvantage is that it’s expensive. Careful planning, whether in advance or in response to an unanticipated need for care, can help protect your estate, whether for your spouse or for your children. This can be done by purchasing long-term care insurance or by making sure you receive the benefits to which you are entitled under the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Veterans may also seek benefits from the Veterans Administration.
Medicare Part A covers up to 100 days of “skilled nursing” care per spell of illness. However, the definition of “skilled nursing” and the other conditions for obtaining this coverage are quite stringent, meaning that few nursing home residents receive the full 100 days of coverage. As a result, Medicare pays for only about 9 percent of nursing home care in the United States. Check out the Medicare section of this site for tips on making sure you receive the nursing care benefits to which you are entitled.
For all practical purposes, in the United States the only “insurance” plan for long-term institutional care is Medicaid. Lacking access to alternatives such as paying privately or being covered by a long-term care insurance policy, most people pay out of their own pockets for long-term care until they become eligible for Medicaid. Although their names are confusingly alike, Medicaid and Medicare are quite different programs. For one thing, all retirees who receive Social Security benefits also receive Medicare as their health insurance. Medicare is an “entitlement” program. Medicaid, on the other hand, is a form of welfare — or at least that’s how it began. So to be eligible for Medicaid, you must become “impoverished” under the program’s guidelines.
Also, unlike Medicare, which is totally federal, Medicaid is a joint federal-state program. Each state operates its own Medicaid system, but this system must conform to federal guidelines in order for the state to receive federal money, which pays for about half the state’s Medicaid costs. (The state picks up the rest of the tab.) This complicates matters, since the Medicaid eligibility rules are somewhat different from state to state, and they keep changing. (The states also sometimes have their own names for the program, such as “MediCal” in California and “MassHealth” in Massachusetts.) Both the federal government and most state governments seem to be continually tinkering with the eligibility requirements and restrictions. This has most recently occurred with the passage of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (the DRA) which significantly changed rules governing the treatment of asset transfers and homes of nursing home residents. The implementation of these changes will proceed state-by-state over the next few years. The rules for gaining eligibility to the program are explained in detail in the Medicaid section of this site. But to be certain of your rights, consult an expert. He or she can guide you through the complicated rules of the different programs and help you plan ahead.
Those who are not in immediate need of long-term care may have the luxury of distributing or protecting their assets in advance. This way, when they do need long-term care, they will quickly qualify for Medicaid benefits. Giving general rules for so-called “Medicaid planning” is difficult because every client’s case is different. Some have more savings or income than others. Some are married, others are single. Some have family support, others do not. Some own their own homes, some rent. Still, a number of basic strategies and tools are typically used in Medicaid planning. These are described below.
As explained in the Medicaid section of this site (see The Transfer Penalty), Congress has established a period of ineligibility for Medicaid for those who transfer assets. The DRA significantly changed rules governing the treatment of asset transfers. For transfers made prior to enactment of the DRA on February 8, 2006, state Medicaid officials will look only at transfers made within the 36 months prior to the Medicaid application (or 60 months if the transfer was made to or from certain kinds of trusts). But for transfers made after passage of the DRA the so-called “look back” period for all transfers is 60 months.
Another significant change in the treatment of transfers made by the DRA has to do with when the penalty period created by the transfer begins. Under the prior law, the 20-month penalty period created by a transfer of $100,000 in the example described above would begin either on the first day of the month during which the transfer occurred, or on the first day of the following month, depending on the state. Under the DRA, the 20-month period will not begin until (1) the transferor has moved to a nursing home, (2) he has spent down to the asset limit for Medicaid eligibility, (3) has applied for Medicaid coverage, and (4) has been approved for coverage but for the transfer. For instance, if an individual transfers $100,000 on April 1, 2010, moves to a nursing home on April 1, 2011, and spends down to Medicaid eligibility on April 1, 2012, that is when the 20-month penalty period will begin, and it will not end until December 1, 2013. How this change is implemented from state-to-state will be worked out over the next few years.
Transfers should be made carefully, with an understanding of all the consequences. People who make transfers must be careful not to apply for Medicaid before the five-year look back period elapses without first consulting with an elder law attorney. This is because the penalty could ultimately extend even longer than five years, depending on the size of the transfer.
Any transfer strategy must take into account the nursing home resident’s income and all of her expenses, including the cost of the nursing home. Also, be very, very careful before making transfers. Also, bear in mind that if you give money to your children, it belongs to them and you should not rely on them to hold the money for your benefit. However well-intentioned they may be, your children could lose the funds due to bankruptcy, divorce or lawsuit. Any of these occurrences would jeopardize the savings you spent a lifetime accumulating. Do not give away your savings unless you are ready for these risks.
In addition, be aware that the fact that your children are holding your funds in their names could jeopardize your grandchildren’s eligibility for financial aid in college. Transfers can also have bad tax consequences for your children. This is especially true of assets that have appreciated in value, such as real estate and stocks. If you give these to your children, they will not get the tax advantages they would get if they were to receive them through your estate. The result is that when they sell the property they will have to pay a much higher tax on capital gains than they would have if they had inherited it.
Transfers should be made carefully, with an understanding of all the consequences. In any case, as a rule, never transfer assets for Medicaid planning unless you keep enough funds in your name to (1) pay for any care needs you may have during the resulting period of ineligibility for Medicaid; and (2) feel comfortable and have sufficient resources to maintain your present lifestyle.
The problem with transferring assets is that you have given them away. You no longer control them, and even a trusted child or other relative may lose them. A safer approach is to put them in an irrevocable trust. A trust is a legal entity under which one person — the “trustee” — holds legal title to property for the benefit of others — the “beneficiaries.” The trustee must follow the rules provided in the trust instrument. Whether trust assets are counted against Medicaid’s resource limits depends on the terms of the trust and who created it.
A “revocable” trust is one that may be changed or rescinded by the person who created it. Medicaid considers the principal of such trusts (that is, the funds that make up the trust) to be assets that are countable in determining Medicaid eligibility. Thus, revocable trusts are of no use in Medicaid planning.
An “irrevocable” trust, on the other hand, is one that cannot be changed after it has been created. In most cases, this type of trust is drafted so that the income is payable to you (the person establishing the trust, called the “grantor”) for life, and the principal cannot be applied to benefit your or your spouse. At your death the principal is paid to your heirs. This way, the funds in the trust are protected and you can use the income for your living expenses. For Medicaid purposes, the principal in such trusts is not counted as a resource, provided the trustee cannot pay it to you or your spouse for either of your benefits. However, if you do move to a nursing home, the trust income will have to go to the nursing home.
Testamentary trusts are trusts created under a will. The Medicaid rules provide a special “safe harbor” for testamentary trusts created by a deceased spouse for the benefit of a surviving spouse. The assets of these trusts are treated as available to the Medicaid applicant only to the extent that the trustee has an obligation to pay for the applicant’s support. If payments are solely at the trustee’s discretion, they are considered unavailable. Therefore, these testamentary trusts can provide an important mechanism for community spouses to leave funds for their surviving institutionalized husband or wife that can be used to pay for services that are not covered by Medicaid. These may include extra therapy, special equipment, evaluation by medical specialists or others, legal fees, visits by family members, or transfers to another nursing home if that became necessary. But remember that if you create a trust for yourself or your spouse during life (i.e., not a testamentary trust), the trust funds are considered available if the trustee has the ability to use them for you or your spouse.
Supplemental Needs Trusts
The Medicaid rules also have certain exceptions for transfers for the sole benefit of disabled people under age 65. Even after moving to a nursing home, if you have a child, other relative, or even a friend who is under age 65 and disabled, you can transfer assets into a trust for his or her benefit without incurring any period of ineligibility. If these trusts are properly structured, the funds in them will not be considered to belong to the beneficiary in determining his or her own Medicaid eligibility. The only drawback to supplemental needs trusts (also called “special needs trusts”) is that after the disabled individual dies, the state must be reimbursed for any Medicaid funds spent on behalf of the disabled person.
Protection of the House
As explained in the Medicaid Rules section of this site, after a Medicaid recipient dies, the state must attempt to recoup from his or her estate whatever benefits it paid for the recipient’s care. This is called “estate recovery.”
For many people, setting up a “life estate” is the most simple and appropriate alternative for protecting the home from estate recovery. A life estate is a form of joint ownership of property between two or more people. They each have an ownership interest in the property, but for different periods of time. The person holding the life estate possesses the property currently and for the rest of his or her life. The other owner has a current ownership interest but cannot take possession until the end of the life estate, which occurs at the death of the life estate holder. As with a transfer to a trust, the deed into a life estate can trigger a Medicaid ineligibility period of up to five years.
Applicants for Medicaid and their spouses may protect savings by spending them on noncountable assets. These expenditures may include: Prepaying funeral expenses,paying off a mortgage,making repairs to a home,replacing an old automobile,updating home furnishings,paying for more care at home, or even buying a new home.
Immediate annuities can be ideal planning tools for spouses of nursing home residents. For single individuals, they are usually less useful. An immediate annuity, in its simplest form, is a contract with an insurance company under which the consumer pays a certain amount of money to the company and the company sends the consumer a monthly check for the rest of his or her life. In most states the purchase of an annuity is not considered to be a transfer for purposes of eligibility for Medicaid, but is instead the purchase of an investment. It transforms otherwise countable assets into a non-countable income stream. As long as the income is in the name of the community spouse, it’s not a problem. In order for the annuity purchase not to be considered a transfer, it must meet three basic requirements: (1) It must be irrevocable–you cannot have the right to take the funds out of the annuity except through the monthly payments. (2) You must receive back at least what you paid into the annuity during your actuarial life expectancy. For instance, if you have an actuarial life expectancy of 10 years, and you pay $60,000 for an annuity, you must receive annuity payments of at least $500 a month ($500 x 12 x 10 = $60,000). (3) If you purchase an annuity with a term certain (see below), it must be shorter than your actuarial life expectancy. (4) Under the DRA, the state must be named the remainder beneficiary up to the amount of Medicaid paid on the annuitant’s behalf.
Before passage of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (DRA) community spouses in some states whose own income was less than their MMMNA (see discussion in the Medicaid Rules section of site) had an alternative to receiving the shortfall from the income of the nursing home spouse. These community spouses could petition the state Medicaid agency for an increase in their standard resource allowances (called the community spouse resource allowance, or CSRA) so that the additional funds could be invested in order to generate income to make up the shortfall in the MMMNA. The DRA will put an end to this practice. Under the new law, an increased resource allowance may only be granted to community spouses whose income is still not enough to reach the MMMNA after first receiving the income of the nursing home spouse.
Under our “system” of paying for long-term care, you may be able to qualify for Medicaid to pay for nursing home care, but in most states there’s little public assistance for home care. Most people want to stay at home as long as possible, but few can afford the high cost of home care for very long. One solution is to tap into the equity built up in your home. If you own a home and are at least 62 years old, you may be able to quickly get money to pay for long-term care (or anything else) by taking out a reverse mortgage. Reverse mortgages, financial arrangements designed specifically for older homeowners, are a way of borrowing that transforms the equity in a home into liquid cash without having to either move or make regular loan repayments. They permit house-rich but cash-poor elders to use their housing equity to, for example, pay for home care while they remain in the home, or for nursing home care later on. The loans do not have to be repaid until the last surviving borrower dies, sells the home or permanently moves out.
The Attorney’s Role
Do you need an attorney for even “simple” Medicaid planning? This depends on your situation, but in most cases, the prudent answer would be “yes.” The social worker at your mother’s nursing home assigned to assist in preparing a Medicaid application for your mother knows a lot about the program, but maybe not the particular rule that applies in your case or the newest changes in the law. In addition, by the time you’re applying for Medicaid, you may have missed out on significant planning opportunities. The best bet is to consult with a qualified professional who can advise you on the entire situation. At the very least, the price of the consultation should purchase some peace of mind. And what you learn can mean significant financial savings or better care for you or your loved one. As described above, this may involve the use of trusts, transfers of assets, purchase of annuities or increased income and resource allowances for the healthy spouse.If you are going to consult with a qualified professional, the sooner the better. If you wait, it may be too late to take some steps available to preserve your assets.