It’s Open Enrollment Season: Is Your Medicare Plan Still Working For You?

Do you have the right Medicare plan? It is fall, which means it is time to think about whether your current plan is still giving you the best coverage or whether a new plan could save you money or offer better coverage. Medicare’s Open Enrollment Period, during which you can freely 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 2018 should review their choices for 2019, as both premiums and plan coverage can fluctuate from year to year. Are the doctors you use still part of your Medicare Advantage plan’s provider network? Have any of the prescriptions you take been dropped from your prescription plan’s list of covered drugs (the “formulary”)? Could you save money with the same coverage by switching to a different plan?

For answers to questions like these, carefully look over the plan’s “Annual Notice of Change” letter to you. 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. For information about entering and leaving Medicare Advantage plans, click here.

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.

Here are more resources for navigating the Open Enrollment Period:

Or contact Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton.

Be Careful About Putting Only One Spouse’s Name on a Reverse Mortgage

A recent case involving basketball star Caldwell Jones demonstrates the danger in having only one spouse’s name on a reverse mortgage. A federal appeals court has ruled that an insurance company may foreclose on a reverse mortgage after the death of the borrower, Mr. Jones, even though Mr. Jones’ widow is still living in the house. While there are protections in place for non-borrowing spouses, many spouses are still facing foreclosure and eviction.

A reverse mortgage allows homeowners to use the equity in their home to take out a loan, but borrowers must be 62 years or older to qualify for this type of mortgage. If one spouse is under age 62, the younger spouse has to be left off the loan in order for the couple to qualify for a reverse mortgage. Some lenders have actually encouraged couples to put only the older spouse on the mortgage because the couple could borrow more money that way. But couples often did this without realizing the potentially catastrophic implications. If only one spouse’s name was on the mortgage and that spouse died, the surviving spouse would be required to either repay the loan in full or face eviction.

In order to protect non-borrowing spouses, the federal government revised its guidelines for reverse mortgages taken out after August 4, 2014 to allow spouses to stay in the house as long as they meet certain criteria, including proving ownership within 90 days of the borrowers death. In 2015, the federal government allowed lenders to defer foreclosure on a widow or widower and assign the mortgage to the federal government. Advocacy groups looking at reverse mortgage foreclosures have found that despite these new regulations, lenders are still foreclosing on non-borrowing spouses. Of the 591 non-borrowing spouses who have sought help to avoid foreclosure, only 317 received assistance.

These regulations did not help Mr. Jones’ wife, Vanessa. Mr. Jones, who blocked more than 2,200 shots during his 17-year professional basketball career, obtained a reverse mortgage in 2014 on the Georgia home he lived in with his wife. The contract defined the “borrower” to be “Caldwell Jones, Jr., a married man.” Ms. Jones did not put her name on the reverse mortgage because she was under age 62 at the time of the mortgage. Mr. Jones died later that year, and when Ms. Jones did not repay the loan, the insurer began foreclosure proceedings.

Ms. Jones sued the insurer in federal court to prevent the foreclosure, arguing that federal law prohibited the insurer from foreclosing on the house while she lived in it. Under a provision in federal law, the federal government “may not insure” a reverse mortgage unless the “homeowner” does not have to repay the loan until the homeowner either dies or sells the mortgaged property and defines “homeowner” to include the borrower’s spouse.

On appeal, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (Estate of Caldwell Jones, Jr. v. Live Well Financial (U.S. Ct. App., 11th Cir., No. 17-14677, Sept. 5, 2018)) ruled that the federal law in question only covers what the federal government can insure and does not govern the insurer’s right to foreclose. The court agrees with Ms. Jones that the law is intended to safeguard widows and implies that the federal government should not have insured the loan in the first place, but finds that federal law does not cover the insurer’s private right to demand immediate payment and pursue foreclosure.

When purchasing a reverse mortgage, it is always safer to put both spouse’s names on the mortgage. If one spouse is underage when the mortgage is originally taken out, that spouse can be added to the mortgage when he or she reaches age 65. If you have a reverse mortgage with only one spouse on it, contact your attorney to find out the best way to protect the non-borrowing spouse.

Reach out to Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton here.

2019 Will Bring Social Security Beneficiaries the Biggest Increase in Eight Years

The Social Security Administration has announced a 2.8 percent increase in benefits in 2019, the largest increase since 2012.  The change will put an additional $468 annually in the pocket of the average retired beneficiary.

Cost of living increases are tied to the consumer price index, and an upturn in inflation rates and gas prices means recipients get a boost in 2019. The 2.8 percent increase is higher than last year’s 2 percent rise and the .3 percent increase in 2017. The average monthly benefit of $1,422 in 2018 will increase by $39 a month to $1,461 a month for an individual beneficiary, or $468 yearly. The cost of living change also affects the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax, which will grow from $128,700 to $132,900.

And there is more good news: Unlike last year’s increase, the additional income should not be entirely eaten up by higher Medicare Part B premiums. The standard monthly premium for Medicare Part B enrollees will increase only $1.50 to $135.50.

For 2019, the monthly federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payment standard will be $771 for an individual and $1,157 for a couple.

Most beneficiaries will be able to find out their cost of living adjustment online by logging on to my Social Security in December 2018. While you will still receive your increase notice by mail, in the future you will be able to choose whether to receive your notice online instead of on paper.

For more on the 2019 Social Security benefit levels, click here. Or contact MSW partners Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton.

For First Time, Median Cost of Private Nursing Home Room Hits Six Figures in Annual Survey

The median cost of a private nursing home room in the United States increased to $100,375 a year in 2018, up 3 percent from 2017, according to Genworth’s Cost of Care survey, which the insurer conducts annually

At the same time, Genworth reports that the median cost of a semi-private room in a nursing home is $89,297, up 4 percent from 2017. While significant, the rise in prices is not quite as steep as the 5.5 percent and 4.4 percent gains, respectively, in 2017.

But the median cost of assisted living facilities jumped 6.7 percent, to $4,000 a month. The national median rate for the services of a home health aide is $22 an hour, and the cost of adult day care, which provides support services in a protective setting during part of the day, rose from $70 to $72 a day.

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 $330,873. Oklahoma again was found to be the most affordable state, with a median annual cost of a private room of $63,510.

The 2018 survey, conducted by CareScout for the fifteenth straight year, was based on responses from more than 15,500 nursing homes, assisted living facilities, adult day health facilities and home care providers.  Survey respondents were contacted by phone during May and June 2018.

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 2018 Cost of Care Survey, including costs for your state, click here. Or contact Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton.

 

Thanks to All Walkers & Donors for Walk to End Alzheimer’s

It was a fun-filled, sunshine-drenched,  record-setting year for us with funds raised totaling over $2,700 for the  2018 Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Providence.

Thanks to all our clients, colleagues, referrals sources, friends and family who participated and supported us.

We are grateful for your generosity to this cause, which is near and dear to our hearts … and to the hearts of many of our clients.

Currently, more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s and that number is expected to grow to as many as 16 million by 2050. THANK YOU!

 

 

 

 

 

How to Handle Sibling Disputes Over a Power of Attorney

A power of attorney is one of the most important estate planning documents, but when one sibling is named in a power of attorney, there is the potential for disputes with other siblings. No matter which side you are on, it is important to know your rights and limitations.

A power of attorney allows someone to appoint another person — an “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” — to act in place of him or her — the “principal” — if the principal ever becomes incapacitated. There are two types of powers of attorney: financial and medical. Financial powers of attorney usually include the right to open bank accounts, withdraw funds from bank accounts, trade stock, pay bills, and cash checks. They could also include the right to give gifts. Medical powers of attorney allow the agent to make health care decisions. In all of these tasks, the agent is required to act in the best interests of the principal. The power of attorney document explains the specific duties of the agent.

When a parent names only one child to be the agent under a power of attorney, it can cause bad feelings and distrust. If you are dealing with a sibling who has been named agent under a power of attorney or if you have been named agent under a power of attorney over your siblings, the following are some things to keep in mind:

  • Right to information. Your parent doesn’t have to tell you whom he or she chose as the agent. In addition, the agent under the power of attorney isn’t required to provide information about the parent to other family members.
  • Access to the parent. An agent under a financial power of attorney should not have the right to bar a sibling from seeing their parent. A medical power of attorney may give the agent the right to prevent access to a parent if the agent believes the visit would be detrimental to the parent’s health.
  • Revoking a power of attorney. As long as the parent is competent, he or she can revoke a power of attorney at any time for any reason. The parent should put the revocation in writing and inform the old agent.
  • Removing an agent under power of attorney. Once a parent is no longer competent, he or she cannot revoke the power of attorney. If the agent is acting improperly, family members can file a petition in court challenging the agent. If the court finds the agent is not acting in the principal’s best interest, the court can revoke the power of attorney and appoint a guardian.
  • The power of attorney ends at death. If the principal under the power of attorney dies, the agent no longer has any power over the principal’s estate. The court will need to appoint an executor or personal representative to manage the decedent’s property.

If you are drafting a power of attorney document and want to avoid the potential for conflicts, there are some options. You can name co-agents in the document. You need to be careful how this is worded or it could cause more problems. The best way to name two co-agents is to let the agents act separately. Another option is to steer clear of family members and name a professional fiduciary.

Sibling disputes over how to provide care or where a parent will live can escalate into a guardianship battle that can cost the family thousands of dollars. Drafting a formal sibling agreement (also called a family care agreement) is a way to give guidance to the agent under the power of attorney and provide for consequences if the agreement isn’t followed. Even if you don’t draft a formal agreement, openly talking about the areas of potential disagreement can help. If necessary, a mediator can help families come to an agreement on care.

To determine the best way for your family to provide care, consult with your MSW attorneys. 

 

 

Can I Give My Kids $15,000 a Year?

If you have it to give, you certainly can, but there may be consequences should you apply for Medicaid long-term care coverage within five years after each gift.

The $15,000 figure is the amount of the current gift tax exclusion (for 2018), meaning that any person who gives away $15,000 or less to any one individual in one particular year does not have to report the gift to the IRS, and you can give this amount to as many people as you like. If you give away more than $15,000 to any one person in a single year (other than your spouse), you will have to file a gift tax return. However, this does not necessarily mean you’ll pay a gift tax. You’ll have to pay a tax only if your reportable gifts total more than $11.18 million (2018 figure) during your lifetime.

Many people believe that if they give away an amount equal to the current $15,000 annual gift tax exclusion, this gift will be exempted from Medicaid’s five-year look-back at transfers that could trigger a waiting period for benefits. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The gift tax exclusion is an IRS rule, and this IRS rule has nothing to do with Medicaid’s asset transfer rules. While the $15,000 that you gave to your grandchild this year will be exempt from any gift tax, Medicaid will still count it as a transfer that could make you ineligible for nursing home benefits for a certain amount of time should you apply for them within the next five years. You may be able to argue that the gift was not made to qualify you for Medicaid, but proving that is an uphill battle.

If you think there is a chance you will need Medicaid coverage of long-term care in the foreseeable future, see your elder law attorneys at MSW before starting a gifting plan.

It’s Now Harder for Veterans to Qualify for Long-Term Care Benefits

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has finalized new rules that make it more difficult to qualify for long-term care benefits. The rules establish an asset limit, a look-back period, and asset transfer penalties for claimants applying for VA pension benefits that require a showing of financial need. The principal such benefit for those needing long-term care is Aid and Attendance.

The VA offers Aid and Attendance to low-income veterans (or their spouses) who are in nursing homes or who need help at home with everyday tasks like dressing or bathing. Aid and Attendance provides money to those who need assistance.

Currently, to be eligible for Aid and Attendance a veteran (or the veteran’s surviving spouse) must meet certain income and asset limits. The asset limits aren’t specified, but $80,000 is the amount usually used. However, unlike with the Medicaid program, there historically have been no penalties if an applicant divests him- or herself of assets before applying. That is, before now you could transfer assets over the VA’s limit before applying for benefits and the transfers would not affect eligibility.

Not so anymore. The new regulations set a net worth limit of $123,600, which is the current maximum amount of assets (in 2018) that a Medicaid applicant’s spouse is allowed to retain. But in the case of the VA, this number will include both the applicant’s assets and income. It will be indexed to inflation in the same way that Social Security increases. An applicant’s house (up to a two-acre lot) will not count as an asset even if the applicant is currently living in a nursing home. Applicants will also be able to deduct medical expenses — now including payments to assisted living facilities, as a result of the new rules — from their income.

The regulations also establish a three-year look-back provision. Applicants will have to disclose all financial transactions they were involved in for three years before the application. Applicants who transferred assets to put themselves below the net worth limit within three years of applying for benefits will be subject to a penalty period that can last as long as five years. This penalty is a period of time during which the person who transferred assets is not eligible for VA benefits. There are exceptions to the penalty period for fraudulent transfers and for transfers to a trust for a child who is unable to “self-support.”

Under the new rules, the VA will determine a penalty period in months by dividing the amount transferred that would have put the applicant over the net worth limit by the maximum annual pension rate (MAPR) for a veteran with one dependent in need of aid and attendance. For example, assume the net worth limit is $123,600 and an applicant has a net worth of $115,000. The applicant transferred $30,000 to a friend during the look-back period. If the applicant had not transferred the $30,000, his net worth would have been $145,000, which exceeds the net worth limit by $21,400. The penalty period will be calculated based on $21,400, the amount the applicant transferred that put his assets over the net worth limit (145,000-123,600).

The new rules go into effect on October 18, 2018. The VA will disregard asset transfers made before that date. Applicants may still have time to get through the process before the rules are in place.

Veterans or their spouses who think they may be affected by the new rules should contact their MSW attorneys as soon as possible. 

To read the new regulations, click here.

It’s Important to Shop Around for Your Medigap Policy

Medigap premiums can vary widely depending on the insurance company, according to a new study, so be sure to shop around before choosing a policy.

When you first become eligible for Medicare, you may purchase a Medigap policy from a private insurer to supplement Medicare’s coverage and plug some or virtually all of Medicare’s coverage gaps. You can currently choose one of 10 Medigap plans that are identified by letters A, B, C, D, F, G, K, L, M, and N. Each plan package offers a different combination of benefits, allowing purchasers to choose the combination that is right for them. Federal law requires that insurers must offer the same benefits for each lettered plan, so each plan C offered by one insurer must cover the same benefits as plan C offered by another insurer.

When choosing a plan, you need to take into account the different benefits each plan offers as well as the price for each plan. To make things more difficult, the premiums for a particular plan can vary widely, according to an analysis by Weiss Ratings, Inc., consumer-oriented company that assesses insurance companies’ financial stability, and recently reported by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Weiss Ratings compared Medigap premiums in each zip code nationwide and found huge disparities. For example, a 65-year-old man who lives in Hartford, Connecticut, can buy a Plan F policy for anywhere between $2,900 and $7,400 annually. A 65-year-old woman in Houston can pay $5,300 a year for Medigap’s Plan C policy from one insurance company or she can buy exactly the same policy from another insurer for $1,700 a year.

When looking for a Medigap policy, make sure to get quotes from several insurance companies to find the best price. In addition, if you are going through a broker, check with two or more brokers because each broker might not represent every insurer. It can be hard work to shop around, but the price savings can be worth it.

Learn more from your MSW attorneys.

Don’t Wait Too Long to Purchase Long-Term Care Insurance

The older you get, the harder it is to qualify for long-term care insurance. If you are interested in buying this insurance, it is better to act sooner rather than later.

Many people put off purchasing long-term care insurance until they need it, but by then, it may be too late. Not only do premiums increase as you age, you also may not even qualify for insurance due to your health. The older you are, the more likely you are to have a pre-existing health condition that will disqualify you from getting long-term care insurance.

According to a recent study by the American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance, 44 percent of applicants who were age 70 or older had their applications denied due to health reasons. And those are the applicants who completed applications. Insurance agents frequently discourage unhealthy applicants from applying in the first place.

In contrast to older applicants, only 22 percent of applicants who are between 50 and 59 years old and 30 percent of applicants between 60 and 69 years old had their applications declined. Generally, the best (and cheapest) time to buy long-term care insurance is when you are in your 50s.

Long-term care insurance is not the best option for everyone, but if you are thinking about it, don’t put off the purchase until it is too late. To find out if a long-term care insurance policy fits into your long-term care plan, consult with your attorneys at MSW.