Category : News

What to Do If You Are Appointed Guardian of an Older Adult

Being appointed guardian of a loved one is a serious responsibility. As guardian, you are in charge of your loved one's well-being and you have a duty to act in his or her best interest.  

If an adult becomes mentally incapacitated and is incapable of making responsible decisions, 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”).

If you have been appointed guardian, the following are things you need to know:

  • Read the court order. The court appoints the guardian and sets up your powers and duties. You can be authorized to make legal, financial, and health care decisions for the ward. Depending on the terms of the guardianship and state practices, you may or may not have to seek court approval for various decisions. If you aren't sure what you are allowed to do, consult with a lawyer in your state. 
  • Fiduciary duty. You have what's called a “fiduciary duty” to your ward, which is an extremely high standard. You are legally required to act in the best interest of your ward at all times and manage your ward's money and property carefully. With that in mind, it is imperative that you keep your finances separate from your ward's finances. In addition, you should never use the ward's money to give (or lend) money to someone else or for someone else's benefit (or your own benefit) without approval of the court. Finally, as part of your fiduciary duty you must maintain good records of everything you receive or spend. Keep all your receipts and a detailed list of what the ward's money was spent on. 
  • File reports on time. The court order should specify what reports you are required to file. The first report is usually an inventory of the ward's property. You then may have to file yearly accountings with the court detailing what you spent and received on behalf of the ward. Finally, after the ward dies or the guardianship ends, you will need to file a final accounting. 
  • Consult the ward. As much as possible you should include the ward in your decision-making. Communicate what you are doing and try to determine what your ward would like done. 
  • Don't limit social interaction. Guardians should not limit a ward's interaction with family and friends unless it would cause the ward substantial harm. Some states have laws in place requiring the guardian to allow the ward to communicate with loved ones. Social interaction is usually beneficial to an individual's well-being and sense of self-worth. If the ward has to move, try to keep the ward near loved ones.  

For a detailed guide from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on being a guardian, click here

Medicaid's Power to Recoup Benefits Paid: Estate Recovery and Liens

Federal law requires the state to attempt to recover the long-term care benefits from a Medicaid recipient's estate after the recipient's death. If steps aren't taken to protect the Medicaid recipient's house, it may need to be sold to settle the claim. 

For Medicaid recipients age 55 or older, states must seek recovery of payments from the individual's estate for nursing facility services, home and community-based services, and related hospital and prescription drug services. States also have the option of recovering all Medicaid benefits from individuals over age 55, including costs for any medical care, not just long-term care benefits.

There are a few exceptions. The state cannot recover from the estate of a Medicaid recipient who has a surviving spouse until after the spouse passes away. After the spouse dies, the state may file a claim against the spouse's estate to recover money spent for the Medicaid recipient's care. The state also cannot recover from the estate if the Medicaid recipient had a child who is under age 21 or a child who is blind or disabled.

While states must attempt to recover funds from the Medicaid recipient's probate estate, meaning property that is held in the beneficiary's name only, they have the option of seeking recovery against property in which the recipient had an interest but which passes outside of probate (this is called “expanded” estate recovery). This includes jointly held assets, assets in a living trust, or life estates. Given the rules for Medicaid eligibility, the only probate property of substantial value that a Medicaid recipient is likely to own at death is his or her home. However, states that have not opted to broaden their estate recovery to include non-probate assets may not make a claim against the Medicaid recipient's home if it is not in his or her probate estate.

In addition to the right to recover from the estate of the Medicaid beneficiary, state Medicaid agencies may place a lien on real estate owned by a Medicaid beneficiary during his or her life unless certain dependent relatives are living in the property. The state cannot impose a lien if a spouse, a disabled or blind child, a child under age 21, or a sibling with an equity interest in the house is living there.

Once a lien is placed on the property, if the property is sold while the Medicaid beneficiary is living, not only will the beneficiary cease to be eligible for Medicaid due to the cash from the sale, but the beneficiary would have to satisfy the lien by paying back the state for its coverage of care to date. In some states, the lien may be removed upon the beneficiary's death. In other states, the state can collect on the lien after the Medicaid recipient dies. Check with your attorney to see how your local agency handles this.

There are some circumstances under which the value of a house can be protected from Medicaid recovery. The state cannot recover if the Medicaid recipient and his or her spouse owned the home as tenants by the entireties or if the house is in the spouse's name and the Medicaid recipient relinquished his or her interest. If the house is in an irrevocable trust, the state cannot recover from it.

In addition, some children or relatives may be able to protect a nursing home resident's house if they qualify for an undue hardship waiver. For example, if a Medicaid recipient's daughter took care of him before he entered the nursing home and she has no other permanent residence, she may be able to avoid a claim against his house after he dies. Consult with your attorney to find out if the undue hardship waiver may be applicable.

 

 

Charitable Remainder Trusts: Income for Life and a Good Deed at Death

Many people like the idea of leaving bequests to favorite charities in their wills. But instead of leaving money to a charity in your will, you can put that money into a charitable remainder trust and collect income while you are still alive. Charitable remainder trusts have many other advantages, including reducing your income and estate taxes and diversifying your assets.

A charitable remainder trust is an irrevocable trust that provides you (and possibly your spouse) with income for life. You place assets into the trust and during your lifetime you receive a set percentage from the trust. When you die, the remainder in the trust goes to the charity (or charities) of your choice

A charitable remainder trust has many benefits:

  • At the time you create the trust, you will receive an income tax deduction for charitable giving. Under the Tax Cut and Jobs Act, enacted in December 2017, the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for couples. This means that if your charitable contributions along with any other itemized deductions are less than $12,000 a year, the standard deduction will lower your tax bill more than itemizing your deductions. Giving a large sum of money to a charitable remainder trust is a good way to get the deduction. 
  • Any profit from the sale of investments within the trust are not subject to capital gains tax, which means the trustee may have more freedom in managing the assets.
  • When you die, the assets in the trust will pass outside your estate and be eligible for the estate tax charitable deduction.

The downside of a charitable remainder trust is that it is irrevocable, meaning once you create the trust, you can't cancel it. While you can't revoke the trust, you may have the ability to change the beneficiary if you decide to give to a different charity. You may also serve as trustee, giving you control over how the trust assets are invested. In addition, note that any income you receive from the trust will be subject to income taxes.

To find out if a charitable remainder trust is right for you, talk to a qualified elder law attorney.

 

The 2020 Social Security Increase Will Be Smaller than 2019's

The Social Security Administration has announced a 1.6 percent increase in benefits in 2020, nearly half of last year's change. The small rise has advocates questioning whether the government is using the proper method to calculate the cost of living for older Americans and those with disabilities.

Cost-of-living increases are tied to the consumer price index, and a modest upturn in inflation rates and gas prices means Social Security recipients will get only a small boost in 2020. The 1.6 percent increase is lower than last year’s 2.8 percent rise and the 2 percent increase in 2018. The average monthly benefit of $1,479 in 2019 will go up by $24 a month to $1,503 a month for an individual beneficiary, or $288 yearly. 

The cost-of-living change also affects the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax, which will grow from $132,900 to $137,700. 

For 2020, the monthly federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payment standard will be $783 for an individual and $1,175 for a couple.

The smaller increase may mean that additional income will be entirely eaten up by higher Medicare Part B premiums. The standard monthly premium for Medicare Part B enrollees is forecast to rise $8.80 a month to $144.30. According to USA Today, advocates are questioning the method used to calculate cost-of-living increases. The Bureau of Labor Statistics uses the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers to set the inflation rate. This method looks at prices for gasoline, electronics, and other items that younger workers rely on. The advocates suggest using a different index (the Consumer Price Index for Elderly) that puts greater emphasis on medical and housing expenses. 

Most beneficiaries will be able to find out their cost-of-living adjustment online by logging on to my Social Security in December 2019. 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 2020 Social Security benefit levels, click here.

Don't Let Medicare Open Enrollment Go By Without Reassessing Your Options

Medicare's Open Enrollment Period, during which you can freely enroll in or switch plans, runs from October 15 to December 7. Don't let this period slip by without shopping around to see whether your current choices are the best ones for you.  

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.

According to the New York Times, few Medicare beneficiaries take advantage of open enrollment, but of those that do, nearly half cut their premiums by at least 5 percent. Even beneficiaries who have been satisfied with their plans in 2019 should review their choices for 2020, 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.  

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:

What Is Asset Protection Planning?

Asset protection planning is about protecting your assets from creditors — and it is not just for the super-wealthy.

Anyone can get sued. Lawsuits can stem from car crashes, credit card debt, bank foreclosures, or unhappy customers, among many other things. If someone wins a monetary judgment against you, your family could become bankrupt trying to pay it off. To keep your assets away from creditors, you need to move them somewhere where creditors can’t reach them. Asset protection techniques include maximizing contributions to IRAs, moving funds to an irrevocable trust, retitling various assets, or using limited liability companies or family limited partnerships.

To develop an asset protection plan, you need to talk to your attorney. Your attorney can discuss your short- and long-term financial goals and help you create a plan that will work for you.

It is important to note that asset protection planning only works if you act before you are sued. Under the law, you may not defraud current creditors. If you are already being sued or if you know you are going to be sued and you transfer assets so that creditors can’t reach them, the court will reverse the transfer. That is why it is a good idea to put a plan into place now — before it is too late.

Questions? Talk to Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton.

How to Use a Trust in Medicaid Planning

With careful Medicaid planning, you may be able to preserve some of your estate for your children or other heirs while meeting Medicaid’s low asset limit.

The problem with transferring assets is that you have given them away. You no longer control them, and even a trusted child or other relative may lose them. A safer approach is to put them in an irrevocable trust. A trust is a legal entity under which one person — the “trustee” — holds legal title to property for the benefit of others — the “beneficiaries.” The trustee must follow the rules provided in the trust instrument. Whether trust assets are counted against Medicaid’s resource limits depends on the terms of the trust and who created it.

A “revocable” trust is one that may be changed or rescinded by the person who created it. Medicaid considers the principal of such trusts (that is, the funds that make up the trust) to be assets that are countable in determining Medicaid eligibility. Thus, revocable trusts are of no use in Medicaid planning.

Income-only trusts

An “irrevocable” trust is one that cannot be changed after it has been created. In most cases, this type of trust is drafted so that the income is payable to you (the person establishing the trust, called the “grantor”) for life, and the principal cannot be applied to benefit your or your spouse. At your death the principal is paid to your heirs. This way, the funds in the trust are protected and you can use the income for your living expenses. For Medicaid purposes, the principal in such trusts is not counted as a resource, provided the trustee cannot pay it to you or your spouse for either of your benefits. However, if you do move to a nursing home, the trust income will have to go to the nursing home.

You should be aware of the drawbacks to such an arrangement. It is very rigid, so you cannot gain access to the trust funds even if you need them for some other purpose. For this reason, you should always leave an ample cushion of ready funds outside the trust.

You may also choose to place property in a trust from which even payments of income to you or your spouse cannot be made. Instead, the trust may be set up for the benefit of your children, or others. These beneficiaries may, at their discretion, return the favor by using the property for your benefit if necessary. However, there is no legal requirement that they do so.

One advantage of these trusts is that if they contain property that has increased in value, such as real estate or stock, you (the grantor) can retain a “special testamentary power of appointment” so that the beneficiaries receive the property with a step-up in basis at your death. This will also prevent the need to file a gift tax return upon the funding of the trust.

Remember, funding an irrevocable trust within the five years prior to applying for Medicaid (the “look-back period”) may result in a period of ineligibility. The actual period of ineligibility depends on the amount transferred to the trust.

Testamentary trusts

Testamentary trusts are trusts created under a will. The Medicaid rules provide a special “safe harbor” for testamentary trusts created by a deceased spouse for the benefit of a surviving spouse. The assets of these trusts are treated as available to the Medicaid applicant only to the extent that the trustee has an obligation to pay for the applicant’s support. If payments are solely at the trustee’s discretion, they are considered unavailable.

Therefore, these testamentary trusts can provide an important mechanism for community spouses to leave funds for their surviving institutionalized husband or wife that can be used to pay for services that are not covered by Medicaid. These may include extra therapy, special equipment, evaluation by medical specialists or others, legal fees, visits by family members, or transfers to another nursing home if that became necessary. But remember that if you create a trust for yourself or your spouse during life (i.e., not a testamentary trust), the trust funds are considered available if the trustee has the ability to use them for you or your spouse.

Supplemental needs trusts

The Medicaid rules also have certain exceptions for transfers for the sole benefit of disabled people under age 65. Even after moving to a nursing home, if you have a child, other relative, or even a friend who is under age 65 and disabled, you can transfer assets into a trust for his or her benefit without incurring any period of ineligibility. If these trusts are properly structured, the funds in them will not be considered to belong to the beneficiary in determining his or her own Medicaid eligibility. The only drawback to supplemental needs trusts (also called “special needs trusts”) is that after the disabled individual dies, the state must be reimbursed for any Medicaid funds spent on behalf of the disabled person.

To find out whether a trust is the right Medicaid planning strategy for you, talk to Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton.

Tips for Preventing, Detecting, and Reporting Financial Abuse of the Elderly

Reports of elder financial abuse continue to increase, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to scams or to financial abuse by family members in need of money.

It is hard to ascertain the exact numbers of people affected by elder abuse because studies show that elder abuse is underreported. However, one study found that financial loss from financial elder abuse could be close to $3 billion a year.

While it is impossible to guarantee that an elderly loved one is not the victim of financial abuse, there are some steps you can take to reduce the chances. One option is to have more than one family member involved in caring for the loved one. You can also encourage the elder to get involved in community activities to ensure that he or she has a wide range of support. Using direct deposit as much as possible is also helpful. And of course you should always screen caregivers carefully and verify references.

Financial abuse can be very difficult to detect. The following are some signs that a loved one may be the victim of this kind of abuse:

  • The disappearance of valuable objects
  • Withdrawals of large amounts of money, checks made out to cash, or low bank balances
  • A new “best friend” and isolation from other friends and family
  • Large credit card transactions
  • Signatures on checks that look different
  • A name added to a bank account or newly formed joint accounts
  • Indications of fear of caregivers

If you suspect someone of being financially abused, there are several actions you can take:

  • Report the possible crime by calling your local Adult Protective Services and state attorney general’s office. File a police report.
  • Explore options at your local probate court if your state has such courts. The court can intervene if someone in the family is misusing a power of attorney or their role as guardian or conservator.
  • Contact advocacy organizations. The National Center on Elder Abuse offers guidance on how to investigate and seek justice for elder abuse. State laws vary, but some have elder abuse statutes and may be able to get restitution for breach of fiduciary duties.
  • Try to get a temporary restraining order from a court while building your case.

Another valuable resource is Aging in Place’s guide to recognizing elder abuse. Or, talk to Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton.

Most Are Taking Social Security at the Wrong Time

A new report finds that almost no retirees are making financially optimal decisions about when to take Social Security and are losing out on more than $100,000 per household in the process. The average Social Security recipient would receive 9 percent more income in retirement if they made the financially optimal decision.

When claiming Social Security, you have three options: You may begin taking benefits between age 62 and your full retirement age, you can wait until your full retirement age, or you can delay benefits and take them anytime up until you reach age 70. If you take Social Security between age 62 and your full retirement age, your benefits will be reduced to account for the longer period you will be paid. If you delay taking retirement, depending on when you were born, your eventual benefit will increase by 6 to 8 percent for every year that you delay, in addition to any cost-of-living increases.

The new report, conducted by United Income, an online investment management and financial planning firm, found that only 4 percent of retirees make the financially optimal decision about when to claim Social Security. Nearly all of the retirees not optimizing their benefits are claiming benefits too early. The study found that 57 percent of retirees would build more wealth if they waited to claim until age 70. However, currently more than 70 percent of retirees claim benefits before their full retirement age. Claiming before full retirement is the financially best option for only 6.5 percent of retirees, according to United Income.

The consequences of claiming Social Security too early can be big. The report found that collecting benefits at the wrong time causes retirees to collectively lose $3.4 trillion in potential income (an average of $111,000 per household). The report also estimates that elderly poverty could be cut in half if retirees claimed benefits at the financially optimal time.

One reason most people do not optimize Social Security is because waiting to collect benefits means their overall wealth may fall during their 60s and 70s. They also may not be aware that collecting benefits before full retirement age means that their benefits will be permanently reduced. According to the report’s authors, policy changes are necessary to get retirees to wait to claim benefits. The report recommends that early claiming be made the exception and reserved for those who have a demonstrable need to collect early. Another recommendation is to change the label on early retirement and call it the “minimum benefit age.”

To read the full report, click here.

For a CBS News article on the report, click here.

Questions? Talk to Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton.

What to Look for When Buying an Annuity

An annuity can be a useful tool for long-term care planning, but annuities are also complex financial products that are hard to understand. If purchasing an annuity, you need to consider your options carefully.

An annuity is a contract with an insurance company under which the consumer pays the company a certain amount of money and the company sends the consumer a monthly check for the rest of his or her life, or for a certain term. Annuities come in many flavors. They can be deferred (begin paying out at a later date) or immediate (begin paying out right away). They can pay a fixed amount each month or pay out a variable amount based on how the money is invested. While a fixed immediate annuity can be a good Medicaid planning option for a married couple, other annuity products can be quite complex and confusing and are not right for everyone.

If you have decided an annuity is the right choice for your long-term care or retirement plan, you need to shop around to find the right product. The following are some purchasing tips:

  • Check the terms. Be sure to read the annuity contract carefully. Annuities often have surrender charges that penalize you for withdrawing your money too early. You need to understand for how long you won’t be able to access your money and when payouts begin. There may also be other fees associated with the annuity as well as optional riders. Understanding the fees will allow you to shop around to find the best product.
  • Choose your salesperson. Insurance companies often pay generous commissions to the brokers who sell their particular annuities, payments that many of the brokers don’t disclose. They also generally don’t disclose whether they are paid more or less by one insurance company than another or whether the annuity being sold is the best option for the consumer. Ask your broker questions to determine how they are paid. You may want to seek a second opinion to make sure your salesperson isn’t steering you into a product that isn’t right for you.
  • Select a sound insurance company. Annuity payments are often supposed to last a lifetime, so you want an insurance company that will stick around. Make certain that the insurer is rated in the top two categories by one of the services that rates insurance companies, such as A.M. Best, Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, or Weiss.

Questions? Reach out to Kristen Prull Moonan or Amy Stratton.