How to Make Changes to Your Will

As life circumstances change (births, marriages, divorces, and deaths), it may become necessary to make changes to your will.  If an estate plan is not kept up-to-date, it can become useless. The best way to make changes is either through a codicil — an amendment to the will — or by creating a new will.

While it may be tempting to just take out a pen and make changes by hand, this is not recommended. Changes will not be effective unless you use the same formalities as you did when drafting the will. And depending on state law, changes made by hand on the will may void the will altogether. If you sign your name to handwritten changes and have the changes witnessed, it is possible a court will find that the changes are valid, but there is no guarantee and there are likely to be delays with the court while your final wishes are sorted out.

If you have small changes to make to your will (e.g., changing your executor or updating a name that has changed), a codicil may be appropriate. The benefit of a codicil is that it is usually cheaper than redoing the entire will. The same rules for wills apply to codicils, which means the codicil should be dated, signed, and witnessed. Always keep a codicil with the will so your personal representative can find it easily.

If you have significant changes to make to your will (e.g., adding a spouse or removing a beneficiary) or have more than one change, it is generally better to update your will rather than write one or more codicils. The updated will should include a date and a clear statement that all other previous wills and codicils are revoked.

Before you make any changes to your will, you should consult with your attorney.  To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

 

Biden Administration Eases Recommended Restrictions on Nursing Home Visits

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has issued new guidance on whether families can visit loved ones in nursing homes. The guidance allows indoor visitation even when the resident has not been vaccinated.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit long-term care facilities particularly hard, with more than 170,000 residents and employees dying of COVID-19. Most nursing homes have had at least some restrictions on visitors in place since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Some nursing homes have banned all visitors, some allow visits by appointment only, and some restrict visitation to outdoors only. The absence of close contact with loved ones has been extremely difficult for both residents and their families over the past year.

Now that millions of vaccines have been administered to nursing home residents and staff, CMS has revised its guidance on nursing home visitation. The new non-binding guidance notes that outdoor visitation is preferred, even when both the resident and visitor are fully vaccinated. However, the guidance goes on to advise that indoor visitation should be allowed regardless of the visitor’s or resident’s vaccination status in most situations. CMS recommends limiting indoor visitation in the following circumstances:

  • If the resident is unvaccinated and the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate is greater than 10 percent and less than 70 percent of the residents in the facility are fully vaccinated.
  • The resident has a confirmed COVID-19 infection.
  • The resident is in quarantine because of exposure to a person infected with COVID-19.

CMS also states that while physically distancing should be maintained, a fully vaccinated resident may choose to have close contact with a masked visitor who performs good hand hygiene before and after.

If the nursing home has a resident or staff member who tests positive for COVID-19, the CMS guidance recommends that visitation be suspended until the entire facility has been tested. If the outbreak is contained, then visitation can continue, but if additional cases are found, then CMS recommends suspending visitation once again.

While the CMS provides recommendations, each state is free to make its own visitation rules.

To read the guidance, click here.

For resources on visiting long-term care facilities from The National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, click here.

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

How the $1.9 Trillion COVID-19 Relief Bill Aids Seniors

President Biden has signed the latest COVID-19 relief bill, which in addition to authorizing stimulus checks, funding vaccine distribution, and extending unemployment benefits, also provides assistance to seniors in a number of ways.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) delivers a broad swath of relief, covering families, employers, health care, education, and housing. The following are the provisions that most directly affect older Americans:

  • Relief checks. The ARPA provides $1,400 direct payments to individuals earning up to $75,000 in annual income and couples with incomes up to $150,000. The payments phase out for higher earners, and there are no payments for individuals earning more than $80,000 a year or couples making more than $160,000. Eligible dependents, including adult dependents, also receive $1,400. People collecting Social Security, railroad retirement, or VA benefits will automatically receive the payment even if they don’t file a tax return. The checks will not affect eligibility for Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income as long as any amount that pushes recipients above the programs’ asset limits is spent within 12 months.
  • Medicaid home care. The Act provides more than $12 billion in funding to expand Medicaid home and community-based waivers for one year. This funding will allow states to provide additional home-based long-term care, which could keep people from being forced into a nursing home. The money will also allow states to increase caregivers’ pay.
  • Nursing homes. Nursing homes have been hit hard during the pandemic. The Act supports the deployment of strike teams to help nursing homes that have COVID-19 outbreaks. It also provides funds to improve infection control in nursing homes.
  • Pensions. Many multi-employer pension plans are on the verge of collapse due to underfunding. The Act creates a system to allow plans that are insolvent to apply for grants in order to keep paying full benefits.
  • Medical deductions. If you have a large number of medical expenses, you may be able to deduct some of them from your taxes, including long-term care and hospital expenses. The Act permanently lowers the threshold for deducting medical expenses. Taxpayers can deduct unreimbursed medical expenses that exceed 7.5 percent of their income. The threshold was lowered to 7.5 percent under the 2017 tax law, but was set to revert to 10 percent for some taxpayers in 2021.
  • Older Americans Act. The ARPA provides funding to programs authorized under the Older Americans Act, including vaccine outreach, caregiver support, and the long-term care ombudsman program. It also directs funding for the Elder Justice Act and to improve transportation for older Americans and people with disabilities.

For more information about what is in the ARPA, click here and here.

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

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.