Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Will Vets Get a Cost-of-Living Boost?

The Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act passed unanimously in the House and without objection in the Senate earlier in the summer. By the time you read this, President Joe Biden is expected to sign it into law.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “Veterans benefits could see a big cost-of-living boost later this year” explains that the legislation links the cost-of-living boost for veterans benefits to the planned increase in Social Security benefits. Although the Social Security increase is automatic every year, lawmakers must approve the veterans benefits increase annually.

The amount of the increase for next year is still not certain. The Social Security Administration is expected to announce the COLA rate for 2022 in October, based on economic trends over the last few months. That increase will go into effect for benefits checks sent out starting this December.

The cost-of-living bump hasn’t been above 3.0% since 2011, and has averaged less than 1.3% over the last six years.

However, officials from the Senior Citizens League predicted that next year’s rise could top 6.2%, based on recent inflation and wage data released by federal economists. If so, it would be the largest increase since 1983 for Social Security and VA benefits recipients.

Lawmakers praised the bill passage as needed support for American veterans.

“The cost-of-living adjustment to veterans’ benefits is so much more than a rate adjustment tied to inflation,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., in a statement. “It is a quality-of-life guarantee in the retirement years for veterans suffering with service-connected disabilities and ailments.”

VA officials will announce the plan soon, which includes a review of service records to see if individuals’ eligibility for benefits should be approved.

Committee ranking member Mike Bost, R-Ill., said the increase is critical for veterans and families who rely on disability benefits as a primary source of income.

“Many veterans rely on disability compensation payments to make ends meet; this was especially true during the pandemic,” he said in a statement. “For millions of veterans and their families, this adjustment is more important now than ever before.”

The VA COLA increase applies to payouts for disability compensation, clothing allowance, dependency and indemnity benefits and other VA assistance programs.

Reference: Military Times (Sep. 21, 2021) “Veterans benefits could see a big cost-of-living boost later this year”

How Does a Conservatorship Work?

Kiplinger’s recent article titled “Britney Spears’ Sad Song … Warning: This Could Happen to You” says that conservatorship is a topic that’s been in the news lately with Britney’s recent court battle.

In Britney’s case, while there has not been any evidence alleged of actual fraud or financial abuse in her conservatorship, she lost nearly all control over her finances, her business affairs and the most personal aspects of her life.

She also doesn’t want her father to be the person to hold that much power or control over her life.

A judge can take charge of an individual’s personal and financial decisions and appoint a third party to make decisions almost on an unlimited basis. These proceedings can exact a significant emotional toll and be tremendously expensive and time-consuming.

Conservatorship can happen to anyone, if and when you’re too disabled (due to an accident or illness) or too incompetent (due to infirmity of mind, old age or dementia, or a similar condition) to handle your own affairs.

If your estate plan addresses this with a chain of command to act on your behalf, no formal court proceedings would be required. Your wishes can be honored, and all the drama like that which Britney Spears has endured can be avoided.

If you are under age 60, there is a four to five times greater likelihood that you’ll become disabled, due to an accident or illness, for a period of more than one year, than your chances of dying. This is because modern medicine can often prevent death but not cure the illness or condition causing the disability. If you’re over age 60, there’s a 70% chance that, during your remaining lifetime, you’ll be too disabled or incompetent to act for yourself, for a period of at least two to 2½ years.

However, Britney Spears’ battle to end her court-ordered conservatorship took an unexpected turn recently, when her father and the conservator of her estate, Jamie Spears, filed a petition to end the arrangement. Mr. Spears cited his daughter’s pleas at two separate court hearings over the summer in his request to terminate the 13-year conservatorship.

“Recent events related to this conservatorship have called into question whether circumstances have changed to such an extent that grounds for establishment of a conservatorship may no longer exist,” the filing states.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 14, 2021) “Britney Spears’ Sad Song … Warning: This Could Happen to You”

What Is a Power of Attorney?

Any responsible adult can act as your agent. South Florida Reporter’s recent article entitled “Everything You Should Know About Power of Attorney” says this is an important decision that shouldn’t be handled lightly.

A power of attorney or “POA” is a legal document that authorizes a trusted person (the “agent” or “attorney-in-fact”) to make decisions on your behalf (the “donor” or “grantor”).

The authority can be broad, or it can be narrow for only specific actions.

There are two basic types of powers of attorney: one for finances and another for medical decisions.

A financial POA provides your agent with the authority to make financial and property decisions on your behalf. This may include handling your bank or building society accounts, collecting a pension or benefits, paying bills, or selling your house. Once registered, you can use it right away or keep it till you lose your mental capacity.

A medical POA lets your agent make decisions about your medical care and placement in a care facility, including life-sustaining medical care. It should only be used if you’re incapable of making your own decisions, and you must agree to it while you are still capable of doing so.

These specifics may vary, but the following are general guidelines that typically apply:

  • Write it down
  • Determine the parties
  • Delegate the authority
  • Define the term “durability”; and
  • Get the POA notarized.

Appoint a person as your representative who’s both trustworthy and capable.

Reference: South Florida Reporter (July 18, 2021) “Everything You Should Know About Power of Attorney”

Will Congress Provide more Dollars for Elder Care?

For millions of Americans taking care of elderly or disabled loved ones, resources are very costly. Government assistance is provided through Medicaid, but it’s just for those with the lowest incomes. Many who qualify don’t get the help because many states restrict the number of eligible recipients, resulting in long waiting lists.

NBC News’ recent article entitled “Democrats want billions to pay for elder care. Republicans say the price tag is too high” reports that Democrats have earmarked roughly $300 billion to expand home-based care for seniors and the disabled in the $3.5 trillion spending bill dubbed the American Families Plan. The bill would offer states incentives to lift their income caps to 300 times the poverty level, or about $38,600 per person. Democrats say it would enable an additional 3.2 million people to be eligible for home-based assistance.

However, Republicans are launching an all-out messaging campaign that accuses Democrats of a “reckless tax and spending spree” and saying the American Families Plan would lead to higher inflation and a suffering economy. Democrats say they aren’t afraid of the cost or of Republican claims about inflation. Research shows that the elder care proposal is one of the most popular components of their agenda among likely Democratic voters. Two-thirds of voters said expanding access to home-based care for the elderly and the disabled was important, and 48% strongly favored the expansion.

Progressives have said $3.5 trillion is too little to transform the economy. Moderate Democrats point to the risk of inflation.

U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), who is a member of the House Women’s Caucus, cared for her dad, who suffered a stroke, her mom, who had Alzheimer’s and three young children when she was running for Congress. She said elder care is a priority.

“Even though I had resources and options, it was really, really challenging to me. That story plays out for parents and women across this country every day,” Clark said in an interview. “It is long past time that we recognize how fundamental the care agenda and the care economy is to our economy in general.”

Democrats also would like to pass provisions to guarantee that home health care workers make a living wage through reporting guidelines and by requiring a minimum wage, which would be set by region.

Reference: NBC News (Aug. 21, 2021) “Democrats want billions to pay for elder care. Republicans say the price tag is too high.”

What Happens to My Home If I Leave It to a Medicaid Recipient in My Will?

When a beneficiary is on Medicaid and she’s set to get a bequest of the grantor’s home in her last will, the question may arise about the impact on her Medicaid benefits.

The answer will depend on the Medicaid program and what the daughter decides to do with the house, says nj.com’s recent article entitled “What happens to my daughter’s Medicaid if I leave her my home?”

Medicaid provides health coverage for some low-income people, families and children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

In some states the program covers all low-income adults below a certain income level.

Medicaid programs are required to follow federal guidelines, but coverage and costs may be different from state to state.

Here, if the daughter receives Medicaid because she also receives SSI or has ABD Medicaid, the house will not be counted as a disqualifying asset if the house is the daughter’s principal place of residence.

If the daughter sells the house, the sale proceeds would be countable.

If she is getting expanded Medicaid through Obamacare, her eligibility would be based on income. So, if the daughter rented the house or sold the house, the income that would be generated could disqualify her from continuing to receive benefits, depending on the amount of income she gets.

If the daughter is disabled, consider leaving the daughter the house in a special needs trust. With a special needs trust, there’s a legal arrangement and fiduciary relationship that allows a physically or mentally disabled or chronically ill person to enjoy trust assets without jeopardizing their eligibility for Medicaid.

A Medicaid Asset Protection Trust is an irrevocable trust, and assets placed in the trust are considered completed gifts to the beneficiaries, protecting the assets from Medicaid (after the look-back period).

With a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust, even if the house is sold, the sale proceeds wouldn’t disqualify the daughter from receiving Medicaid.

Ask an experienced elder law attorney for help with this situation.

The laws regarding Medicaid and Medicaid eligibility are extremely complex and vary from state to state. Accordingly, nothing in this article should be considered legal advice.

Reference: nj.com (July 30, 2021) “What happens to my daughter’s Medicaid if I leave her my home?”

Does My Social Security Increase If I Work Past 70?

Many seniors choose to work later in life. It will have an effect on their Social Security benefits, says nj.com’s recent article entitled, “If I work past age 70, can my Social Security benefits increase?”

You must pay FICA (Federal Insurance Contribution Act) taxes, commonly called Social Security and Medicare taxes, if you have income that’s covered by Social Security.

The tax is imposed on your earnings up to a maximum amount. For 2021, that maximum amount is $142,800.

Your Social Security benefit at full retirement age (FRA) is determined by taking your highest 35 years of earnings on which Social Security tax has been levied, indexed for inflation.

The maximum amount of your benefit is capped because of the maximum amount of income on which Social Security tax is levied.

If you continue to work while collecting Social Security at any age, your benefit could increase, if your earnings are one of the 35 highest years you have earned.

The increased benefit is automatically calculated by the Social Security Administration and is paid to you in the December of the next year.

However, working while collecting Social Security benefits has other complexities you should consider.

If you’re younger than full retirement age (FRA) and you earn more than a certain amount, your benefit will be reduced.

For example, for 2021, if you’re below YOUR FRA for the whole year, your benefit will be reduced $1 for every $2 you earn over $18,960.

However, the benefit isn’t actually lost. That’s because when you reach your full retirement age, your benefit will increase to reflect the amount withheld.

If you have substantial income — any and all income that must be reported on your tax return — other than your Social Security income, up to 85% of your Social Security income will be taxable.

Reference: nj.com (July 26, 2021) “If I work past age 70, can my Social Security benefits increase?”

Can a Retired Police Officer Qualify for Medicaid?

An 84-year-old retired police officer recently took a fall in his home and injured his spinal cord. He retired from the police force more than 20 years ago and received a lump sum.

Currently, he gets more than $2,000 per month from his pension and Social Security.

How does this retired police officer spend down to qualify for Medicaid, since he is now a paraplegic?

State programs provide health care services in the community and in long-term care facilities. The most common, Medicaid, provides health coverage to millions of Americans, including eligible elderly adults and people with disabilities.

Medicaid is administered by states, according to federal requirements. The program is funded jointly by states and the federal government.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “How can this retired police officer qualify for Medicaid?” advises that long-term services and supports are available to those who are determined to be clinically and financially eligible.

A person is clinically eligible, if he or she needs assistance with three or more activities of daily living, such as dressing, bathing, eating, personal hygiene and walking.

Financial eligibility means that the Medicaid applicant has fewer than $2,000 in countable assets and a gross monthly income of less than $2,382 per month in 2021.

The applicant’s principal place of residence and a vehicle generally do not count as assets in the calculation.

If an applicant’s gross monthly income exceeds $2,382 per month, he or she can create and fund a Qualified Income Trust with the excess income that is over the limit.

The options for spending down assets to qualify for Medicaid are based to a larger extent on the applicant’s current and future living needs and the amount that has to be spent down.

Consult with an elder law attorney or Medicaid planning lawyer to determine the best way to spend down, in light of an applicant’s specific situation.

Reference: nj.com (July 19, 2021) “How can this retired police officer qualify for Medicaid?”

Do I Need Long-Term Care Insurance?

Women face some unique challenges as they get older. The Population Reference Bureau, a Washington based think tank, says women live about seven years longer than men. This living longer means planning for a longer retirement. While that may sound nice, a longer retirement increases the chances of needing long-term care.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “A Woman’s Guide to Long-Term Care” explains that living longer also increases the chances of going it alone and outliving your spouse. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, in 2018 women made up nearly three-quarters (74%) of solo households age 80 and over. Thus, women should consider how to plan for long-term care.

Ability to pay. Long-term care is costly. For example, the average private room at a long-term care facility is more than $13,000/month in Connecticut and about $11,000/month in Naples, Florida. There are some ways to keep the cost down, such as paying for care at home. Home health care is about $5,000/month in Naples, Florida. Multiply these numbers by 1.44 years, which is the average duration of care for women. These numbers can get big fast.

Medicare and Medicaid. Medicare may cover some long-term care expenses, but only for the first 100 days. Medicare does not pay for custodial care (at home long-term care). Medicaid pays for long-term care, but you have to qualify financially. Spending down an estate to qualify for Medicaid is one way to pay for long-term care but ask an experienced Medicaid Attorney about how to do this.

Make Some Retirement Projections. First, consider an ideal scenario where perhaps both spouses live long happy lives, and no long-term care is needed. Then, ask yourself “what-if” questions, such as What if my husband passes early and how does that affect retirement? What if a single woman needs long-term care for dementia?

Planning for Long-Term Care. If a female client has a modest degree of retirement success, she may want to decrease current expenses to save more for the future. Moreover, she may want to look into long-term care insurance.

Waiting to Take Social Security. Women can also consider waiting to claim Social Security until age 70. If women live longer, the extra benefits accrued by waiting can help with long-term care. Women with a higher-earning husband may want to encourage the higher-earning spouse to delay until age 70, if that makes sense. When the higher-earning spouse dies, the surviving spouse can step into the higher benefit. The average break-even age is generally around age 77-83 for Social Security. If an individual can live longer than 83, the more dollars and sense it makes to delay claiming benefits until age 70.

Estate Planning. Having the right estate documents is a must. Both women and men should have a power of attorney (POA). This legal document gives a trusted person the authority to write checks and send money to pay for long-term care.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 11, 2021) “A Woman’s Guide to Long-Term Care”

Which State Offers Dental Benefits to Low-Income Adults on Medicaid?

Virginia’s new policy making low-income adults on Medicaid eligible for dental benefits took effect on July 1, 2021.

8 News’ recent article entitled “Virginia is offering dental benefits to all adults on Medicaid for the first time” reports that the Virginia General Assembly first allocated funding for the expansion in the 2020 session. However, the change was delayed due to the pandemic. Since it was authorized in the two-year state budget, state legislators will have to allocate more funding in the future to maintain this level of coverage.

Dr. Tegwyn Brickhouse, chair of VCU’s Department of Dental Public Health and Policy, explained oral health is inseparable from overall health.

“It can help control chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. We also know there’s a link between oral health and pre-term birth,” Brickhouse said.

Brickhouse remarked that children and pregnant women covered by Medicaid were already eligible for dental benefits in Virginia. However, the move is making those services accessible to more than 750,000 other adults. In addition to routine cleanings and preventative care, the program will pay for x-rays, examinations, fillings, dentures, root canals, gum-related treatments, oral surgeries and more.

In the past, Brickhouse said many adults on Medicaid could only access dental coverage for emergency extractions. Without benefits, Brickhouse said many turned to emergency rooms as a last resort to find relief from the pain of other oral health conditions.

“Dentistry is not typically provided in emergency room settings, so you end up maybe getting an opioid but never really getting the tooth fixed. So, providing dental care will provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings from emergency room visits,” Brickhouse said.

Christina Nuckolos, communications director for the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services, says that roughly 75% of the nearly 2,000 dentists involved in the state’s Medicaid program have said that they’ll serve adult members.

“Governor Ralph Northam wrote a letter to the state’s dentists urging them to participate or to increase the number of Medicaid members they serve. The Virginia Dental Association distributed the Governor’s letter to their 3,900 members, and we are pleased that it has been well-received,” Nuckolos said.

Because Medicaid pays much less than private insurers for the same services, proponents are asking state lawmakers to up reimbursement rates to incentivize more participation. That hasn’t been done in more than 10 years, Brickhouse said.

Reference: 8 News (July 6, 2021) “Virginia is offering dental benefits to all adults on Medicaid for the first time”

Aging Parents and Blended Families Create Estate Planning Challenges

Law school teaches about estate planning and inheritance, but experience teaches about family dynamics, especially when it comes to blended families with aging parents and step siblings. Not recognizing the realities of stepsibling relationships can put an estate plan at risk, advises the article “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?” from Forbes. The estate plan has to be designed with realistic family dynamics in mind.

Trouble often begins when one parent loses the ability to make decisions. That’s when trusts are reviewed for language addressing what should happen, if one of the trustees becomes incapacitated. This also occurs in powers of attorney, health care directives and wills. If the elderly person has been married more than once and there are step siblings, it’s important to have candid discussions. Putting all of the adult children into the mix because the parents want them to have equal involvement could be a recipe for disaster.

Here’s an example: a father develops dementia at age 86 and can no longer care for himself. His younger wife has become abusive and neglectful, so much so that she has to be removed from the home. The father has two children from a prior marriage and the wife has one from a first marriage. The step siblings have only met a few times, and do not know each other. The father’s trust listed all three children as successors, and the same for the healthcare directive. When the wife is removed from the home, the battle begins.

The same thing can occur with a nuclear family but is more likely to occur with blended families. Here are some steps adult children can take to protect the whole family:

While parents are still competent, ask who they would want to take over, if they became disabled and cannot manage their finances. If it’s multiple children and they don’t get along, address the issue and create the necessary documents with an estate planning attorney.

Plan for the possibility that one or both parents may lose the ability to make decisions about money and health in the future.

If possible, review all the legal documents, so you have a complete understanding of what is going to happen in the case of incapacity or death. What are the directions in the trust, and who are the successor trustees? Who will have to take on these tasks, and how will they be accomplished?

If there are any questions, a family meeting with the estate planning attorney is in order. Most experienced estate planning attorneys have seen just about every situation you can imagine and many that you can’t. They should be able to give your family guidance, even connecting you with a social worker who has experience in blended families, if the problems seem unresolvable.

Reference: Forbes (June 28, 2021) “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?”