Biden Administration May Spell Changes to Estate Tax and Stepped-Up Basis Rule

A new administration usually means that tax code changes are coming. While it remains unclear exactly what tax changes President Biden’s administration will usher in, two possibilities are that he will propose lowering the estate tax exemption and eliminating the stepped-up basis on death. The first would affect only multi-millionaires, but the second could have an impact on more modest estates and their heirs.

In 2017, Republicans in Congress and President Trump doubled the federal estate tax exemption and indexed it for inflation. For the 2020 tax year, the exemption is $11.58 million for individuals and $23.16 million for couples. As long as your estate is valued at under the exemption amount, it will not pay any federal estate taxes, and the vast majority of estates do not owe any tax. President Biden has expressed an interest in lowering the estate tax exemption. It could be halved to $5 million or even reduced to the previous exemption of $3.5 million for individuals.

Another possible tax change is to how property is valued when it is passed on at death. “Cost basis” is the monetary value of an item for tax purposes. When determining whether a capital gains tax is owed on property, the basis is used to determine whether an asset has increased or decreased in value. For example, if you purchase a stock for $10,000, that is the cost basis. If you later sell it for $50,000, you will have to pay taxes on the $40,000 increase in value.

Under current law, when a property owner dies, the cost basis of the property is “stepped up.” This means the current value of the property becomes the basis. For example, suppose you inherit a house that was purchased years ago for $50,000 and it is now worth $250,000. You will receive a step up from the original cost basis from $50,000 to $250,000. If you sell the property right away, you will not owe any capital gains taxes.

According to an article in the New York Times, the current administration may propose to eliminate the basis step-up rule. In the past it was difficult to determine the original cost basis of some property, but in the digital age that information is more easily gathered. The change could result in tax increases for some people inheriting property that has risen significantly in value.

Another question is whether either of these changes will be made retroactively. It is unlikely, but possible, that if Congress changes these rules later in the year, they could be made retroactive to the first of the year.

If you are concerned about these rules changing, a trust may be a good way to protect your estate. Property in a trust passes outside of probate, and there are specific types of trusts that are designed to protect assets against estate taxes and capital gains. Talk to your attorney to determine if a trust is right for you.

Tax experts agree that while changes to the tax code are likely, they probably won’t happen right away. The coronavirus pandemic and the recession it has triggered mean that Congress has other priorities at the moment. To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Married Couples Need an Estate Plan

Don’t assume your estate will automatically go to your spouse when you die. If you don’t have an estate plan, your spouse may have to share your estate with other family members.

If you die without an estate plan, the state will decide where your assets go. Each state has laws that determine what will happen to your estate if you don’t have a will. If you are married, most states award one-third to one-half of your estate to your spouse, with the rest divided among your children or, if you don’t have children, to other living relatives such as your parents or siblings.

In addition, without an estate plan, you need to worry about what could happen if you become incapacitated. While your spouse may be able to access your joint bank accounts and make health care decisions for you, what happens if something happens to your spouse? It is important to have back-up plans. And even if your spouse is fine, depending on how your finances are set up, your spouse may not be able to access everything without a power of attorney authorizing it.

To avoid this, it is important to make sure you have estate planning documents in place. The most basic estate planning document is a will. If you do not have a will directing who will inherit your assets, your estate will be distributed according to state law, which, as noted, gives only a portion of your estate to your spouse. If you have children, a will is also where you can name a guardian for your children.

You may also want a trust to be a part of your estate plan.  It permits you to name someone to manage your financial affairs. You can name one or more people to serve as co-trustee with you so that you can work together on your finances. This allows them to seamlessly take over in the event of your incapacity. Trusts have many options for how they can be structured and what happens with your property after your death. There are several different reasons for setting up a trust. The most common one is to avoid probate. If you establish a revocable living trust that terminates when you die, any property in the trust passes immediately to the beneficiaries. This can save your beneficiaries time and money. Certain trusts can also result in tax advantages both for the donor and the beneficiary. These could be “credit shelter” or “life insurance” trusts. Other trusts may be used to protect property from creditors or to help the donor qualify for Medicaid.

The next most important document is a durable power of attorney. A power of attorney allows a person you appoint — your “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” — to act in your place for financial purposes if and when you ever become incapacitated. Without it, if you become disabled or even unable to manage your affairs for a period of time, your finances could become disordered and your bills not paid, and this would place a greater burden on your family. They might have to go to court to seek the appointment of a conservator, which takes time and money, all of which can be avoided through a simple document.

Similar to a durable power of attorney, a health care proxy appoints an agent to make health care decisions for you when you can’t do so for yourself, whether permanently or temporarily. Again, without this document in place, your family members might be forced to go to court to be appointed guardian. Include a medical directive to guide your agent in making decisions that best match your wishes.

Do not assume your spouse is automatically protected when you die. Consult with your attorney to make sure you have all the estate planning documents you need.  To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Congress Fixes Some, But Not All, Medicare Enrollment Problems

Tucked in the federal spending bill that passed at the end of December 2020 are some changes aimed at simplifying Medicare enrollment and addressing coverage gaps. But Congress chose not to deal with the biggest problem.

Currently, Medicare enrollment begins three months before the month of your 65th birthday and continues for three months after your birthday month (for a total of seven months). Medicare Part A has no premiums, but if you do not enroll in Medicare Part B or Medicare Part D (prescription drug coverage) during the initial enrollment period, you will face penalties (with exceptions; read on). For example, your Medicare Part B premium may go up 10 percent for each 12-month period that you could have had Medicare Part B, but did not take it.  (You can delay signing up for Part B and Part D without penalty for a number of reasons, including if you have valid coverage through an employer with 20 or more employees that you still work for, or, in the case of Part D, you have private insurance that is at least as good as Medicare’s. Check with your employer or insurer to find out whether you can safely delay enrolling.)

In addition, if you fail to enroll during the seven-month initial enrollment period, you will have to wait for the general enrollment period, which usually runs between January 1 and March 31 of each year. If you enroll during the general enrollment period, your coverage does not start until July 1. This means that you may have to wait up to seven months before you can get Medicare coverage. And, to make matters even more confusing, the general enrollment period for Part B is different from the enrollment period for Part D and Medicare Advantage plans.

Congress has now taken a stab at ending these coverage gaps and clearing up some of the confusion. Under the new law, starting in 2023, whether you enroll during your initial enrollment period or you enroll during the general enrollment period, Medicare coverage will begin the month after enrollment. The law also allows Medicare to make exceptions for people who delay enrollment because of an “exceptional circumstance,” such as a natural disaster. Finally, the new law directs the federal government to align the Medicare Part B, Medicare Advantage, Medicare Part D enrollment periods by 2023.

While these changes will help eliminate coverage gaps, there are still problems. As tax and retirement policy expert Howard Gleckman points out, Medicare beneficiaries often miss the initial enrollment period because they are not aware of it. An earlier version of the law would have required the Social Security Administration to send notifications to individuals who are turning 65 to alert them of their eligibility for Medicare, but that provision was dropped from the final version.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Annual Long-Term Care Survey Finds Steep Rise in Assisted Living Facility Costs Amid Pandemic

All long-term care costs rose sharply in 2020, but assisted living facility costs increased the most, according to Genworth’s latest annual Cost of Care Survey. The across-the-board rises were due in part to increased costs brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

In the past year, assisted living facility rates grew 6.15 percent for a median cost of $51,600 per year or $4,300 per month. Genworth also reports that the median annual cost of home health aides rose 4.35 percent to $54,912, while the median cost of a private nursing home room rose 3.57 percent to $105,850 and the median cost of a semi-private room in a nursing home is now $93,075, up 3.24 percent from 2019. The national median annual rate for the services of a homemaker also climbed 4.44 percent to $53,768.

In response to this year’s price increases, Genworth conducted a follow-up study to understand how COVID-19 is impacting the cost of care. Genworth found that labor shortages, personal protective equipment costs, regulatory changes, employee recruitment and retention, wage pressure, and supply and demand were contributing to rate rises.

The only care setting where costs did not increase was adult day care, which provides support services in a protective setting during part of the day. Costs for adult day care actually fell from $75 to $74 a day, a 1.33 percent decrease, perhaps because many adult day care sites have been forced to close due to the pandemic.

Alaska continues to be the costliest state for nursing home care by far, with the median annual cost of a private nursing home room totaling $436,540. Missouri was the most affordable state, with a median annual cost of a private room of $68,985.

The 2020 survey, conducted by CareScout for the seventeenth straight year, was based on responses from 14,326 nursing homes, assisted living facilities, adult day health facilities and home care providers. Survey respondents were contacted by phone during July and August 2020.

As the survey indicates, long-term care is growing ever more expensive. Contact your attorney to learn how you can protect some or all of your family’s assets from being swallowed up by these rising costs.

For more on Genworth’s 2020 Cost of Care Survey, including costs for your state, click here. To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Using Life Insurance as Part of Your Estate Plan

Life insurance can play a few key roles in an estate plan, depending on your age and situation in life.

There are two main types of life insurance: term and permanent. Term life insurance is the simplest: You buy a policy for a set number of years and you have coverage with a death benefit if you die during that period. Permanent life insurance policies provide coverage for life (or for as long as you pay premiums). In addition to paying a death benefit, the policy builds a cash value, which can be used as collateral for a loan or withdrawn from the account. “Whole life,” “universal life,” “variable life” and “variable universal life” are different types of permanent insurance.

When children are young, life insurance can provide funds to a surviving spouse and children to help make up for lost income and pay for schooling. Typically, a term life insurance policy will work well for this purpose.

Once you retire, you may no longer need life insurance. If your spouse or other dependents won’t lose any income when you die, life insurance may not be necessary and your premiums may be better spent on other things. However, more and more people are carrying debt into retirement. In this case, a life insurance policy can be used to pay off that debt once you die. This may allow your heirs to keep a house that might otherwise have to be sold to pay off the debt. Life insurance can also be used to pay off an outstanding mortgage.

It may better to have a permanent life policy in retirement because the cash value can be used to provide income to the retirees or to pay long-term care costs. There are also hybrid long-term care insurance and life insurance products that can be used for this purpose.

Because life insurance passes outside of probate, it can also provide heirs needed funds more quickly than assets passing through probate. Life insurance can be used to pay for funerals and other final expenses. While most families do not have to pay federal estate tax, life insurance can be used to pay state estate taxes.

To make sure you use life insurance effectively as part of your estate plan, you should consult with your attorney.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Five Reasons to Have a Will

Your will is a legally-binding statement directing who will receive your property at your death. It also appoints a legal representative to carry out your wishes. However, the will covers only probate property. (Probate is the court process by which a deceased person’s property is passed to his or her heirs and people named in the will.) Many types of property or forms of ownership pass outside of probate. Jointly-owned property, property in trust, life insurance proceeds and property with a named beneficiary, such as IRAs or 401(k) plans, all pass outside of probate

Why should you have a will? Here are some reasons:

  1. With a will you can direct where and to whom your estate (what you own) will go after your death. If you died intestate (without a will), your estate would be distributed according to your state’s law. Such distribution may or may not accord with your wishes. Many people try to avoid probate and the need for a will by holding all of their property jointly with their children. This can work, but often people spend unnecessary effort trying to make sure all the joint accounts remain equally distributed among their children. These efforts can be defeated by a long-term illness of the parent or the death of a child. A will can be a much simpler means of carrying out one’s wishes about how assets should be distributed.
  2. Wills make the administration of your estate run smoothly. Often the probate process can be completed more quickly and at less expense to your estate if there is a will. With a clear expression of your wishes, there are unlikely to be any costly, time-consuming disputes over who gets what.
  3. Your will is the only way to choose the person to administer your estate and distribute it according to your instructions. This person is called your “executor” (or “executrix” if you appoint a woman) or “personal representative,” depending on your state’s statute. If you do not have a will naming him or her, the court will make the choice for you. Usually the court appoints the first person to ask for the post, whoever that may be.
  4. For larger estates, a well-planned will can help reduce estate taxes.
  5. A will allows you to appoint who will take your place as guardian of your minor children should both you and their other parent both pass away.

Filling out a worksheet will help you make decisions about what to put in your will. Bring it and any additional notes to your lawyer and he or she will be able to efficiently prepare a will that meets your needs and desires.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

 

Can You Visit Nursing Home Residents After They are Vaccinated?

COVID vaccines are starting to roll out to nursing homes across the country, signaling the beginning of the end of the pandemic. Once your loved one has had both doses of the vaccine, you may be able to visit, but precautions are still necessary.

The federal government entered into a partnership with CVS and Walgreens to deliver the vaccines to nursing home residents, who have high priority for being vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. The pharmacy companies began administering vaccines in 12 states in mid-December and will expand to 36 states before year’s end. Both the Pfizer the Moderna vaccines require two shots three or four weeks apart.

Restrictions on nursing home visitors vary from state to state, with some states limiting them and others allowing more visitation. Currently, the CDC recommends that nursing homes allow indoor visitors if the facility has had no COVID cases for 14 days. Once vaccines have been distributed, restrictions may ease further.

According to the New York Times, experts recommend that to be safe, you should wait until two weeks after your loved one gets the second dose of the vaccine before visiting. The safest time to visit would be after all the residents and staff have been vaccinated and you receive the vaccine as well. Even if you and your loved one are vaccinated, you should still wear a mask when visiting. As long as COVID is spreading in the community, mask wearing is still recommended.

Noting that the vast majority of older adults with chronic conditions live at home, long-term care consultant Howard Gleckman asserts that these vulnerable adults along with their caregivers should also be vaccinated as soon as possible.  As states ration their limited initial supplies of the vaccines, Gleckman says, “they should remember the millions of people who are at high risk of severe illness or death from the virus, but who are living at home.”

For more information about the vaccine rollout to nursing homes, click here and here.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

The Attorney’s Role in Medicaid Planning

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. 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.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Watch Out for These Potential Problems with Life Estates

Life estates can be an excellent tool for Medicaid planning, probate avoidance and tax efficiency, but there are potential problems to look out for. Knowing the implications and risks of a life estate is essential in determining whether it is appropriate for your situation.

In a life estate, two or more people each have an ownership interest in a property, but for different periods of time. The person holding the life estate — the life tenant — possesses the property during his or her life. The other owner — the remainderman — has a current ownership interest but cannot take possession until the death of the life estate holder. The life tenant has full control of the property during his or her lifetime and has the legal responsibility to maintain the property as well as the right to use it, rent it out, and make improvements to it.

Life estates are excellent planning techniques in many circumstances. They permit parents to pass ownership in their homes to their children while retaining absolute possession of the property during their lives. By executing a life estate deed, the property avoids probate at the parents’ deaths, is protected from a Medicaid lien, and receives a step-up in tax basis.

However, there are potential issues that may arise with life estates and it’s important to fully understand the following risks:

  • As a life tenant, you may not easily sell or mortgage property with a life estate interest. The remaindermen must all agree if you decide to sell or borrow against the property. One thing that can help is a testamentary power of appointment in the deed. This is a mechanism that permits the life tenants to change who ultimately receives the property by directing its disposition in their wills. It won’t allow the life tenant to sell the property, but it does give the life tenant more bargaining power with the remaindermen. Another option is a nominee realty trust. This type of trust permits one or more children to act as trustee or trustees for all the children, and provides that they must follow the direction of a majority of the beneficiaries. So, if there are four children and one child objects to the sale or mortgage of the property, but the other three are on board, the majority can direct the trustee to sign the papers necessary to facilitate the sale or borrowing.
  • If the property is sold, the remaindermen are entitled to a share of the proceeds equal to what their interest is determined to be at that time.
  • It is not as easy to remove or change a name once it is on a deed to real estate as it is to change the beneficiary on a life insurance policy or bank account.
  • Once a remainderman is named on the deed to your house, he or she has an interest in the home and his or her legal problems could become yours. For example, if your child, who is a remainderman, is sued or owes taxes, a lien could be filed against your home. Your child’s interest in the home is not protected if he or she files for bankruptcy. If your child gets a divorce, his or her spouse could claim all or part of your child’s interest in your home. Should your child die before you do, the child’s estate would have to go through probate unless at least one other remainderman was listed as a joint tenant. However, while these claims may be made against the property, no one can kick you out of it during your life.
  • Giving away an interest in property could disqualify you from receiving assistance from Medicaid, should you require long-term care within five years of the transfer. In addition, if you and the remaindermen were to sell the property while you were in a nursing home, the state could have a claim against your share of the proceeds for payments it has made on your behalf, but the share of the proceeds allocated to your children would be protected.

As with most planning tools, a life estate can be very useful with valuable benefits, but it is not for everyone. In many cases, the potential problems outweigh the benefits. As the law in this area is complex, it’s important to talk to a lawyer who knows about this in-depth.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Medicare Premiums to Increase Slightly in 2021

Medicare premiums are set to rise a modest amount next year, but still cut into any Social Security gains. The basic monthly premium will increase $3.90, from $144.60 a month to $148.50.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the premium and other Medicare cost increases on November 6, 2020. The hike could have been much worse due to rising costs during the coronavirus pandemic, but the bipartisan budget bill passed in October capped the increase. While the majority of beneficiaries will pay the added amount, a “hold harmless” rule prevents Medicare recipients’ premiums from increasing more than Social Security benefits, which are going up only 1.3 percent in 2021. This “hold harmless” provision does not apply to Medicare beneficiaries who are enrolled in Medicare but who are not yet receiving Social Security, new Medicare beneficiaries, seniors earning more than $88,000 a year, and “dual eligibles” who get both Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

Meanwhile, the Part B deductible will rise from $198 to $203 in 2021, while the Part A deductible will go up by $76, to $1,484. For beneficiaries receiving skilled care in a nursing home, Medicare’s coinsurance for days 21-100 will increase from $176 to $185.50. Medicare coverage ends after day 100.

Here are all the new Medicare payment figures:
•    Part B premium: $148.50 (was $144.60)
•    Part B deductible: $203 (was $198)
•    Part A deductible: $1,484 (was $1,408)
•    Co-payment for hospital stay days 61-90: $371/day (was $352)
•    Co-payment for hospital stay days 91 and beyond: $742/day (was $704)
•    Skilled nursing facility co-payment, days 21-100: $185.50/day (was $176)

So-called “Medigap” policies can cover some of these costs.

Premiums for higher-income beneficiaries ($88,000 and above) are as follows:

  • Individuals with annual incomes between $88,000 and $111,000 and married couples with annual incomes between $176,000 and $222,000 will pay a monthly premium of $207.90.
  • Individuals with annual incomes between $111,000 and $138,000 and married couples with annual incomes between $222,000 and $276,000 will pay a monthly premium of $297.
  • Individuals with annual incomes between $138,000 and $165,000 and married couples with annual incomes between $276,000 and $330,000 will pay a monthly premium of $386.10.
  • Individuals with annual incomes above $165,000 and less than $500,000 and married couples with annual incomes above $330,000 and less than $750,000 will pay a monthly premium of $475.20.
  • Individuals with annual incomes above $500,000 and married couples with annual incomes above $750,000 will pay a monthly premium of $504.90.

Rates differ for beneficiaries who are married but file a separate tax return from their spouse. Those with incomes greater than $88,000 and less than $412,000 will pay a monthly premium of $475.20. Those with incomes greater than $412,000 will pay a monthly premium of $504.90.

The Social Security Administration uses the income reported two years ago to determine a Part B beneficiary’s premium. So the income reported on a beneficiary’s 2019 tax return is used to determine whether the beneficiary must pay a higher monthly Part B premium in 2021. 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. This is called modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). If a beneficiary’s MAGI decreased significantly in the past two years, she may request that information from more recent years be used to calculate the premium. You can also request to reverse a surcharge if your income changes.

Those who enroll in Medicare Advantage plans may have different cost-sharing arrangements. CMS estimates that the Medicare Advantage average monthly premium will decrease by 11 percent in 2021, from an average of $23.63 in 2020 to $21 in 2021.

For Medicare’s press release announcing the new premium, co-payment and deductible amounts, click here.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.