Four Ways the Coronavirus Pandemic May Affect Long-Term Care Insurance

The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on the elderly, particularly those in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. This has raised questions about how the virus has influenced the costs and provision of long-term care insurance, which covers care in facilities and sometimes at home as well.

If you have a long-term care insurance policy, you may wonder how it is affected by the pandemic. If you don’t have a policy, you may wonder if the pandemic will make it more difficult to get one. An article by US News and World Report, examines issues with long-term care insurance that have arisen in the last few months, including the following:

  • Qualifying for insurance. It is already more difficult to qualify for long-term care insurance the older you get. Because older individuals are at a higher risk for coronavirus, this can affect your long-term care application as well. Some insurers have been limiting applicants’ ages or putting additional restrictions on applicants who have been in contact with the virus. If you had a positive COVID-19 test, you may have to wait for three to six months before qualifying for insurance. These policies vary by company.
  • Premiums. Insurers can’t raise rates for customers due to individual circumstances. To raise rates, insurers must obtain approval from the state and raise them for the entire group. However, if you are considered high risk due to exposure to coronavirus, you may not qualify for the best rates when you first apply for long-term care insurance.
  • Moving out of a nursing home. If you have a policy and want to move out of a nursing home, you will need to check what your policy will pay for. Some policies pay for long-term care in a variety of settings, including home care, but others are more restrictive. On the plus side, you may be able to use your policy to reserve your bed, allowing you to keep your nursing home spot.
  • Home care. If you have a policy that was paying for home care, there may also be changes. Some home care workers are charging more for work during the pandemic, which could exceed your policy coverage. Another change may be to the number of people entering your home. You may want family to provide care, rather than an outside home health care worker. Unfortunately, most long-term care policies don’t pay for family members to provide care. However, if you aren’t using the insurance to pay for care, your coverage may last longer–depending on the policy.

There are lots of uncertainties regarding long-term care, insurance, and coronavirus.

Transferring Assets to Qualify for Medicaid

Transferring assets to qualify for Medicaid can make you ineligible for benefits for a period of time. Before making any transfers, you need to be aware of the consequences.

Congress has established a period of ineligibility for Medicaid for those who transfer assets. The so-called “look-back” period for all transfers is 60 months, which means state Medicaid officials look at transfers made within the 60 months prior to the Medicaid application.

While the look-back period determines what transfers will be penalized, the length of the penalty depends on the amount transferred. The penalty period is determined by dividing the amount transferred by the average monthly cost of nursing home care in the state. For instance, if the nursing home resident transferred $100,000 in a state where the average monthly cost of care was $5,000, the penalty period would be 20 months ($100,000/$5,000 = 20). The 20-month period will not begin until (1) the transferor has moved to a nursing home, (2) he has spent down to the asset limit for Medicaid eligibility, (3) has applied for Medicaid coverage, and (4) has been approved for coverage but for the transfer. Therefore, if an individual transfers $100,000 on April 1, 2017, moves to a nursing home on April 1, 2018 and spends down to Medicaid eligibility on April 1, 2019, that is when the 20-month penalty period will begin, and it will not end until December 1, 2020.

Transfers should be made carefully, with an understanding of all the consequences. People who make transfers must be careful not to apply for Medicaid before the five-year look-back period elapses without first consulting with an elder law attorney. This is because the penalty could ultimately extend even longer than five years, depending on the size of the transfer.

Be very, very careful before making transfers. Any transfer strategy must take into account the nursing home resident’s income and all of his or her expenses, including the cost of the nursing home. Bear in mind that if you give money to your children, it belongs to them and you should not rely on them to hold the money for your benefit. However well-intentioned they may be, your children could lose the funds due to bankruptcy, divorce, or lawsuit. Any of these occurrences would jeopardize the savings you spent a lifetime accumulating. Do not give away your savings unless you are ready for these risks.

In addition, be aware that the fact that your children are holding your funds in their names could jeopardize your grandchildren’s eligibility for financial aid in college. Transfers can also have bad tax consequences for your children. This is especially true of assets that have appreciated in value, such as real estate and stocks. If you give these to your children, they will not get the tax advantages they would get if they were to receive them through your estate. The result is that when they sell the property they will have to pay a much higher tax on capital gains than they would have if they had inherited it.

As a rule, never transfer assets for Medicaid planning unless you keep enough funds in your name to (1) pay for any care needs you may have during the resulting period of ineligibility for Medicaid and (2) feel comfortable and have sufficient resources to maintain your present lifestyle.

Remember: You do not have to save your estate for your children. The bumper sticker that reads “I’m spending my children’s inheritance” is a perfectly appropriate approach to estate and Medicaid planning.

Even though a nursing home resident may receive Medicaid while owning a home, if the resident is married he or she should transfer the home to the community spouse (assuming the nursing home resident is both willing and competent). This gives the community spouse control over the asset and allows the spouse to sell it after the nursing home spouse becomes eligible for Medicaid. In addition, the community spouse should change his or her will to bypass the nursing home spouse. Otherwise, at the community spouse’s death, the home and other assets of the community spouse will go to the nursing home spouse and have to be spent down.

Permitted transfers

While most transfers are penalized with a period of Medicaid ineligibility of up to five years, certain transfers are exempt from this penalty. Even after entering a nursing home, you may transfer any asset to the following individuals without having to wait out a period of Medicaid ineligibility:

  • Your spouse (but this may not help you become eligible since the same limit on both spouse’s assets will apply)
  • A trust for the sole benefit of your child who is blind or permanently disabled.
  • Into trust for the sole benefit of anyone under age 65 and permanently disabled.

In addition, you may transfer your home to the following individuals (as well as to those listed above):

  • A child who is under age 21
  • A child who is blind or disabled (the house does not have to be in a trust)
  • A sibling who has lived in the home during the year preceding the applicant’s institutionalization and who already holds an equity interest in the home
  • A “caretaker child,” who is defined as a child of the applicant who lived in the house for at least two years prior to the applicant’s institutionalization and who during that period provided care that allowed the applicant to avoid a nursing home stay.

Make Sure Your Power of Attorney Complies with Federal Privacy Law

A power of attorney (POA) and a health care proxy are two of the most important estate planning documents you can have, but in some instances they may be useless if they don’t comply with the federal privacy law.

A POA allows someone you designate (your “agent” or “attorney-in-fact”) to make decisions for you if you become incapacitated. A health care proxy specifies who will make medical decisions for you. For these documents to be effective, your agents may need to be able to access your medical information. However, medical information is private. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects health care privacy and prevents disclosure of health care information to unauthorized people. HIPAA authorizes the release of medical information only to a patient’s “personal representative.”

HIPAA can be a problem especially if you have a “springing” power of attorney. A springing POA doesn’t go into effect until you become incapacitated. This means your agent doesn’t have any authority until you are declared incompetent, but, under HIPAA, the agent won’t be able to get the medical information necessary to determine incompetence until the agent has authority.

To make sure your agent doesn’t get caught in this “Catch-22,” your POA and health care proxy should contain a HIPAA clause that explains that the agent is also the personal representative for the purposes of health care disclosures under HIPAA. You should also sign separate HIPAA release forms that explain what medical information can be disclosed, who can make the disclosure, and to whom the disclosure can be made.

Contact your attorney to make sure your POA and health care proxy do not conflict with HIPAA.

Medicare and Medicaid Will Cover Coronavirus Testing

With coronavirus dominating news coverage and creating alarm, it is important to know that Medicare and Medicaid will cover tests for the virus.

The department of Health and Human Services has designated the test for the new strain of coronavirus (officially called COVID-19) an essential health benefit. This designation means that Medicare and Medicaid will cover testing of beneficiaries who are suspected of having the virus. In order to be covered, a doctor or other health care provider must order the test. All tests on or after February 4, 2020 are covered, although your provider will need to wait until after April 1, 2020, to be able to submit a claim to Medicare for the test.

Congress has also passed an $8.3 billion emergency funding bill to help federal agencies respond to the outbreak. The funding will provide federal agencies with money to develop tests and treatment options as well as help local governments deal with outbreaks.

As always, to prevent the spread of this illness or other illnesses, including the flu, take the following precautions:
•    Wash your hands often with soap and water
•    Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze
•    Stay home when you’re sick
•    See your doctor if you think you’re ill

For Medicare’s notice about coverage for the coronavirus, click here.

Make Sure Your Life Insurance Is Not Taxed at Your Death

Although your life insurance policy may pass to your heirs income tax-free, it can affect your estate tax. If you are the owner of the insurance policy, it will become a part of your taxable estate when you die. You should make sure your life insurance policy won’t have an impact on your estate’s tax liability.

If your spouse is the beneficiary of your policy, then there is nothing to worry about. Spouses can transfer assets to each other tax-free. But if the beneficiary is anyone else (including your children), the policy will be a part of your estate for tax purposes. For example, suppose you buy a $1 million life insurance policy and name your son as the beneficiary. When you die, the life insurance policy will be included in your taxable estate. If the total amount of your taxable estate exceeds the then-current state or federal estate tax exemption, then your policy will be taxed.

In order to avoid having your life insurance policy taxed, you can either transfer the policy to someone else or put the policy into a trust. Once you transfer a policy to a trust or to someone else, you will no longer own the policy, which means you won’t be able to change the beneficiary or exert control over it. In addition, the transfer may be subject to gift tax if the cash value of your policy (the amount you would get for your policy if you cashed it in) is more than $15,000 (in 2020, this figure rises every few years with inflation). If you decide to transfer a life insurance policy, do it right away. If you die within three years of transferring the policy, the policy will still be included in your estate.

If you transfer a life insurance policy to a person, you need to make sure it is someone you trust not to cash in the policy. For example, if your spouse owns the policy and you get divorced, there will be no way for you to get it back. A better option may be to transfer the policy to a life insurance trust. In that case, the trust owns the policy and is the beneficiary. You can then dictate who the beneficiary of the trust will be. For a life insurance trust to exclude your policy from estate taxes, it must be irrevocable and you cannot act as trustee.

If you want to transfer a current life insurance policy to someone else or set up a trust to purchase a policy, consult with your attorney.

How to Include Cryptocurrency in an Estate Plan

The growing popularity of cryptocurrency means it is increasingly something that must be considered when planning an estate. If you own cryptocurrency, providing instructions in your will is a must.

Cryptocurrency is virtual money that exists only in digital form. The most popular cryptocurrency is Bitcoin, but there are many different types. Usually the only way to access the funds is through a computer, using a personal passcode.

Unlike a bank account, there is no physical record of the currency, so if you own cryptocurrency it is essential that you declare it in your will and also let the person who will be handling your estate (your fiduciary) know about it. Also, unlike with a bank account, the fiduciary does not have to provide a death certificate or power of attorney in order to access the currency. As long as the fiduciary has your passcode, he or she can take control of the currency. This means you need to be sure that your fiduciary is someone you can trust with this information.

You do not want to put the passcode directly into your estate planning documents, which if they go through probate could become public documents. Instead, simply list the cryptocurrency as an asset in your will and put the instructions on how to access it in a separate document that is also referenced in the will. The instructions should be as specific as possible, and it can be updated as needed. If you lose the passcode to the currency, it may not be possible to recover it, so it is important to store it in a safe place, like a safe deposit box.

Your attorney can help you make a plan for your digital assets.

Bank Pays Price for Refusing to Honor Request Made Under a Power of Attorney

A durable power of attorney (POA) allows the person creating the POA, called the “principal,” to name a trusted agent who can act on his behalf in almost any situation. But because of the risk of abuse, many banks will scrutinize a POA carefully before allowing the agent to act on the principal’s behalf, and often a bank will refuse to honor a POA. Bank of America rebuffed a Florida agent’s request that funds be withdrawn from the principal’s account. The agent fought back in court and won a $64,000 judgment against the bank.

Clarence Smith, Sr., named his son, Clarence Smith, Jr., as his agent under a POA. When his father no longer wanted to manage his own finances, he asked Clarence Jr. to step in as his agent. Clarence Jr. reviewed his father’s account activity and became suspicious about some withdrawals from a bank account that Clarence Sr. owned jointly with a friend from his retirement community.

Acting as his father’s agent under the POA, Clarence Jr., asked Bank of America to transfer $65,000 from the account into a new account that listed only his father as the owner. Before doing so, Bank of America contacted the other person named on the account. When she told the bank that she did not want the funds withdrawn and also accused Clarence Jr. of stealing his father’s money, Bank of America refused to honor Clarence Jr.’s request. The other account owner then withdrew all of the funds from the account and placed them into her own account, effectively preventing Clarence Sr. from accessing his own money. Clarence Sr. died several weeks later.

Clarence Jr. sued Bank of America under a Florida law that imposes penalties on financial institutions that refuse to honor reasonable requests from agents named in properly executed POAs. A jury returned a verdict against the bank and awarded $64,142 to Clarence Sr.’s estate. The jury found that Bank of America had not acted reasonably when it rejected Clarence Jr.’s request, even though the joint owner of the bank account had not agreed to the release of the funds.

While this case clearly illustrates the conflicts that can arise through the use of a POA, it also raises the issue of the proper use of joint bank accounts in estate planning. Under most state laws, when two or more people own “joint” bank accounts, each of them has the right to the entire account, no matter whose money is actually in the account. While joint accounts can often be useful, sometimes, as in this case, joint owners or their agents can disagree about the use of funds in the accounts. When that happens, the party who makes it to the bank first often wins. Your attorney can explain the pros and cons of joint ownership, draft an effective POA, and assist family members when disputes arise.

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.

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.

Powers of Attorney Come in Different Flavors

A power of attorney is a very important estate planning tool, but in fact there are several different kinds of powers of attorney that can be used for different purposes. Before executing this crucial document, it is important to understand what your options are.

A power of attorney allows a person you appoint — your “attorney-in-fact” or agent — to act in your place for financial or other purposes when and if you ever become incapacitated or if you can’t act on your own behalf. There are four main types of powers of attorney.

  • Limited. A limited power of attorney gives someone else the power to act in your stead for a very limited purpose. For example, a limited power of attorney could give someone the right to sign a deed to property for you on a day when you are out of town. It usually ends at a time specified in the document.
  • General. A general power of attorney is comprehensive and gives your attorney-in-fact all the powers and rights that you have yourself. For example, a general power of attorney may give your attorney-in-fact the right to sign documents for you, pay your bills, and conduct financial transactions on your behalf. You could use a general power of attorney if you were not incapacitated, but still needed someone to help you with financial matters. A general power of attorney ends on your death or incapacitation unless you rescind it before then.
  • Durable. A durable power of attorney can be general or limited in scope, but it remains in effect after you become incapacitated. Without a durable power of attorney, if you become incapacitated, no one can represent you unless a court appoints a conservator or guardian. A durable power of attorney will remain in effect until your death unless you rescind it while you are not incapacitated.
  • Springing. Like a durable power of attorney, a springing power of attorney can allow your attorney-in-fact to act for you if you become incapacitated, but it does not become effective until you are incapacitated. If you are using a springing power of attorney, it is very important that the standard for determining incapacity and triggering the power of attorney be clearly laid out in the document itself.

Regardless of what type of power of attorney you use, it is important to think carefully about who will be your attorney-in-fact. Your attorney-in-fact will have a lot of control over your finances, and it is crucial that you trust him or her completely. For more information on choosing an attorney-in-fact, click here.

While many pre-packaged do-it-yourself power of attorney forms are available, it is a good idea to have an attorney draft the form specifically for you. There are many issues to consider and one size does not fit all. Contact your attorney to learn more.