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.”

 

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.

What Are the House Ownership Options When Parents and Adult Children Live Together?

Increasingly, several generations of American families are living together. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data, 64 million Americans, or 20 percent of the population, live in households containing two adult generations. These multi-generational living arrangements present legal and financial challenges around home ownership.

Multi-generational households may include “boomerang” children who return home after college or other forays out into the world, middle-aged children who have lost jobs, or seniors who no longer can or want to live alone. In many, if not most, cases when mom moves in with daughter and son-in-law or daughter and son-in-law move in with mom, everything works out well for all concerned. But it’s important that everyone, including siblings living elsewhere, find answers to questions like these:

  1. If mom owns the house, what happens when she passes away? Do daughter and son-in-law have to move out? If mom leaves them the house, is that fair to the other siblings? If she leaves them her savings and investments instead, what happens if that money gets spent down on her care?
  2. If mom pays for an in-law addition to be built on daughter and son-in-law’s house, what guarantees should she have about being able to live there? What happens if, despite everyone’s best intentions, mom moves out either because living together isn’t working out or she needs care that the family can’t provide? Do the daughter and son-in-law simply get the advantage of the increase in value to their property? What if mom needs the money she put into the house to live on? What are the Medicaid issues if she needs nursing home care within five years?
  3. What are everyone’s expectations in terms of paying living and housing expenses?
  4. What happens if daughter gets a great job offer in another city? Or daughter and son-in-law get divorced?
  5. If grandchildren are still living at home, is mom expected to help with child care?
  6. How do the answers to all of the questions change if mom and daughter and her husband are pooling their resources to purchase a new home for everyone?
  7. Who will care for mom if she becomes disabled? Is daughter expected to give up her work to provide the care? Should she be compensated? What about using up mom’s financial resources to pay for care providers?

It is difficult to answer many of these questions in the abstract, but having an open discussion about them at the start, writing down the answers, and reviewing the questions and answers as circumstances change, can help avoid misunderstandings and potential recriminations down the road.

The answers to these questions may lead to different forms of home ownership that can help achieve the family’s goals.  Here are some of the options:

  1. Joint Ownership. If mom, daughter, and (perhaps) son-in-law own the house as joint tenants with right of survivorship, when mom passes away the house will go to the other owners without going through probate. This has an advantage if mom ever needs Medicaid to pay for home or nursing home care because it may avoid the state’s claim for reimbursement at her death (usually referred to as “estate recovery”) Some states have expanded the definition of estate recovery to include property in which the recipient had an interest but which passes outside of probate, so property in joint ownership may be included in estate recovery in those states. If the house is sold while the owners are alive, the proceeds (absent another agreement) will be divided equally among the co-owners.
  2. Tenants in Common. If mom, daughter, and son-in-law own the house as tenants in common, mom’s share at her death will go to whomever she names in her will. This may be fairer to other family members, but does not avoid probate. As with joint ownership, if the house is sold while all the owners are alive, the proceeds (absent another agreement) will be divided equally among the co-owners.
  3. Life Estate. A life estate is a form of joint ownership where mom as the “life tenant” has the right to live in the house during her life and at her death it passes automatically to the “remaindermen” who can be anyone she names — daughter or son-in-law or all of her children equally. Like joint ownership, it avoids probate and thus may also avoid Medicaid estate recovery. If the property is sold, the proceeds are divided up between the mom and whoever is on the deed as remaindermen, the shares being determined based on mom’s age at the time — the older she is, the smaller her share and the larger the share of the remaindermen.
  4. Trust. Putting the house in trust is the most flexible approach because a trust can say whatever the person creating it wants. It can guarantee mom the right to live in the house and compensate daughter and son-in-law for the care they provide. It can also take into account changes in circumstances, such as daughter passing away before mom. At the same time, it avoids probate and Medicaid estate recovery.

All of these options have different tax results in terms of capital gains when the home is sold, as well as different treatment by Medicaid if mom needs help paying for care. It’s best to consult with your attorney to determine what makes the most sense in your particular situation.

Nursing Home Residents Face Even Greater Barriers to Voting Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has forced nursing homes to place a number of restrictions on their residents. These constraints are having the unintended consequence of making it more difficult for nursing home residents to vote. Hundreds of thousands of nursing home and assisted living community residents could be disenfranchised.

Older Americans are some of the most reliable voters, but nursing home residents face challenges to voting even in normal times, and they are encountering even greater barriers this election season. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, nursing homes have locked down, prohibiting family and friends from visiting residents and residents from leaving the facilities. This means residents may not be able to leave to vote and also will not be able to have help from family members or organizations in obtaining and filling out mail-in ballots.

In past years, nursing homes and assisted living facilities often acted as polling places, but many of those are being moved due to the pandemic. In addition, nonpartisan organizations have historically been able to enter nursing homes to assist residents with their ballots, but it is unclear whether this will be allowed this year. North Carolina and Louisiana specifically prohibit nursing home staff from assisting residents with their ballots, but even in states that don’t explicitly prohibit it, overworked staff may not have the time to help residents.

While federal law requires nursing homes to protect their residents’ rights, including the right to vote, it is “a really open question to what extent people in long-term care institutions are going to be able to participate in our election in November,” says Nina Kohn, a law professor at Syracuse University who has studied facility residents’ voting-rights issues. Kohn warns that “we should be clear that there is tremendous reason to be concerned that nursing home residents will be . . . systematically disenfranchised in this election,”

Medicare Open Enrollment Starts October 15: Is It Time to Change Plans?

Medicare’s Open Enrollment Period, during which you can freely enroll in or switch plans, runs from October 15 to December 7. Now is the time to start shopping around to see whether your current choices are still 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 who do, nearly half cut their premiums by at least 5 percent. Even beneficiaries who have been satisfied with their plans in 2020 should review their choices for 2021, 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:

  • Medicare Plan Finder, which helps you find a plan to match your needs: www.medicare.gov/find-a-plan
  • Medicare coverage options: https://www.medicare.gov/medicarecoverageoptions/
  • The 2020 Medicare & You handbook, which all Medicare beneficiaries should have received. The handbook can also be downloaded online at: medicare.gov/forms-help-resources/medicare-you-handbook/download-medicare-you-in-different-formats
  • The Medicare Rights Center: www.medicareinteractive.org
  • Your State Health Insurance Assistance Program, which offers independent counseling: https://www.shiptacenter.org

Can You Transfer Your Medicare and Medicaid Plans When You Move to Another State?

If you plan to move states, can you take your Medicare or Medicaid plans with you? The answer depends on whether you have original Medicare, Medicare Advantage, or Medicaid.

Medicare
If you have original Medicare (Plans A and B), you can move anywhere in the country and you should still be covered. Medicare is a federal program, run by the federal government, so it doesn’t matter what state you are in as long as your provider accepts Medicare. Your Medigap plan should also continue to cover you in the new state, but your premiums may change when you move. The exception is if you move to Massachusetts, Minnesota, or Wisconsin because those states have their own specific Medigap plans.

Both Medicare Part D (prescription drug coverage) and Medicare Advantage plans have defined service areas, which may or may not cover more than one state. If you have Part D or Medicare Advantage, you will need to determine if your new address falls within the plan’s service area. When you move to a new service area, you have a special enrollment period in which to change plans outside of the annual open enrollment period (which runs October 15th through December 7th). If you tell your current plan before you move, your special enrollment period begins the month before you move and continues for two full months after you move. If you tell your plan after you move, your chance to switch plans begins the month you tell your plan, plus two more full months.

Medicaid
Medicaid is a joint federal and state program, with each state having its own eligibility rules. This means you cannot keep your Medicaid plan when you move to a new state. Medicaid eligibility depends on your income, your assets, and the level of care you need. If you have Medicaid and are planning to move, you should contact the Medicaid office in the state to which you are moving to find out the eligibility requirements in that state. Before you can apply for benefits in the new state, you need to cancel your benefits in the old state. You should file an application in the new state as soon as possible. Usually, if you qualify for benefits, the benefits will be retroactive up to three months before the date you applied. If you end up having to pay for any health care services out of pocket while you are waiting for your application to be approved, save the receipts since you may be able to get reimbursed.

Which Nursing Home Rating System Should You Trust?

Choosing a nursing home for a loved one is a difficult decision and it can only be made more confusing by the various rating systems. A recent study found that using both Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare site and user reviews can help with the decision making.

The official Medicare website includes a nursing home rating system. Nursing Home Compare offers up to five-star ratings of nursing homes based on health inspections, staffing, and quality measures. However, Medicare’s rating system is far from perfect. The staff level and quality statistics ratings are based largely on self-reported data that the government does not verify. The ratings also do not take into account state fines and enforcement data or consumer complaints to state agencies. Nursing homes have learned how to game the system to improve their ratings.

While Nursing Home Compare doesn’t include consumer feedback, Yelp and other online platforms like Facebook, Google, and Caring.com allow users to review individual nursing homes. These user reviews are highly subjective, and it can be difficult to judge their legitimacy. These reviews are not usually taken seriously–for example, consumer guides to finding a nursing home do not usually suggest that consumers consult online reviews. (It should be noted, however, that Caring.com goes to great lengths to ensure the integrity of its reviews, including having senior care experts read every submission before publication.)

In order to better understand what consumers were saying about nursing homes online, researchers at the University of Southern California evaluated 264 Yelp reviews and grouped them into categories. The researchers found that consumers rate different aspects of nursing home care than does the official rating system. User reviews were more emotional and more likely to focus on staff attitudes and responsiveness rather than on the quality of health care.

The researchers concluded that user reviews can be used in conjunction with the Nursing Home Compare site to paint a fuller picture of life at the nursing home because they present complementary information. According to the study, online reviews shouldn’t be dismissed because they “directly capture the voices of residents and family members, precisely the kind of information [nursing homes] and their consumers need to hear and may want to act on, if resident-directed care is to be achieved.”

Yelp has gone a step further than other consumer review sites and has teamed up with the investigative news organization, ProPublica, to provide users with additional information. ProPublica’s Nursing Home Inspect site, allows users to compare nursing homes based on federal data. Yelp users viewing a nursing home review page see a ProPublica box that provides information on the nursing home’s deficiencies and fines.

Reverse Mortgages: A Way to Remain at Home Longer

Under our “system” of paying for long-term care, you may be able to qualify for Medicaid to pay for nursing home care, but in most states there’s little public assistance for home care. Most people want to stay at home as long as possible, but few can afford the high cost of home care for very long. One solution is to tap into the equity built up in your home.

If you own a home and are at least 62 years old, you may be able to quickly get money to pay for long-term care (or anything else) by taking out a reverse mortgage. Reverse mortgages, financial arrangements designed specifically for older homeowners, are a way of borrowing that transforms the equity in a home into liquid cash without having to either move or make regular loan repayments. They permit house-rich but cash-poor elders to use their housing equity to, for example, pay for home care while they remain in the home, or for nursing home care later on. The loans do not have to be repaid until the last surviving borrower dies, sells the home or permanently moves out. (Warning: If both spouses are not on the reverse mortgage deed and the spouse who is on the deed dies first, the surviving spouse would be required to repay the mortgage loan in full or face eviction.)

In a reverse mortgage, the homeowner receives a sum of money from the lender, usually a bank, based largely on the value of the house, the age of the borrower, and current interest rates. The lower the interest rate and the older the borrower, the more that can be borrowed. To find out how much you can get for your house, use a reverse mortgage loan calculator.

Homeowners can get the money in one of three ways (or in any combination of the three): in a lump sum, as a line of credit that can be drawn on at the borrower’s option, or in a series of regular payments, called a “reverse annuity mortgage.” The most popular choice is the line of credit because it allows a borrower to decide when he or she needs the money and how much. Moreover, no interest is charged on the untapped balance of the loan.

Although it is often assumed that an elderly person would want to use the funds from a reverse mortgage loan for health care, there are no restrictions–the funds can be used in any way. For instance, the loan could be used to pay back taxes, for house repairs, or to retrofit a home to make it handicapped-accessible.

Borrowers who take out a reverse mortgage still own their home. What is owed to the lender — and usually paid by the borrower’s estate — is the money ultimately received over the course of the loan, plus interest. In addition, the repayment amount cannot exceed the value of the borrower’s home at the time the loan is repaid. All borrowers must be at least 62 years of age to qualify for most reverse mortgages. In addition, a reverse mortgage cannot be taken out if there is prior debt against the home. Thus, either the old mortgage must be paid off before taking out a reverse mortgage or some of the proceeds from the reverse mortgage used to retire the old debt.

The most widely available reverse mortgage product — and the source of the largest cash advances — is the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM), the only reverse mortgage program insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). However, the FHA sets a ceiling on the amount that can be borrowed against a single-family house, which is determined on a county-by-county basis. High-end borrowers must look to the proprietary reverse mortgage market, which imposes no loan limits. The national limit on the amount a homeowner can borrow is $765,600.

Reverse mortgages are not right for everyone. Consult with your attorney about whether a reverse mortgage fits into your long-term care planning.

How Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Affect Social Security?

The coronavirus pandemic is having a profound effect on the current U.S. economy, and it may have a detrimental effect on Social Security’s long-term financial situation. High unemployment rates mean Social Security shortfalls could begin earlier than projected.

Social Security retirement benefits are financed primarily through dedicated payroll taxes paid by workers and their employers, with employees and employers splitting the tax equally. This money is put into a trust fund that is used to pay retiree benefits. The most recent report from the trustees of the Social Security trust fund is that the fund’s balance will reach zero in 2035. This is because more people are retiring than are working, so the program is paying out more in benefits than it is taking in. Additionally, seniors are living longer, so they receive benefits for a longer period of time. Once the fund runs out of money, it does not mean that benefits stop altogether. Instead, retirees’ benefits would be cut, unless Congress acts in the interim. According to the trustees’ projections, the fund’s income would be sufficient to pay retirees 77 percent of their total benefit.

With unemployment at record levels due to the pandemic, fewer employers and employees are paying payroll taxes into the trust fund. In addition, more workers may claim benefits early because they lost their jobs. President Trump issued an executive order deferring payroll taxes until the end of the year as a form of economic relief, which could negatively affect Social Security and Medicare funds.

Some experts believe that the pandemic could move up the depletion of the trust fund by two years, to 2033, if the COVID-19 economic collapse causes payroll taxes to drop by 20 percent for two years. Other experts argue that it could have a greater effect and deplete the fund by 2029. However, as the Social Security Administration Chief Actuary morbidly noted to Congress, this pandemic different from most recessions: the increased applications for benefits will be partially offset by increased deaths among seniors who were receiving benefits.

It remains to be seen exactly how much the pandemic affects the Social Security trust fund, but the experts agree that as soon as the pandemic ends, Congress should take steps to shore up the fund.

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.