Use Your Will to Dictate How to Pay Your Debts

The main purpose of a will is to direct where your assets will go after you die, but it can also be used to instruct your heirs how to pay your debts. While generally heirs cannot inherit debt, debt can reduce what they receive. Spelling out how debt should be paid can help your heirs.

If someone dies with outstanding debt, the executor is responsible for making sure those debts are paid. This may require selling assets that you would like to leave to specific heirs. There are two types of debts you might leave behind:

  • Secured debt is debt that is attached to a piece of property or an asset, such as a car loan or a mortgage.
  • Unsecured debt is any debt that isn't backed by an underlying asset, such as credit card debt or medical bills.

When you leave an asset that has debt attached to it to your heirs, the debt stays on the property. Your heirs can either continue to pay on the debt or sell the property to pay off the debt. If you believe this would cause a burden for your heirs, you can leave them assets in your will specifically designated to pay off the debt.

With unsecured debt, although your heirs will not have to pay off the debt personally, the executor will have to pay the debt using estate assets. You can specify in your will which assets to use to pay these debts. For example, suppose you have a valuable collectible that you want one of your heirs to have. You can specify that the executor use assets in your bank account to pay any debts before selling the collectible. And if you want to leave liquid assets, like a bank account, CD, or stocks to an heir, you should designate in your will what you would like your executor to use instead to satisfy debts.

Not everyone needs to spell out how to pay debt in a will. If your debt is negligible or your entire estate is going to just one or two people, it may not be necessary. Contact your attorney to come up with a plan for handling your debts. 

 

New Yorker Article Highlights Abuses in the Guardianship System

Serious problems with the public guardianship system in the United States can lead to elder abuse, according to an in-depth article in The New Yorker titled “How the Elderly Lose their Rights.” Court-appointed guardians can take control of an elderly person’s finances and life and become wealthy while doing so. One expert interviewed describes the guardianship system as “a morass, a total mess.”

If an adult becomes incapable of making responsible decisions due to a mental disability, the court will appoint a substitute decision maker, often called a “guardian,” but in some states called a “conservator” or other term. Guardianship is a legal relationship between a competent adult (the “guardian”) and a person who because of incapacity is no longer able to take care of his or her own affairs (the “ward”). A public guardian is appointed by the court to serve wards when no family member or private guardian is available.

The New Yorker article, written by staff writer Rachel Aviv, focuses on a Nevada couple who came under the control of public guardian April Parks. As guardian for hundreds of wards, Ms. Parks, took over their lives, sold their belongings, and charged their estates hundreds of dollars an hour while doing so. Over her 12 years as a public guardian, Ms. Parks built relationships with hospitals and medical providers to refer patients to her and found doctors who were willing to declare patients incompetent. Families often found out too late that their loved one was under guardianship and beyond their legal control.

Ms. Parks was just one part of a system that fails to protect vulnerable elderly individuals the way it is meant to, Aviv suggests. The couple in the article lost their home and freedom and were moved around to various assisted living facilities and medicated. After the couple’s daughter notified the media, Ms. Parks was finally removed from the case. She was eventually investigated and indicted for perjury and theft related to her business dealings. Unfortunately, according to the article, other public guardians who are abusing the system are still working.

There are a growing number of stories of seniors who become confused and overwhelmed after losing control of their lives to a guardian they don't know. In response to such abuses, some states have begun making reforms. In March 2016, Florida’s governor signed a law creating an Office of Public and Professional Guardians that is required to create standard practices and rules for public guardians. Nevada has also enacted a number of reforms, including requiring that individuals subject to guardianship be represented by an attorney, that are set to go into effect in 2018. And in a rare display of bipartisanship, Congress recently passed and sent to the President a bill that empowers federal officials to investigate and prosecute unscrupulous guardians and conservators appointed by state courts.

While there isn't a foolproof way to prevent someone from preying on you or a loved one, there may be steps you can take to reduce the chances. A power of attorney allows a person you appoint (and trust) to act in place of you for financial purposes when and if you ever become incapacitated. Having a power of attorney in place may lessen the need for a guardian.

To find out what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones, consult with your attorney. 

To read the New Yorker article, click here.

Social Security Beneficiaries Will Receive a 2 Percent Increase in 2018

In 2018, Social Security recipients will get their largest cost of living increase in benefits since 2012, but the additional income will likely be largely eaten up by higher Medicare Part B premiums.

Cost of living increases are tied to the consumer price index, and an upturn in inflation rates and gas prices means recipients get a small boost in 2018, amounting to $27 a month for the typical retiree. The 2 percent increase is higher than last year’s .3 percent rise and the lack of any increase at all in 2016. The cost of living change also affects the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax, which will grow from $127,200 to $128,700.

The increase in benefits will likely be consumed by higher Medicare premiums, however. Most elderly and disabled people have their Medicare Part B premiums deducted from their monthly Social Security checks. For these individuals, if Social Security benefits don't rise, Medicare premiums can't either. This “hold harmless” provision does not apply to about 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries: those enrolled in Medicare but who are not yet receiving Social Security, new Medicare beneficiaries, seniors earning more than $85,000 a year, and “dual eligibles” who get both Medicare and Medicaid benefits. In the past few years, Medicare beneficiaries not subject to the hold harmless provision have been paying higher Medicare premiums while Medicare premiums for those in the hold harmless group remained more or less the same. Now that seniors will be getting an increase in Social Security payments, Medicare will likely hike premiums for the seniors in the hold harmless group. And that increase may eat up the entire raise, at least for some beneficiaries.

For 2018, the monthly federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payment standard will be $750 for an individual and $1,125 for a couple.

For more on the 2018 Social Security benefit levels, click here.  

What To Do When a Loved One Passes Away

Whether your spouse has just passed away or you have lost your mom or dad, the emotional trauma of losing a loved one often comes with a bewildering array of financial and legal issues demanding attention. It can be difficult enough for family members to handle the emotional trauma of a death, let alone taking the steps necessary to get these matters in order.

If you are the executor or representative of the will, you first should secure the tangible personal property, meaning anything you can touch such as silverware, dishes, furniture or artwork. Then, take your time while bills need to be paid. They can wait a week or two without any real repercussions. It is more important that you and your family have time to grieve. 

When you are ready, you should meet with an attorney to review the steps necessary to administer the will. While the exact rules of estate planning differ from state to state, the key actions include:

  • File the will and petition in probate court in order to be appointed executor.
  • Collect the assets. This means that you need to find out about everything the deceased owned and file a list of inventory with the court.
  • Pay the bills and taxes. If an estate tax return is due, it must be filed within nine months of the date of death.
  • Distribute property to the heirs. Generally, executors do not pay out all of the estate assets until the period for creditors to make claims runs out which can be as long as a year.
  • Finally, you must file an account with the court listing any income to the estate since the date of death and all expenses and estate distributions.

While some of these steps can be avoided through trusts or joint ownership arrangements, whoever is left in charge still has to pay all debts, file tax returns and distribute the property to the rightful heirs. 

MSW Sponsors Team in the Walk to End Alzheimers

On Saturday, September 23, 2017, Moonan, Stratton & Waldman, LLP sponsored a team in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s event held at Roger Williams Park in Providence. Our team more than doubled its fundraising efforts from last year! We are happy to support the Rhode Island chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association and look forward to our continued participation in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nursing Home Costs Rise Sharply in 2017

The median cost of a private nursing home room in the United States has increased to $97,455 a year, up 5.5 percent from 2016, according to Genworth's 2017 Cost of Care survey, which the insurer conducts annually. Genworth reports that the median cost of a semi-private room in a nursing home is $85,775, up 4.44 percent from 2016. The rise in prices is much larger than the 1.24 percent and 2.27 percent gains, respectively, in 2016.

The price rise was slightly less for assisted living facilities, where the median rate rose 3.36 percent, to $3,750 a month. The national median rate for the services of a home health aide was $22 an hour, up from $20 in 2016, and the cost of adult day care, which provides support services in a protective setting during part of the day, rose from $68 to $70 a day.

Alaska continues to be the costliest state for nursing home care, with the median annual cost of a private nursing home room totaling $292,000. Oklahoma again was found to be the most affordable state, with a median annual cost of a private room of $63,510.

The 2017 survey was based on responses from more than 15,000 nursing homes, assisted living facilities, adult day health facilities and home care providers. The survey was conducted by phone during May and June of 2017.

As the survey indicates, nursing home care is growing ever more expensive. Contact your elder law attorney to learn how you can protect some or all of your family's assets.

For more on Genworth’s 2017 Cost of Care Survey, including costs for your state, click here.

 

Florida Nursing Home Tragedy Causes Rethinking of Disaster Preparedness

The recent tragedy in which 12 Florida nursing home residents died when the facility lost power during Hurricane Irma is causing government officials to rethink disaster planning.

In response to the deaths, Florida Governor Rick Scott announced a new emergency rule, requiring nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the state to have generators capable of maintaining comfortable temperatures for four days after a loss of power. Fire marshals must inspect the generators within 15 days after installation. The rule goes into effect immediately and lasts 90 days, after which it needs to be renewed. Florida already required nursing homes to ensure power, food, water, staffing, and 72 hours of supplies. The governor hopes to make the emergency rule a permanent part of Florida law.

The incident is also shining light on a new federal rule that is scheduled to take effect in November. The rule, enacted in response to 215 people dying in hospitals and nursing homes in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina, requires that nursing homes have an alternative source of energy to maintain temperatures. However, the rule does not specify that the nursing home must have a generator or the ability to power air conditioning. It also provides no funding to nursing homes to assist in purchasing the type of generator required to power an air conditioning unit.

Officials at the Hollywood, Florida, nursing home where the recent deaths occurred – which is across the street from a hospital that was fully functioning at the time — is facing serious consequences. To start, the facility has lost its Medicaid funding and its license to operate has been suspended. In addition, the Hollywood police department has opened a criminal investigation into the deaths that could lead to manslaughter charges. Lawsuits by patients' families have already begun. The nursing home had a two-star rating (out of five) from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, based on the fact that the state had cited it for 11 health deficiencies in its most recent inspection.

If you have a loved one in a nursing home or assisted living facility, or you are trying to choose a facility, you may want to ask to see the institution's emergency management plan, especially if the area is a vulnerable one like Florida, according to The New York Times. You may also want to ask whether the plan includes a backup generator to power the air conditioning system. Many facilities do not even have air conditioning anywhere except common areas, however. No doubt, given recent events, you will not be alone in inquiring about emergency preparedness.

It remains to be seen what lessons can be learned from the Florida tragedy.  According to a Kaiser Health News investigation, nursing homes have been caught unprepared for far more mundane emergencies than hurricanes and rarely face serious consequences for their lapses.  For details, click here.

Now Is the Time to Review Your Medicare Options

Are you happy with your current Medicare plan or plans? Now is the time to think about whether you are in the right plan or whether a new plan could save you money. Medicare's Open Enrollment Period, in which you can enroll in or switch plans, runs from October 15 to December 7.

During this period you may enroll in a Medicare Part D (prescription drug) plan or, if you currently have a plan, you may change plans. In addition, during the seven-week period you can return to traditional Medicare (Parts A and B) from a Medicare Advantage (Part C, managed care) plan, enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan, or change Advantage plans. Beneficiaries can go to www.medicare.gov or call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) to make changes in their Medicare prescription drug and health plan coverage.

Even beneficiaries who have been satisfied with their plans in 2017 need to review their choices for 2018. Be sure to carefully look over the plan's “Annual Notice of Change” letter. Prescription drug plans can change their premiums, deductibles, the list of drugs they cover, and their plan rules for covered drugs, exceptions, and appeals. Medicare Advantage plans can change their benefit packages, as well as their provider networks. 

Remember that fraud perpetrators will inevitably use the Open Enrollment Period to try to gain access to individuals' personal financial information. Medicare beneficiaries should never give their personal information out to anyone making unsolicited phone calls selling Medicare-related products or services or showing up on their doorstep uninvited. If you think you've been a victim of fraud or identity theft, contact Medicare. For more information on Medicare fraud, click here.

Here are more resources for navigating the Open Enrollment Period:

How to Reverse Medicare Surcharges When Your Income Changes

What happens if you are a high-income Medicare beneficiary who is paying a surcharge on your premiums and then your income changes? If your circumstances change, you can reverse those surcharges.

Higher-income Medicare beneficiaries (individuals who earn more than $85,000) pay higher Part B and prescription drug benefit premiums than lower-income Medicare beneficiaries. The extra amount the beneficiary owes increases as the beneficiary's income increases. The Social Security Administration uses income reported two years ago to determine a beneficiary's premiums. So the income reported on a beneficiary's 2015 tax return is used to determine whether the beneficiary must pay a higher monthly premium in 2017.

A lot can happen in two years. If your income decreases significantly due to certain circumstances, you can request that the Social Security Administration recalculate your benefits. For example, if you earned $90,000 in 2015 but your income dropped to $50,000 in 2016, you can request an income review and your premium surcharges for 2017 could be eliminated. Income is calculated by taking a beneficiary's adjusted gross income and adding back in some normally excluded income, such as tax-exempt interest, U.S. savings bond interest used to pay tuition, and certain income from foreign sources.

You can request a review of your income if any of the following circumstances occurred:

  • You married, divorced, or became widowed
  • You or your spouse stopped working or reduced your work hours
  • You or your spouse lost income-producing property because of a disaster or other event beyond your control
  • You or your spouse experienced a scheduled cessation, termination, or reorganization of an employer's pension plan
  • You or your spouse received a settlement from an employer or former employer because of the employer's closure, bankruptcy, or reorganization

If your income changes due to any of the above reasons, you can submit documentation verifying the change in income — including tax documents, letter from employer, or death certificate — to the Social Security Administration. If the change is approved, it will be retroactive to January of the year you made the request.

 

 

HUD Makes Reverse Mortgages a Little Less Attractive

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has announced changes to the federal reverse mortgage program. Citing the need to put the program on better financial footing, HUD will raise reverse mortgage fees for some borrowers and lower the amount homeowners can borrow.

A reverse mortgage allows a homeowner who is at least 62 years old to use the equity in his or her home to obtain a loan that does not have to be repaid until the homeowner moves, sells, or dies. In a reverse mortgage, the homeowner receives a sum of money from the lender, usually a bank, based largely on the value of the house, the age of the borrower, and current interest rates. Seniors sometimes use the loans to pay for long-term care.

To start, HUD is changing the mortgage insurance premium fees that homeowners pay in order to obtain a loan. Currently, homeowners pay 0.5 percent of the value of their home as an upfront mortgage insurance premium on smaller loans, but homeowners who take out a loan that is more than 60 percent of their home's value pay a 2.5 percent premium. The new rule will require homeowners to pay a standard 2 percent upfront mortgage insurance premium. Homeowners considering a large reverse mortgage may want to wait until after the new rules go into effect. To offset the upfront costs, the annual mortgage insurance premium rate will be dropped from 1.25 percent to 0.5 percent.

In addition, HUD is lowering the amount that homeowners can borrow. The average borrower at current interest rates will be able to borrow only around 58 percent of the value of their home, down from 64 percent.

The changes are set to go into effect on October 2, 2017. The changes will only affect borrowers who take out new loans; they will not affect existing loans.

For more on the new requirements, click here.