Should You Sell Your Life Insurance Policy?

Older Americans with a life insurance policy that they no longer need have the option to sell the policy to investors. These transactions, called “life settlements,” can bring in needed cash, but are they a good idea?

If your children are grown and your mortgage paid off, you may decide that there is no longer a reason to be paying premiums every month for a life insurance policy, or you may reach a time when you can no longer afford to keep up with the premiums. If this happens, you may be tempted to let the policy lapse and get nothing from it or to surrender the policy for its cash value, which usually is a fraction of its death benefit. Another option is a life settlement. This allows you to sell your policy to an investor for an amount that is greater than the cash value, but less than the death benefit. The buyer pays all future premiums and receives the death benefit when you die.

Life settlements offer seniors a way to get cash to supplement retirement income and help pay for living expenses, health care, or other needed items. They can be a good alternative to surrendering a policy or letting it lapse. But as with any financial transaction, you need to exercise caution.

The amount you receive from a life settlement depends on your age, your health, and the terms and conditions of the policy. It is hard to determine if you are getting a fair price for the policy because there are no standard guidelines for life settlements. Before selling you should shop around to several life settlement companies. You should also note that the amount you receive will be reduced by transaction fees, which can eat up a good chunk of the proceeds of the sale. In addition, you may have to pay taxes on the lump sum you receive. Finally, the beneficiaries of your policy may not be pleased with the sale, which is why some life settlement companies require beneficiaries to sign off on the transaction.

Before choosing a life settlement, you should consider other options. If you need cash right away, you can borrow against your policy. If the premiums are too much, you may be able to stop premiums and receive a smaller death benefit. In some cases of terminal illness, you can receive an accelerated death benefit (this allows you to receive a portion of your death benefit while you are still alive). If you don’t need the cash but no longer want the policy, another possibility is to donate the policy to charity and get a tax write-off.

To find out the right solution for you, talk to your elder law attorney or a financial advisor.

For more information from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority on the pros and cons of life settlements and questions to ask to protect yourself in a sale, click here.

Reports Find Hospice Deficiencies Go Unaddressed

Hospice care is supposed to help terminally ill patients maintain their quality of life at the end of their life, but two new government reports find that serious problems in some hospices may be actually causing harm to hospice patients. The reports propose that additional safeguards are needed.

Medicare provides a comprehensive hospice benefit that covers any care that is reasonable and necessary for easing the course of a terminal illness. Most hospice care is provided in the home or in a nursing home. State agencies or private contractors survey hospices to make sure they comply with federal regulations. If a hospice fails to meet a standard, the surveyor cites the hospice with a deficiency.

A pair of reports by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that from 2012 through 2016, more than 80 percent of hospices surveyed had at least one deficiency and one in five had a deficiency serious enough to harm patients. About 300 hospices were identified as “poor performers” and 40 had a history of serious deficiencies.

The reports found that the most common types of deficiencies involved poor care planning, mismanagement of aide services, and inadequate assessments of beneficiaries. Some of the most serious problems that were found included a beneficiary who developed pressure ulcers on both heels, which worsened and developed into gangrene, requiring amputation of one leg. Another beneficiary developed maggots around his feeding tube insertion site. Both of these beneficiaries had to be hospitalized, which hospice is meant to prevent.

Meanwhile, the OIG found that it is hard for consumers to learn about which hospices are doing a good job. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) launched the Hospice Compare website in 2017, but the site does not include information from the surveyors’ reports. Hospices also do not have as strong reporting requirements as nursing homes. In addition, CMS has limited ability to discipline hospices other than to drop the hospice from Medicare.

The reports provide a number of recommendations to CMS to improve monitoring of hospices, including the following:

  • Expanding the data that surveying organizations report to CMS and using these data to strengthen its oversight of hospices
  • Taking steps to include the survey reports on Hospice Compare
  • Educating hospices about common deficiencies and those that pose particular risks to beneficiaries
  • Increasing oversight of hospices with a history of serious deficiencies
  • Strengthening requirements for hospices to report abuse, neglect, and other harm
  • Ensuring that hospices are educating their staff to recognize signs of abuse, neglect, and other harm
  • Improving and making user-friendly the process for beneficiaries and caregivers to make complaints.

To read the OIG reports, click here and here.

For National Public Radio’s coverage of the reports, click here.

Protecting Your House After You Move Into a Nursing Home

While you generally do not have to sell your home in order to qualify for Medicaid coverage of nursing home care, it is possible the state can file a claim against your house after you die, so you may want to take steps to protect your house.

If you get help from Medicaid to pay for the nursing home, the state must attempt to recoup from your estate whatever benefits it paid for your care. This is called “estate recovery,” and given the rules for Medicaid eligibility, the only property of substantial value that a Medicaid recipient is likely to own at death is his or her home. If possible, you should consult with your attorney before entering a nursing home, or as soon as possible afterwards, in order to discuss ways to protect your home.

The home is not counted as an asset for Medicaid eligibility purposes if the equity is less than $585,000 (in 2019) ($878,000 in some states). In all states, you may keep your house with no equity limit if your spouse or another dependent relative lives there.

Transferring a Home
In most states, transferring your house to your children (or someone else) may lead to a Medicaid penalty period, which would make you ineligible for Medicaid for a period of time. There are circumstances in which it is legal to transfer a house, however, so consult an attorney before making any transfers. You may freely transfer your home to the following individuals without incurring a transfer penalty:

  • Your spouse
  • A child who is under age 21 or who is blind or disabled
  • Into a trust for the sole benefit of a disabled individual under age 65 (even if the trust is for the benefit of the Medicaid applicant, under certain circumstances)
  • 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.

While you can sell your house for fair market value, it may make you ineligible for Medicaid and you may have to apply the proceeds of the sale to your nursing home bills.

Lien on Home
Except in certain circumstances, Medicaid may put a lien on your house for the amount of money spent on your care. If the property is sold while you are still living, you would have to satisfy the lien by paying back the state. The exceptions to this rule are cases where a spouse, a disabled or blind child, a child under age 21, or a sibling with an equity interest in the house is living there.

Estate Recovery
If your spouse, a disabled or blind child, a child under age 21, or a sibling with an equity interest in the house, lives in the house, the state cannot file a claim against the house for reimbursement of Medicaid nursing home expenses. However, once your spouse or dependent relative dies or moves out, the state can try to collect.

But there are some circumstances under which the value of a house can be protected from Medicaid recovery. The state cannot recover if you and your spouse owned the home as tenants by the entireties or if the house is in your spouse’s name and you have relinquished your interest. If the house is in an irrevocable trust, the state cannot recover from it.

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

Make Sure Your Plan Beneficiary Choices Are Up to Date

Many people periodically update their wills or other estate plans, but don’t update who will receive distributions from their retirement plans (such as IRAs and 401(k)s) upon their deaths. Every year you should review your entire estate plan, and the review should include retirement plan “beneficiary designations” to make sure they aren’t outdated. The following are some tips for naming a retirement plan beneficiary:

  • It is important to name a beneficiary. Do not assume that your retirement plan will be distributed according to your will. 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. While 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.
  • You may want to designate a trust as your beneficiary. If your estate is more than the current estate tax exclusion ($11.4 million for 2019) and a large portion of it consists of retirement plans, it may make sense to direct that the plans be payable to a trust rather than to the surviving spouse. The trust must be properly drafted to avoid tax consequences, so consult with your attorney before doing this. If you want your money to go into a trust for your children, be sure to designate the trust as the beneficiary. If you name your children, the money will go directly to them.
  • If you have major life changes, be sure to keep your retirement plan updated. If you get married or have children, you may want to change your beneficiary. Also, if your spouse was your beneficiary and you get divorced, your former spouse will still be the beneficiary — divorce does not automatically remove an ex-spouse as beneficiary. If you wish to remove a former spouse from the plan, you will have to fill out a new beneficiary designation form.
  • Even if you don’t have big changes, you should review your beneficiary designation periodically. Your beneficiary may not be who you remembered it to be or it may be outdated. For example, if you named a charity as beneficiary, you will want to make sure the charity still exists. A Change of Beneficiary form can often be downloaded from the Web site of the firm holding the plan assets.

Disinheriting a Relative Can Be Complicated

You may feel that you have given one child more during your life, so he or she should get less in your will. Or you may want to cut out an heir altogether. Whatever the reason, disinheriting a close relative–especially a spouse or a child–can be complicated.

It may not be possible to completely disinherit a spouse. Even if you don’t leave your spouse anything in your will, most states have laws that keep a spouse from losing everything. If you live in a “community property” state, your spouse already owns half the community property. Other states have laws that automatically entitle a spouse to portion of your estate.

Even if you don’t completely disinherit your spouse, he or she can choose between taking what the will provides or taking what the law in your state says a spouse should receive in any case (the “statutory share,” usually one-third to one-half of the estate). The only solution is to enter into an agreement with your spouse in which you each waive the right to receive anything from the other’s estate.

Disinheriting a child is a different story. You will need to check with an attorney in your state to find out what is required. Louisiana is the only state that does not allow an adult child to be disinherited. While other states do not require that you leave anything to your adult children, there may be laws that protect minor children. For example, in Florida you are required to leave your house to either your spouse or a minor child, if they are living. In addition, there are often laws that protect children born after a will was written. To be safe, even if you are leaving a child nothing, you should specifically mention the child in the will. It may also help to state the reason the child is getting nothing or a reduced amount. If you don’t mention a child at all, the state may conclude that you did not intentionally exclude the child.

Disinheriting a close relative can cause fights among family members. Squabbles over wills can drag on for years and prevent your heirs from receiving their inheritance, so if you are planning on disinheriting someone, it is important to take as many precautions as possible and consult with an elder law or estate planning attorney.

What To Do When a Loved One Passes Away

Whether your spouse has just passed away or you have lost your mom or dad, the emotional trauma of losing a loved one often comes with a bewildering array of financial and legal issues demanding attention. It can be difficult enough for family members to handle the emotional trauma of a death, let alone taking the steps necessary to get these matters in order.

If you are the executor or representative of the will, you first should secure the tangible personal property, meaning anything you can touch such as silverware, dishes, furniture or artwork. Then, take your time while bills need to be paid. They can wait a week or two without any real repercussions. It is more important that you and your family have time to grieve.

When you are ready, you should meet with an attorney to review the steps necessary to administer the will. While the exact rules of estate planning differ from state to state, the key actions include:

  • File the will and petition in probate court in order to be appointed executor.
  • Collect the assets. This means that you need to find out about everything the deceased owned and file a list of inventory with the court.
  • Pay the bills and taxes. If an estate tax return is due, it must be filed within nine months of the date of death.
  • Distribute property to the heirs. Generally, executors do not pay out all of the estate assets until the period for creditors to make claims runs out which can be as long as a year.
  • Finally, you must file an account with the court listing any income to the estate since the date of death and all expenses and estate distributions.

While some of these steps can be avoided through trusts or joint ownership arrangements, whoever is left in charge still has to pay all debts, file tax returns and distribute the property to the rightful heirs.

The New Tax Law Means It’s Time to Review Your Estate Plan

While the new tax law doubled the federal estate tax exemption, meaning the vast majority of estates will not have to pay any federal estate tax, it doesn’t mean you should ignore its impact on your estate plan.

In December 2017, Republicans in Congress and President Trump increased the federal estate tax exemption to $11.18 million for individuals and $22.36 million for couples, indexed for inflation. (For 2019, the figures are $11.4 million and $22.8 million, respectively.) The tax rate for those few estates subject to taxation is 40 percent.

While most estates won’t be subject to the federal estate tax, you should review your estate plan to make sure the changes won’t have other negative consequences or to see if there is a better way to pass on your assets. One common estate planning technique when the estate tax exemption was smaller was to leave everything that could pass free of the estate tax to the decedent’s children and the rest to the spouse. If you still have that provision in your will, your kids could inherit your entire estate while your spouse would be disinherited.

For example, as recently as 2001 the federal estate tax exemption was a mere $675,000. Someone with, say, an $800,000 estate who hasn’t changed their estate plan since then could see the entire estate go to their children and none to their spouse.

Another consideration is how the new tax law might affect capital gains taxes. When someone inherits property, such as a house or stocks, the property is usually worth more than it was when the original owner purchased it. If the beneficiary were to sell the property, there could be huge capital gains taxes. Fortunately, when someone inherits property, the property’s tax basis is “stepped up,” which means the tax basis would be the current value of the property. If the same property is gifted, there is no “step up” in basis, so the gift recipient would have to pay capital gains taxes. Previously, in order to avoid the estate tax you might have given property to your children or to a trust, even though there would be capital gains consequences. Now, it might be better for your beneficiaries to inherit the property.

In addition, many states have their own estate tax laws with much lower exemptions, so it is important to consult with your attorney to make sure your estate plan still works for you.

Does Your Estate Plan Include Your Pets?

Have you considered your pet or pets when planning your estate? If not, you should, according to The Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s largest animal protection organization.

Pets usually have shorter life spans than humans, but people don’t always include their pets in their estate plans. If a pet owner doesn’t make plans for his or her pet, the animal can be left homeless and end up in an animal shelter.

To help pet owners ensure that that their wishes for their pets’ long-term care won’t be forgotten, misconstrued or ignored, The Humane Society has created a printable fact sheet, “Providing for Your Pet’s Future Without You.”  The five-page fact sheet, which is available in English and Spanish, provides sample legal language for including pets in wills and trusts, plus suggestions on protecting pets through a power of attorney.

The Humane Society says that all too often, people erroneously assume that a long-ago verbal promise from a friend, relative or neighbor to provide a home for a pet will be sufficient years later. Even conscientious individuals who include their pets in their wills may neglect to plan for contingencies in which a will might not take effect, such as in the event of severe disability or a protracted will challenge.

Charitable Giving Options Under the New Tax Law

The new tax law makes it harder to claim a tax deduction for charitable contributions. While charitable giving should not be only about getting a tax break, if you want to reap a tax benefit from your contributions, there are a couple of options.

The Tax Cut and Jobs Act, enacted in December 2017, nearly doubled the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for couples. This means that if your charitable contributions along with any other itemized deductions are less than $12,000 a year, the standard deduction will lower your tax bill more than itemizing your deductions. For most people, the standard deduction will be the better option.

If you still want to maximize the tax benefits of charitable giving and you have the financial means, one option is to double your charitable donations in one year and then skip the donation the following year. For example, instead of giving $10,000 a year to charity, you could give $20,000 every other year and itemize your deductions in that year.

Another way to concentrate charitable giving is to establish a donor-advised fund (DAF) through a public charity. A DAF allows you to contribute several years’ worth of charitable donations to the fund and receive the tax benefit immediately. The money is placed in an account where it can be invested and grow tax-free. You can then make donations to charities from the account at any time, in addition to adding to the account. As with any investment, you need to do research before establishing a DAF. Make sure you understand the fees involved and whether there are any limits on the charitable contributions you can make. You should consult with your financial advisor before taking any steps.

If you are taking required minimum distributions from an IRA, another option is to donate those distributions directly to charity through a qualified charitable donation. The distributions won’t be included in your gross income, which means lower taxes overall. The donation must be made directly from the IRA to the charity and different IRAs have different rules about how to make the distributions.