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You Can ‘Cure’ a Medicaid Penalty Period by Returning a Gift

Anyone who gifted assets within five years of applying for Medicaid may be subject to a penalty period, but that penalty can be reduced or eliminated if the assets are returned.

In order to be eligible for Medicaid, you cannot have recently transferred assets. Congress does not want you to move into a nursing home on Monday, give all your money to your children (or whomever) on Tuesday, and qualify for Medicaid on Wednesday. So it has imposed a penalty on people who transfer assets without receiving fair value in return.

This penalty is a period of time during which the person transferring the assets will be ineligible for Medicaid. The penalty period is determined by dividing the amount transferred by what Medicaid determines to be the average private pay cost of a nursing home in your state.

However, Congress has created a very important escape hatch from the transfer penalty: the penalty will be “cured” if the transferred asset is returned in its entirety, or it will be reduced if the transferred asset is partially returned (although some states do not permit partial returns and only give credit for the full return of transferred assets).

Partially curing a transfer can be a “half a loaf” planning strategy for Medicaid applicants who want to preserve some assets.  In this case, a nursing home resident transfers all of his or her funds to the resident’s children (or other family members) and applies for Medicaid, receiving a long ineligibility period. After the Medicaid application has been filed, the recipients return half the transferred funds, thus “curing” half of the ineligibility period and giving the nursing home resident the funds he or she needs to pay for care until the remaining penalty period expires.

The person who returns the money needs to be the same person who received the gift; otherwise, it is not really a return of the original gift. But many people will have spent the gifted assets and no longer have any money to return. If the person who received the transfer no longer has the funds to cure, other family members could give or loan that person the funds to do so.

Returning the funds will likely mean the Medicaid applicant will have excess resources that will need to be spent down before the applicant will qualify for Medicaid. States vary on how they handle returns. Some states may consider payments made directly to the nursing home on behalf of the Medicaid applicant to be a return of funds; others require that the payments go directly to the applicant.

Your attorney can help you navigate Medicaid’s complicated rules and application process.

What Is a Fiduciary and What Are Its Obligations?

When you need someone else to care for money or property on your behalf, that person (or organization) is called a fiduciary.  A fiduciary is a person or entity entrusted with the power to act for someone else, and this power comes with the legal obligation to act for the benefit of that other person.

Many types of positions involve being a fiduciary, including that of broker, trustee, agent under a power of attorney, guardian, executor and representative payee. An individual becomes a fiduciary by entering into an agreement to do so or by being appointed by a court or by a legal document.

Being a fiduciary calls for the highest standard of care under the law. For example, a trustee must pay even more attention to the trust investments and disbursements than for his or her own accounts. No matter what their role is or how they are appointed, all fiduciaries owe four special duties to the people for whom they are managing money or resources. A fiduciary’s duties are:

  • to act only in the interest of the person they are helping;
  • to manage that person’s money or property carefully;
  • to keep that person’s money and property separate from their own; and
  • to keep good records and report them as required. Any agent appointed by a court or government agency, for example, must report regularly to that court or agency.

Remember, your fiduciary exists to protect you and your interests. If your fiduciary fails to perform any of those four duties or generally mismanages your money or affairs, you can take legal action. The fiduciary will probably be required to compensate you for any loss you suffered because of their mismanagement.

Don’t Just Hope for an Inheritance; Get It in Writing

A Massachusetts case demonstrates the importance of getting any agreements about inheritance in writing. The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled that rendering services to someone in the hope or expectation that it will result in payment from an estate is not sufficient to entitle an individual to a portion of the estate.

Suzanne M. Cheney performed many services for her stepfather, Anthony R. Turco, expecting to receive a share of his estate. However, to her great disappointment, upon his passing he left her nothing. Ms. Cheney subsequently sued James F. Flood, Jr., who was both her stepfather’s lawyer and administrator of her stepfather’s estate, alleging legal malpractice and that she was entitled to recovery from the estate for the reasonable value of the services she and her family performed for Mr. Turco during the last years of his life.

The trial court judge dismissed the legal malpractice claim because Ms. Cheney and Mr. Flood had no attorney-client relationship.  The judge then dismissed the claim that there had been an implied promise of payment for services, called quantum meruit under the law, because Ms. Cheney failed to allege that she performed services for Mr. Turco with the expectation that she would be paid for them.

Ms. Cheney appealed the decision regarding the quantum meruit claim, arguing that while there was no express agreement between her and Mr. Turco that she would provide services to him in exchange for being listed in his will as beneficiary, she had always hoped that he would pay her through his estate. Unfortunately for Ms. Cheney, the court found that this gave her no legal basis for payment without an underlying contract or agreement between the parties.  The court ruled that Ms. Cheney’s hope or expectation, even though well founded, is not equivalent to entitling her to reasonable value of services under the legal concept of quantum meruit.

It seems that Ms. Cheney’s mistake was relying on a hope or expectation of receiving an inheritance under her stepfather’s estate and neither discussing it with him nor documenting a contract or agreement between the two.

Using a Minority Valuation Discount to Reduce Estate Taxes

While the current estate tax exemption is quite high, a closely held family business may put your estate over the limit. Careful planning is necessary to lower or completely avoid the tax, and minority valuation discounts are one strategy.

Families that want to pass on their business may run into the estate tax. Estates valued at more than $11.7 million (in 2021) are subject to federal estate taxation. If you decide to give your business away before you die, you need to consider the gift tax. The lifetime federal gift tax exclusion – the amount you can give away without incurring a tax – is also $11.7 million (in 2021). You can also give any number of other people $15,000 each per year (in 2021) without the gifts counting against the lifetime limit.

One estate planning strategy for reducing estate taxes is to gift some or all of a company’s ownership to your children. When you transfer a minority interest in a company, that stake is not as valuable because the minority owner doesn’t have the right to make all the decisions or vote on important issues relevant to the company. This is called a “minority discount.” So, for example, if a company is worth $10 million, a 10 percent interest in the company would be discounted to less than $1 million. The amount of the discount depends on each individual case, but usually ranges between 10 to 40 percent of the undiscounted value.

By using discounts, you can reduce the value of your company for estate tax purposes while at the same time gift your children a percentage of the company at a reduced rate. These discounts apply even if everyone who owns a stake in the company is a family member.

In 2016, federal regulations were introduced to eliminate this type of discounting. The regulations were withdrawn in 2017, but under the new administration it is possible that they will come back.

To find out if a minority valuation discount is the right strategy for your family business, contact your attorney.

Non-Borrowing Spouses of Reverse Mortgage Holders Receive Expanded Protections

The federal government has expanded access to protections for spouses of reverse mortgage holders who are not named in the loan document, allowing more such spouses the ability to stay in their home if the borrowing spouse dies or moves to a care facility.

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. Up until 2014, if one spouse was under age 62, the younger spouse had to be left off the loan in order for the couple to qualify for a reverse mortgage. 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 2014, the Department of Housing and Urban Development developed a rule that better protected at least some surviving spouses. Under the rule, if a couple with one spouse under age 62 wants to take out a reverse mortgage, they may list the underage spouse as a “non-borrowing spouse.” If the older spouse dies, the non-borrowing spouse may remain in the home, provided that the surviving spouse establishes within 90 days that he or she has a legal right to stay in the home (this could, for example, be an ownership document, a lease, or a court order). The surviving spouse also must continue to meet the other requirements of a reverse mortgage holder, such as paying property taxes and insurance premiums.

While this rule was beneficial to many non-borrowing spouses, it left some out: It applied only to loans taken out after the law became effective in 2014 and did not cover spouses of borrowers who had to leave the home due to medical reasons. In May 2021, the Federal Housing Authority issued a new rule that addresses these issues and expands the protection to the following spouses:

  • All non-borrowing spouses, not just ones whose loans began after 2014
  • Non-borrowing spouses of borrowers who had to move to a health care facility for more than 12 consecutive months
  • Spouses who were in a committed relationship with the borrower at the time of the loan, but were prevented from marrying the borrower due to their genders, provided they eventually married before the borrower’s death

The new rule also eliminates the requirement that non-borrowing spouses demonstrate that he or she has a marketable title or the legal right to remain in the home.

This rule still does not cover spouses who were not married to the borrower at the time of the loan (except in the case of same-sex marriages that were prohibited at the time). Additionally, the non-borrowing surviving spouse still cannot access the remaining loan balance.

Can Life Insurance Affect Your Medicaid Eligibility?

When applying for Medicaid many people often forget about life insurance. But depending on the type of life insurance and the value of the policy, it can count as an asset.

In order to qualify for Medicaid, you can’t have more than $2,000 in assets (in most states). Life insurance policies are usually either “term” life insurance or “whole” life insurance. If a Medicaid applicant has term life insurance, it doesn’t count as an asset and won’t affect Medicaid eligibility because this form of life insurance does not have an accumulated cash value. On the other hand, whole life insurance accumulates a cash value that the owner can access, so it can be counted as an asset.

That said, Medicaid law exempts small whole life insurance policies from the calculation of assets. If the policy’s face value is less than $1,500, then it won’t count as an asset for Medicaid eligibility purposes. However, if the policy’s face value is more than $1,500, the cash surrender value becomes an available asset.

For example, suppose a Medicaid applicant has a whole life insurance policy with a $1,500 death benefit and a $700 cash surrender value (the amount you would get if you cash in the policy before death). The policy is exempt and won’t be used to determine the applicant’s eligibility for Medicaid. However, if the death benefit is $1,750 and the cash value is $700, the cash surrender value will be counted toward the $2,000 asset limit.

If you have a life insurance policy that may disqualify you from Medicaid, you have a few options:

  • Surrender the policy and spend down the cash value.
  • Transfer ownership of the policy to your spouse or to a special needs trust. If you transfer the policy to your spouse, the cash value would then be part of the spouse’s community resource allowance.
  • Transfer ownership of the policy to a funeral home. The policy can be used to pay for your funeral expenses, which is an exempt asset.
  • Take out a loan on the cash value. This reduces the cash value and the death benefit, but keeps the policy in place.

Before taking any actions with a life insurance policy, you should talk to your attorney to find out what is the best strategy for you.

You Can Stretch the Gift Tax Limit by Paying for Education or Health Care

If you want to make a gift to family members but have exceeded the annual gifting limit, there is another way. Payments for a family member’s education or health care expenses are exempt from the gift tax.

The annual gift tax exclusion for 2020 and 2021 is $15,000. This means that any person who gave away $15,000 or less to any one individual does not have to report the gift or gifts to the IRS. Any person who gave away more than $15,000 to any one person (other than their spouse) is technically required to file a Form 709, the gift tax return.

One way for a gift to be exempted from reporting requirements, no matter the gift’s size, is to pay for someone else’s medical care or educational tuition. A payment to a school must be made directly to the school (schools include not just colleges but nursery schools, private grade schools, or private high schools). The payment must be for tuition only–it cannot cover room and board or books. Pre-payments can often be made as soon as the person is admitted to the school. However, if you contribute to someone else’s 529 college savings plan, you are subject to the $15,000 gift exclusion rule. A special regulation in the tax code enables a donor to use up five years’ worth of exclusions and gift $75,000 (in 2021) to a 529 at one time.

With regard to medical expenses, the payment must be made directly to the health care provider or to a company that provides medical insurance. You can pay for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease. In some circumstances, you may also be able to pay for transportation or lodging for the person seeking medical care. If the person is reimbursed by medical insurance for the care, the payment is not exempt from the annual gifting limit.

To find out the best way to provide for your loved ones without paying gift taxes, talk to your attorney.

 

The Durable Power of Attorney: Your Most Important Estate Planning Document

For most people, the durable power of attorney is the most important estate planning instrument available — even more useful than a will. A power of attorney allows a person you appoint — your “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” — to act in place of you – the “principal” — 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.

A power of attorney may be limited or general. A limited power of attorney may give someone the right to sign a deed to property on a day when you are out of town. Or it may allow someone to sign checks for you. A general power is comprehensive and gives your attorney-in-fact all the powers and rights that you have yourself.

A power of attorney may also be either current or “springing.” Most powers of attorney take effect immediately upon their execution, even if the understanding is that they will not be used until and unless the grantor becomes incapacitated. However, the document can also be written so that it does not become effective until such incapacity occurs. In such cases, it is very important that the standard for determining incapacity and triggering the power of attorney be clearly laid out in the document itself.

However, attorneys report that their clients are experiencing increasing difficulty in getting banks or other financial institutions to recognize the authority of an agent under a durable power of attorney. A certain amount of caution on the part of financial institutions is understandable: When someone steps forward claiming to represent the account holder, the financial institution wants to verify that the attorney-in-fact indeed has the authority to act for the principal. Still, some institutions go overboard, for example requiring that the attorney-in-fact indemnify them against any loss. Many banks or other financial institutions have their own standard power of attorney forms. To avoid problems, you may want to execute such forms offered by the institutions with which you have accounts. In addition, many attorneys counsel their clients to create living trusts in part to avoid this sort of problem with powers of attorney.

While you should seriously consider executing a durable power of attorney, if you do not have someone you trust to appoint it may be more appropriate to have the probate court looking over the shoulder of the person who is handling your affairs through a guardianship or conservatorship. In that case, you may execute a limited durable power of attorney simply nominating the person you want to serve as your conservator or guardian. Most states require the court to respect your nomination “except for good cause or disqualification.”

 

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 it 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 2021 tax year, the exemption is $11.7 million for individuals and $23.4 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 more than 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.

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.

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