Category Archives: Family Finance Law

Should Seniors Who Lose Their Job During the Coronavirus Pandemic Claim Social Security Benefits Early?

May 22, 2020

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment is skyrocketing. Seniors who lose their jobs may be tempted to claim Social Security benefits early, but should they, given the resulting reduction in future benefits? The answer depends on your situation, but you may be able to claim and not sacrifice much in terms of future benefits.

While you can claim Social Security benefits as early as age 62, the better financial decision is usually to wait to take benefits as long as you are able. If you take Social Security between age 62 and your full retirement age, your benefits will be permanently reduced to account for the longer period you will be paid. Individuals who file at age 62 this year will receive 72 percent of their full benefit. On the other hand, if you delay taking retirement beyond your full retirement age, depending on when you were born, your benefit will increase by 6 to 8 percent for every year that you delay, in addition to any cost of living increases. This extra income could be very welcome, especially if you live into your 80s or beyond.

Unfortunately, many seniors who lose their job due to the coronavirus pandemic may find it necessary to apply for benefits early, potentially losing hundreds of thousands in future benefits. Before rushing to apply for early retirement benefits, you should consider all of your options. If you are lucky enough to have substantial savings, it may make sense to spend your savings rather than take benefits early. You may also be able to apply for unemployment benefits to allow you to further delay taking benefits.

If you do not have any savings or unemployment benefits to fall back on, your only option may be to claim benefits. However, if you do claim early and then go back to work, you may have the ability to increase those benefits. If you are able to stop the benefits within 12 months of starting, you can withdraw the application, repay the benefits collected, and then still be eligible for the higher benefit amount at full retirement age or older. It is essentially a one-year interest-free loan.

If you take benefits early but are not able to stop the benefits within 12 months of starting, you can still suspend your benefits in order to earn higher benefits. For example, if you start collecting at age 62 but no longer need the income once you reach your full retirement age, you could suspend benefits until age 70. You won’t get a complete do-over, but between your full retirement age and 70 you would earn delayed retirement credits, which would increase your ultimate benefit amount when you collect at age 70.

Whatever you decide, consider all of your options carefully and talk things over with your attorney or financial planner before making any rash decisions.

For a New York Times article about taking benefits early, click here.

How Your Stimulus Check Affects Medicaid Eligibility

May 22, 2020

The coronavirus relief bill includes a direct payment to most Americans, but this has Medicaid recipients wondering how the payment will affect them. Because the payment is not income, it should not count against a Medicaid recipient’s eligibility.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides a one-time direct payment of $1,200 to individuals earning less than $75,000 per year ($150,000 for couples who file jointly), including Social Security beneficiaries. Individuals earning up to $99,000 ($198,000 for joint filers) will receive smaller stimulus checks. Payments are based on either 2018 or 2019 tax returns.

The basic Medicaid rule for nursing home residents is that they must pay all of their income, minus certain deductions, to the nursing home. If the stimulus payment were considered income, it would likely have to go straight to the nursing home. Since in most states Medicaid recipients cannot have more than $2,000 in assets, there was also concern that the stimulus payments could put many recipients over the asset limit.

In a blog post, the commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA) has clarified that the SSA will not consider stimulus payments as income for Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) recipients, and the payments will be excluded from resources for 12 months. Because state Medicaid programs cannot impose eligibility requirements that are stricter than SSI requirements, the payments should not affect Medicaid eligibility.

The Coronavirus Pandemic Presents Ample Reasons to Reevaluate Your Estate Plan

April 17, 2020

The coronavirus health emergency is a reminder that life is unpredictable, and it makes sense to be prepared. It may sound self-serving, but the threats to life and finances posed posed by the pandemic offer ample reason to reevaluate your estate plan — or create one if you haven’t already.

Experts recommend that you will need to revisit your plan after certain key life events, including changes in health, finances, or family status. Unfortunately, this global health crisis can affect all of those aspects of your life. You should make sure you have these essential documents in place to protect yourself and your family:

  • Medical Directives. A medical directive may encompass a number of different documents, including a health care proxy, a durable power of attorney for health care, a living will, and medical instructions. The exact document or documents will depend on your state’s laws and the choices you make. Both a health care proxy and a durable power of attorney for health care designate someone you choose to make health care decisions for you if you are unable to do so yourself. A living will instructs your health care provider to withdraw life support if you are terminally ill or in a vegetative state. A broader medical directive may include the terms of a living will, but will also provide instructions if you are in a less serious state of health, but are still unable to direct your health care yourself.
  • Power of Attorney. A power of attorney allows a person you appoint — your “attorney-in-fact” — to act in your place for financial purposes when and if you ever become incapacitated. In that case, the person you choose will be able to step in and take care of your financial affairs. Without a durable power of attorney, no one can represent you unless a court appoints a conservator or guardian. That court process takes time, costs money, and the judge may not choose the person you would prefer. In addition, under a guardianship or conservatorship, your representative may have to seek court permission to take planning steps that she could implement immediately under a simple durable power of attorney.
  • Will. A will is a legally-binding statement directing who will receive your property at your death. If you do not have a will, the state will determine how your property is distributed. A will also appoints a legal representative (called an executor or a personal representative) to carry out your wishes. A will is especially important if you have minor children because it allows you to name a guardian for the children. However, a will covers only probate property. 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 and aren’t covered under a will.
  • Trust. A trust is a legal arrangement through which one person (or an institution, such as a bank or law firm), called a “trustee,” holds legal title to property for another person, called a “beneficiary.” Trusts have one set of beneficiaries during those beneficiaries’ lives and another set — often their children — who begin to benefit only after the first group has died. There are several different reasons for setting up a trust. The most common reason 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 time and money for the beneficiaries. Provided they are well-drafted, another advantage of trusts is their continuing effectiveness even if the donor dies or becomes incapacitated.
  • Beneficiary Designations. Although not necessarily a part of your estate plan, at the same time you create an estate plan, you should make sure your retirement plan beneficiary designations are up to date. If you don’t name a beneficiary, the distribution of benefits may be controlled by state or federal law or according to your particular retirement plan. Some plans automatically distribute money to a spouse or children. Although others may leave it to the retirement plan holder’s estate, this could have negative tax consequences. The only way to control where the money goes is to name a beneficiary.

Contact your attorney to make sure your estate plan is complete. Many attorneys are set up to meet with clients remotely, and states are beginning to temporarily relax their rules regarding requirements that documents be notarized in person.

Medicaid Protections for the Healthy Spouse

February 28, 2020

Medicaid law provides special protections for the spouses of Medicaid applicants to make sure he spouses have the minimum support needed to continue to live in the community while their husband or wife is receiving long-term care benefits, usually in a nursing home.

The so-called “spousal protections” work this way: if the Medicaid applicant is married, the countable assets of both the community spouse and the institutionalized spouse are totaled as of the date of “institutionalization,” the day on which the ill spouse enters either a hospital or a long-term care facility in which he or she then stays for at least 30 days. (This is sometimes called the “snapshot” date because Medicaid is taking a picture of the couple’s assets as of this date.)

In order to be eligible for Medicaid benefits a nursing home resident may have no more than $2,000 in assets (an amount may be somewhat higher in some states). In general, the community spouse may keep one-half of the couple’s total “countable” assets up to a maximum of $128,640 (in 2020). Called the “community spouse resource allowance,” this is the most that a state may allow a community spouse to retain without a hearing or a court order. The least that a state may allow a community spouse to retain is $25,728 (in 2020).

Example: If a couple has $100,000 in countable assets on the date the applicant enters a nursing home, he or she will be eligible for Medicaid once the couple’s assets have been reduced to a combined figure of $52,000 — $2,000 for the applicant and $50,000 for the community spouse.

Some states, however, are more generous toward the community spouse. In these states, the community spouse may keep up to $128,640 (in 2020), regardless of whether or not this represents half the couple’s assets. For example, if the couple had $100,000 in countable assets on the “snapshot” date, the community spouse could keep the entire amount, instead of being limited to half.

The income of the community spouse is not counted in determining the Medicaid applicant’s eligibility. Only income in the applicant’s name is counted. Thus, even if the community spouse is still working and earning, say, $5,000 a month, she will not have to contribute to the cost of caring for her spouse in a nursing home if he is covered by Medicaid. In some states, however, if the community spouse’s income exceeds certain levels, he or she does have to make a monetary contribution towards the cost of the institutionalized spouse’s care. The community spouse’s income is not considered in determining eligibility, but there is a subsequent contribution requirement.

But what if most of the couple’s income is in the name of the institutionalized spouse and the community spouse’s income is not enough to live on? In such cases, the community spouse is entitled to some or all of the monthly income of the institutionalized spouse. How much the community spouse is entitled to depends on what the Medicaid agency determines to be a minimum income level for the community spouse. This figure, known as the minimum monthly maintenance needs allowance or MMMNA, is calculated for each community spouse according to a complicated formula based on his or her housing costs. The MMMNA may range from a low of $2,113.75 to a high of $3,216 a month (in 2020). If the community spouse’s own income falls below his or her MMMNA, the shortfall is made up from the nursing home spouse’s income.

Example: Joe Smith and his wife Sally Brown have a joint income of $3,000 a month, $1,700 of which is in Mr. Smith’s name and $700 is in Ms. Brown’s name. Mr. Smith enters a nursing home and applies for Medicaid. The Medicaid agency determines that Ms. Brown’s MMMNA is $2,200 (based on her housing costs). Since Ms. Brown’s own income is only $700 a month, the Medicaid agency allocates $1,500 of Mr. Smith’s income to her support. Since Mr. Smith also may keep a $60-a-month personal needs allowance, his obligation to pay the nursing home is only $140 a month ($1,700 – $1,500 – $60 = $140).

In exceptional circumstances, community spouses may seek an increase in their MMMNAs either by appealing to the state Medicaid agency or by obtaining a court order of spousal support.

Contact your attorney to find out what you can do to make sure your spouse has enough income to live on.

New Law Makes Big Changes to Retirement Plans

January 22, 2020

President Trump has signed a spending bill that makes major changes to retirement plans. The new law is designed to provide more incentives to save for retirement, but it may require workers to rethink some of their planning.

The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act changes the law surrounding retirement plans in several ways:

  • Stretch IRAS. The biggest change eliminates “stretch” IRAs. Under the previous law, if you named anyone other than a spouse as the beneficiary of your IRA, the beneficiary could choose to take distributions over his or her lifetime and to pass what is left onto future generations (called the “stretch” option). The required minimum distributions were calculated based on the beneficiary’s life expectancy. This allowed the money to grow tax-deferred over the course of the beneficiary’s life and to be passed on to his or her own beneficiaries. The SECURE Act requires non-spouse beneficiaries of an IRA to withdraw all the money in the IRA within 10 years of the IRA holder’s death. In many cases, these withdrawals would take place during the beneficiary’s highest tax years, meaning that the elimination of the stretch IRA is effectively a tax increase on many Americans. This provision will apply to those who inherit IRAs starting on January 1, 2020.
  • Required minimum distributions. Under prior law, you have to begin taking distributions from your IRAs beginning when you reach age 70 ½. Under the new law, individuals who are not 70 ½ at the end of 2019 can now wait until age 72 to begin taking distributions.
  • Contributions. The new law allows workers to continue to contribute to an IRA after age 70 ½, which is the same as rules for 401(k)s and Roth IRAs.
  • Employers. The tax credit businesses get for starting a retirement plan is increased and the new law makes it easier for small businesses to join multiple-employer plans.
  • Annuities. The newly enacted legislation removes roadblocks that made employers wary of including annuities in 401(k) plans by eliminating some of the fiduciary requirements used to vet companies and products before they can be included in a plan.
  • Withdrawals. The new law allows an early withdrawal of up to $5,000 from a retirement account without a penalty in the event of the birth of a child or an adoption. Currently, there is a 10 percent penalty for early withdrawals in most circumstances.

Given these changes, workers need to immediately reevaluate their estate plans. Some people have used stretch IRAs as an estate planning tool to pass assets to their children and grandchildren. One way of doing this has been to name a trust as the IRA’s beneficiary, and these trusts may have to be reformed to conform to the new rules. If a stretch IRA is part of your estate plan, consult with your attorney to determine if you need to make changes.

To read the legislation, click here.  For more on the new law, click here and here.

What the Secure Act is All About

January 22, 2020

by Harry S. Margolis Esq.

As part of the spending bill that recently passed Congress, effective January 1, 2020, new retirement plan rules will apply. They included in the Secure Act, which is an acronym standing for Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement. A big part of the bill encourages small employers to band together to offer retirement plans, which is the reason for the title. But here’s what may affect you and your family.

  1. Later Required Beginning Age. For those who have not already reached age 70 1/2 by the end of 2019 (meaning they were born on or before June 30, 1949), they can delay taking their required minimum distributions until the April 1st of the year they reach 72, rather than 70 1/2. If you were born after June 30, 1949, you can still choose to withdraw without penalty, other than paying taxes on the amount withdrawn, any time after age 59 1/2, you just don’t have to do so quite as early.
  2. A Shorter Time Period for Withdrawing from Inherited IRAs. Up until now, anyone who inherited a retirement plan who was not a spouse of the deceased owner had to begin taking minimum distributions the following year, but could take them out based on their own life expectancy, meaning that a younger person could stretch out the withdrawals and enjoy the tax deferral for many years. Under the new rules, with some exceptions, inherited IRAs must now be entirely withdrawn within 10 years of the death of the initial owner. This restrictions only applies to those retirement plans inherited after this year.
  3. The Exceptions. The New Inherited IRA rules don’t apply to spouses of the deceased owner who can continue to convert inherited IRAs to their own ownership. In addition, there are exceptions for:
    • minor children,
    • individuals with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and
    • those who are less than 10 years younger than the original owner.

    The exception may also apply to special needs trusts.

  4. You Can Keep Contributing if You Keep Working. Under the old rules, those over age 70 1/2 who continued to work could continue to contribute to their work-related 401(k) plans Roth IRAs but not to their own IRAs. Now they can continue to contribute to traditional IRAs as well. Of course, after age 72 this creates the interesting situation of continuing to contribute at the same time you’re required to withdraw.

The New Rules and Trusts

While these new rules effect no changes for planning with respect to spouses, they may for children and others. Some parents provide for continuing trusts for their children and grandchildren in order to provide creditor or divorce protection or for special needs planning purposes. These are drafted as “accumulation” or “conduit” trusts under complex retirement plan rules. The new rules won’t affect “accumulation” trusts, but some parents may want to change their “conduit” trusts.

“Conduit” trusts get their name because they provide that any required minimum distributions from retirement plans held by the trusts must be distributed annually to the beneficiaries. Parents may have agreed to this provision knowing that such distributions will be relatively small each year since they’re stretched out over the beneficiary’s lifetime. In some instances, they may not want larger distributions made during the first 10 years after their deaths, as would be required as the trusts are currently drafted.

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, unanticipated results will arise as the new rules affect real-life situations. We’ll continue to better understand the impact of the new rules and let you know how the work. Also, don’t hesitate to be in touch or post any questions you might have. We’ll do our best to find answers.

Feds Release 2020 Guidelines Used to Protect the Spouses of Medicaid Applicants

January 22, 2020

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has released the 2020 federal guidelines for how much money the spouses of institutionalized Medicaid recipients may keep, as well as related Medicaid figures.

In 2020, the spouse of a Medicaid recipient living in a nursing home (called the “community spouse”) may keep as much as $128,640 without jeopardizing the Medicaid eligibility of the spouse who is receiving long-term care. Known as the community spouse resource allowance or CSRA, this is the most that a state may allow a community spouse to retain without a hearing or a court order. While some states set a lower maximum, the least that a state may allow a community spouse to retain in 2020 will be $25,728.

Meanwhile, the maximum monthly maintenance needs allowance (MMMNA) for 2020 will be $3,216. This is the most in monthly income that a community spouse is allowed to have if her own income is not enough to live on and she must take some or all of the institutionalized spouse’s income. The minimum monthly maintenance needs allowance for the lower 48 states remains $2,113.75 ($2,641.25 for Alaska and $2,432.50 for Hawaii) until July 1, 2020.

In determining how much income a particular community spouse is allowed to retain, states must abide by this upper and lower range. Bear in mind that these figures apply only if the community spouse needs to take income from the institutionalized spouse. According to Medicaid law, the community spouse may keep all her own income, even if it exceeds the maximum monthly maintenance needs allowance.

The new spousal impoverishment numbers (except for the minimum monthly maintenance needs allowance) take effect on January 1, 2020.

For a more complete explanation of the community spouse resource allowance and the monthly maintenance needs allowance, click here.

Home Equity Limits:

In 2020, a Medicaid applicant’s principal residence will not be counted as an asset by Medicaid if the applicant’s equity interest in the home is less than $595,000, with the states having the option of raising this limit to $893,000.

For more on Medicaid’s home equity limit, click here.

Medicare Part D: A First Look at Prescription Drug Plans in 2020

December 24, 2019

courtesy of NAELA eBulletin:

During the Medicare open enrollment period  from October 15 to December 7 each year, beneficiaries can enroll in a plan that provides Part D drug coverage, either a stand-alone prescription drug plan (PDP) as a supplement to traditional Medicare, or a Medicare Advantage prescription drug plan (MA-PD), which covers all Medicare benefits, including drugs.

Click here for the entire article and the issue brief

Medicaid’s Treatment of the Home

December 24, 2019

Nursing home residents do not automatically  have to sell their homes in order to qualify for Medicaid, but that doesn’t mean the house is completely protected. The state will likely put a lien on the house while the resident is living and attempt to recover the property after the resident has passed away.

Medicaid will not count a nursing home resident’s home as an asset when determining eligibility for Medicaid as long as the resident intends to return home (in some states, the nursing home resident must prove a likelihood of returning home). In addition, the resident’s equity interest in the home must be less than $585,000, with the states having the option of raising this limit to $878,000 (figures are adjusted annually for inflation; these are for 2019).

The equity value of the home is the fair market value minus any debts secured by the home, such as a mortgage or a home equity loan. For example, if your home has a fair market value of $400,000 and an outstanding mortgage of $100,000, the equity value is $300,000. Your equity interest depends on whether you own the home by yourself or with someone else.  If you own the home by yourself, your equity interest is the entire equity value.  If you own your home jointly with your spouse or someone else, your equity interest is only half of the home’s equity value.

The home equity rule does not apply if the Medicaid applicant’s spouse or a child who is under 21 or is blind or disabled lives in the home.

While the house may not need to be sold in order to qualify for Medicaid, state Medicaid agencies will likely place a lien on any real estate owned by a Medicaid beneficiary during his or her life. 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 in the house.

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.

Even if the state did not place a lien on the home during the Medicaid beneficiary’s life, the home may still be subject to estate recovery after the Medicaid recipient’s death, again depending on the state.

There are steps you can take to protect your home. Contact your attorney to learn more.

Home Care Costs Rise Sharply in Annual Long-Term Care Cost Survey

December 24, 2019

When it comes to long-term care costs, the charges for home care are now rising faster than those for nursing home care, according to Genworth’s 2019 Cost of Care survey. In the past year, the median annual cost for home health aides rose 4.55 percent to $52,624, while the median cost of a private nursing home room rose only 1.82 percent to $102,200.

Genworth reports that the median cost of a semi-private room in a nursing home is $90,155, up 0.96 percent from 2018, and the median cost of assisted living facilities rose 1.28 percent, to $4,051 a month. But home care services had sharper increases. The national median annual rate for the services of a home health aide rose from $22 to $23 an hour, and the cost of adult day care, which provides support services in a protective setting during part of the day, rose from $72 to $75 a day, up 4.17 percent annually.

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 $362,628. Oklahoma again was found to be the most affordable state, with a median annual cost of a private room of $67,525.

The 2019 survey, conducted by CareScout for the sixteenth straight year, was based on responses from more than 15,178 nursing homes, assisted living facilities, adult day health facilities and home care providers. Survey respondents were contacted by phone during May and June 2019.

As the survey indicates, long-term 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 from being swallowed up by these rising costs.

For more on Genworth’s 2019 Cost of Care Survey, including costs for your state, click here.