Estate Planning Blog Articles

Estate & Business Planning Law Firm Serving the Providence & Cranston, RI Areas

Why Does Government Deny Social Security Disability Benefits

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “3 Main Reasons Why the Government Denies Social Security Disability Benefits” says three main issues are the primary contributors to the high denial rates and prolonged appeals process:

  1. Applicants fail to satisfy work history requirements. Anyone who pays FICA payroll taxes long enough, is typically insured for SSDI. However, that doesn’t mean they’re eligible for benefits. To meet the SSA definition of disability, one must have physical or mental impairments that prevent them from being unable to perform any substantial gainful activity (SGA) for at least 12 months or have a terminal diagnosis. SGA encompasses work performed for pay or profit, and for 2022, the monthly benefit one would receive after qualification is set at $1,350 a month, or $2,260 if you are blind.
  2. Applicants provide incomplete documentation. Detailed medical evidence is required to document a disability and its impact on the person’s ability to perform SGA—it’s a crucial part of the SSDI application. This should include diagnoses, medical tests and results, treatment history, prescription drugs, surgeries, ER and doctor visits and other relevant medical details to show not just that you have a problem, but also that you’ve been receiving regular medical treatment for your issue. This, along with details about how a disability influences your activities of daily living, is especially significant if you have an invisible disability, such as mental disorders, neurological conditions or cognitive dysfunctions caused by injury or disease. Regular monthly treatments and drug therapies with specialists and mental health professionals are an important part of your claim.
  3. Applicants not knowing they have the right to an SSDI representative. The SSA doesn’t tell initial applicants they have the right to retain a representative to assist them. As a result, most people try to navigate the complicated program on their own. You need an advocate to tell the story of your disability and its impact on you and your family. Less than 30% of applicants have an SSDI representative to help them apply. Those individuals are 23% more likely to get their application approved. It also means getting benefits in six months compared with a year or two!

Representatives are taking on more SSDI cases resulting from long COVID symptoms that have exacerbated physical and mental impairments. Long COVID may affect up to 30% of COVID patients, or an estimated 25 million people in the United States, especially those with respiratory disease, diabetes and cognitive issues.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 16, 2022) “3 Main Reasons Why the Government Denies Social Security Disability Benefits”

Estate Planning Tips for Solo Seniors

The people who typically think the most about estate planning are those in a traditional nuclear family unit, with spouses, adult children, grandchildren and a clear idea of how they want to pass along assets and who can be trusted to carry out their wishes. It’s easier to plan ahead, reports a recent article titled “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own” from The Sentinel, when the right person to put in charge is easy to identify.

When more and more families do not fall into the traditional nuclear family unit, how should they proceed with estate planning?

This can be a challenging scenario, especially if the person is not married and has no children. It’s hard to know who to name for important roles, like who will take charge if the person becomes ill or dies.

Some single people may think it doesn’t matter, because they don’t care about who inherits their possessions. However, estate planning is not just about distributing property. Planning for incapacity may be the most important part of estate planning—making legally enforceable decisions about medical care, end-of-life care and managing the business aspect of your life if you are incapacitated.

Two of the most important documents for a person who cannot speak for themselves are a Financial Power of Attorney and a Health Care Power of Attorney. These are the critical documents giving the person you designate the ability to manage your affairs and be involved in your medical care.

Without them, someone will need to take over for you. Who will it be? The process begins in the court, with a legal proceeding called guardianship. There are any number of reasons to avoid this. First, it takes a long time and any actions or decisions requiring a legal guardian will not be made with any speed. Second, guardianships are expensive. The process of having a guardian named and the fees paid to the guardian will be paid by you, whether you are conscious or not. While many people who act as guardians for others are trustworthy and kind-hearted, there are many horror stories—including several true stories made into movies—where guardians are more focused on enriching themselves than their ward’s best interests.

Guardianship can be easily avoided. Meeting with an estate planning attorney to prepare your last will and testament, Power of Attorney and Power of Health Care Attorney gives you control over who will be in charge of your life if you are incapacitated. Having these documents properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney ensures that you can be admitted to a hospital or facility offering the care you need, your bills will be paid and if your situation requires filing for long-term care benefits or disability, someone can do it for you.

If you don’t have a spouse or children, you probably have a healthy network of friends and extended family members you trust and are your “family by choice.” If you don’t feel these people are trustworthy or capable, think further afield—someone from your community, a neighbor who you respect and trust, etc.

If possible, name a few people in succession (your estate planning attorney will know how to do this) so if one person cannot serve, then there will be a next-in-line to help.

The next step is to speak with these individuals and explain what you are asking them to do. They need to be comfortable with the responsibility you’re asking them to undertake. You’ll also want to tell them your wishes, perhaps drafting a letter of intent, so they will know what to do in different circumstances. Make sure they know where these documents are located, so they can find them easily.

Once your estate plan is in place, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, knowing the future is taken care of.

Reference: The Sentinel (June 17, 2022) “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own”

What Do I Need to ‘Age in Place’?

Home modification is the official term (from the Americans with Disabilities Act) for renovations and remodels aimed for use by the elderly or the impaired. It means physically changing your home, removing potential hazards and making it more accessible, so you can continue living in it independently.

Bankrate’s recent article entitled “The best home modifications for aging in place” reports that home modifications can be pricey—typically ranging from $3,000 to $15,000, with the average national spend being $9,500. However, it can be a worthwhile investment. You can save money by doing the right home modifications. That is because the longer you can safely live in your home, the less you will need to pay for assisted living care.

The best aging-in-place home modifications align with “universal design,” an architectural term for features that are easy for all to use and adaptable, as needs dictate. This includes additions and changes to the exterior and interior of a home. Some of the simplest home modifications include DIY jobs:

  • Adding easy-grip knobs and pulls, swapping knobs for levers
  • Installing adjustable handheld shower heads
  • Rearranging furniture for better movement
  • Removing trip hazards; and
  • Installing mats and non-slip floor coverings.

Next, are some more complex home modifications. These probably would need a professional contractor, especially if you want them up to code standards:

  • Installing handrails
  • Adding automatic outdoor lighting
  • Installing automatic push-button doors
  • Leveling flooring; and
  • Installing doorway ramps

There are also home modifications that can be done by room:

  • In the bathroom, installing grab bars and railing, a roll- or walk-in shower/tub, or a shower bench
  • In the kitchen: adding higher countertops, lever or touchless faucets and cabinet pull-out shelves
  • For the bedroom, use a less-high bed, non-slip floor, walk-in closets and motion-activated lights
  • Outside, you can add ramps, a porch or stair lifts, and automatic push button doors.

Finally, throughout the house, keep things well-lit and widen hallways and doorways; add a first-level master suite, elevators or chair lifts, “smart” window shades/thermostats/lighting and simpler windows.

Note that some home modifications may qualify as medical expenses. As a result, they are eligible for an itemized deduction on your income tax return. A home modification may be tax-deductible as a medical expense, if it has made to accommodate the disabilities (preferably documented by a physician or other health care provider) of someone who lives in the home, according to the IRS.

Reference: Bankrate (March 30, 2022) “The best home modifications for aging in place”

Am I Getting All the Social Security Benefits I Can?

Money Talks News’ recent article entitled “7 Social Security Benefits You May Be Overlooking” says that the Social Security Administration provides payments to spouses, children and those with disabilities, among others. Let’s look at this in detail.

  1. Spousal benefits via a husband or wife. Spouses can get up to half of their husband’s or wife’s monthly benefit. Even stay-at-home spouses without their own work history can claim benefits with this method. You can start claiming spousal benefits as early as age 62. However, benefits are reduced if payments begin before your full retirement age. If you are entitled to your own benefits, as well as spousal benefits, you will get an amount equal to whichever benefit level is greater.
  2. Spousal benefits via an ex-spouse. Even if you are divorced, you may be entitled to get spousal benefits. However, all of the following must apply to your situation:
  • Your ex-spouse is entitled to receive Social Security benefits;
  • You were married at least 10 years to your ex-spouse;
  • You are currently unmarried; and
  • You are at least 62 years old.

The benefit that you are entitled to get based on your own work is less than the benefit you would receive based on your ex-spouse’s work. Claiming spousal benefits as a divorced person does not impact your ex’s benefit amount. It also does not affect any benefits their current spouse can receive, if they have remarried.

  1. Survivor’s benefits for widows and widowers. If your spouse dies, you may still be able to receive up to 100% of their Social Security retirement benefits. Divorced spouses may also be able to get survivor’s benefits, if they were married for at least 10 years and are now unmarried. Most widows and widowers can begin claiming survivor’s benefits as early as age 60. Those who have a disability and became disabled prior to or within seven years of their spouse’s death can start benefits as early as age 50. In addition, widows and widowers of any age can get survivor’s benefits, if they are caring for a deceased worker’s child who’s younger than age 16 or disabled.
  2. Survivor’s benefits for children. Children can get payments from a deceased parent’s record as well. Survivor’s benefits are available to children up to age 18 (or 19 for if attending elementary or secondary school full-time) These benefits may extend beyond that, if a child becomes disabled and remains disabled before age 22. Depending on the circumstances, grandchildren and stepchildren may also be eligible for these benefits.
  3. Parent’s benefits. Parents who depended on their children for financial support may be eligible to get benefits from Social Security if that child dies. To be eligible , you have to meet a number of criteria, including the following:
  • The deceased worker must have sufficient work credits to qualify for Social Security benefits;
  • You must be at least age 62 and, in most cases, cannot be married after the worker’s death;
  • You must have received at least half of your support from the deceased worker at certain points in time;
  • You were the natural parent or became the legal adoptive parent or stepparent prior to the worker turning 16 years old; and
  • You are not eligible for a retirement benefit from Social Security that exceeds the parent’s benefit.
  1. Disability benefits. To get monthly benefits through the Social Security Disability Insurance program you must have a work history that makes you eligible for Social Security and be unable to work now because of a medical condition that is expected to last at least a year or end in death.
  2. Supplemental Security Income. These benefits do not come from Social Security taxes, but rather the program uses general tax dollars to provide benefits to adults and children with disabilities, blindness, or limited income and resources. The SSI program is designed to provide cash assistance for basic needs, such as food, clothing and housing. Because it is funded by general tax revenue, there is no work history requirement to receive these benefits.

Reference: Money Talks News (Feb. 8, 2022) “7 Social Security Benefits You May Be Overlooking”

Can Fluffy Come to the Nursing Home with Me?

Several studies show the benefits of pets, and senior care communities are increasingly adopting pet-friendly policies.

IAdvance Senior Care’s recent post, “How Senior Care Community Design is Changing to Become More Pet-Friendly,” explains that pets can provide many valuable benefits in senior care settings, particularly because of their effects on mental and physical health. One study found that the presence of dogs was linked to less agitation and fewer behavioral issues for Alzheimer’s patients. In fact, according to News in Health, pets have been shown to help decrease the stress-related hormone, cortisol and lower blood pressure in residents who interact with our furry friends. Studies have also proven that pets can boost mood, reduce loneliness and help seniors feel they have social support.

In addition to health benefits, pets can also provide an important consistency for those who may be moving into a senior care setting. Many people see pets as family members, and a pet-friendly community that permits new arrivals to bring pets with them can avoid a painful separation.

More senior care communities are adopting pet-friendly policies, which can require design changes.

According to Natalie Ruiz, AIA, LEED, AP, NCARB, CDT, associate principal at CallisonRTKL, senior care communities that adopt a more pet-friendly approach see multiple benefits. “For residents, having a pet helps combat loneliness, increases social interaction and gives a sense of purpose,” she explains. “For communities, they see their residents thrive with increased mobility resulting from walking a dog or grooming a cat. There’s also a simple uptick in the job and happiness that comes with the residents having a sense of purpose.”

Ruiz says that in addition to designs and renovations that accommodate residents’ pets, some facilities also benefit from pet therapy programs that introduce community pets for residents to enjoy. In these instances, the facility’s residents still have access to animal companionship but don’t have the time or financial commitments of pet ownership. With the benefits of pets, care communities are increasingly requesting new pet-friendly elements. Ruiz said more and more senior care communities are working to include dog parks with dog washes and pet water fountains. Dog runs are also popular requests.

Ruiz says that while facilities can easily create dog-friendly spaces, they should also give some thought to creating a space for cat lovers. She also suggests that a care center trying to become pet-friendly should designate a pet coordinator who can help the residents with pet care.

Reference:  iAdvance Senior Care (Nov. 30, 2021) “How Senior Care Community Design is Changing to Become More Pet-Friendly”

What are Earnings Limits for Disability Retirees?

If you are 60 or older, there’s no restriction on the amount of income you can earn while receiving disability retirement.

However, if you’re under age 60, you can earn income from work while also receiving disability retirement benefits. Note that your disability annuity will cease, if the United States Office of Personnel Management determines that you’re able to earn an income that’s near to what your earnings would be if you’d continued working.

Fed Week’s recent article entitled “The Limits on Earnings for Disability Retirees” says that the retirement law has set an earnings limit of 80% for you to still keep getting your disability retirement. You reach the 80% earnings limit (or are “restored to earning capacity”) if, in any calendar year, your income from wages and self-employment is at least 80% of the current rate of basic pay for the position from which you retired.

All income from wages and self-employment that you actually get plus deferred income that you actually earned in the calendar year is considered “earnings.” Any money received before your retirement isn’t considered “earnings.”

The government says that income from wages includes any salary received while working for someone else (including overtime, vacation pay, etc.). Income from self-employment is any net profit you made from working or managing your own business—whether at home or elsewhere. Net profit is the amount that’s left after deducting business expenses and before the deduction of any personal expenses or exemptions as allowed by the IRS. Deferred income is any income you earned but didn’t receive in the calendar year for which you’re claiming income below the 80% earnings limitation.

If you’re reemployed in federal service, and your salary is reduced by the gross amount of your annuity, the gross amount of your salary before the reduction is considered “earnings” during the calendar year.

The following aren’t considered earnings:

  • Gifts
  • Pensions and annuities
  • Social Security benefits
  • Insurance proceeds
  • Unemployment compensation
  • Rents and royalties not involving or resulting from personal services
  • Interest and dividends not resulting from your own trade or business
  • Money earned prior to retirement
  • Inheritances
  • Capital gains
  • Prizes and awards
  • Fellowships and scholarships; and
  • Net business losses.

If you’re under age 60 and reemployed in a position equivalent to the position you held at retirement, the Office of Personnel Management will find you recovered from your disability and will cut off your annuity payments.

Reference: Fed Week (Nov. 4, 2021) “The Limits on Earnings for Disability Retirees”

How Do I Hire an Elder Law Attorney?

Elder law attorneys are lawyers who assist the elderly and their family members, and caregivers with legal questions and planning related to aging.

These attorneys frequently are called upon to assist with tax planning, disability planning, probate and the administration of an estate, nursing home placement, as well as a host of other legal issues, says Forbes’ recent article entitled “Hiring An Elder Law Attorney.”

In addition, there are some elder law attorneys who have the designation of Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA), a certification issued by the National Elder Law Foundation. A Certified Elder Law Attorney must meet licensing and other requirements, including specific experience in elder law matters and continuing education in elder law. However, note that an elder law attorney does not need to have the CELA certification to be an experienced elder law attorney.

There are many elder law attorneys who specialize in Medicaid planning to help protect a senior’s financial assets, if they suffer from dementia or another debilitating illness that may require long-term care. Elder law attorneys also prepare estate documents, such as a durable power of attorney for health and medical needs and a living will. As you age, the legal issues that you, your spouse, and/or your family caregivers must address can also change.

If you are a senior, then you should have durable powers of attorney for financial and health needs, in the event that you or your spouse becomes incapacitated. You might also need an elder law attorney to help you transfer assets if you or your spouse move into a nursing home to avoid spending your life savings on long-term care.

Healthy people over 65 are in the best spot to do more than having estate planning documents prepared. That’s because they have the opportunity to develop a holistic strategy beyond the legal documents. This can give assurances that the family members and professionals they’ve assembled understand the principle of supported decision-making and how it will be implemented.

For example, an elder law attorney may focus on finding the least restrictive residential environment and making other health care and financial choices. An elder law attorney can also protect seniors with diminished capacity, who are being victimized by personal and financial exploitation.

An initial consultation with an elder law attorney will help determine the types of legal services they can offer, and the fees associated with these services.

Reference: Forbes (Oct. 4, 2021) “Hiring an Elder Law 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 Upgrades Can I Make to ‘Age in Place’?

With our aging population, we need more solutions to help seniors live well. That’s where universal design comes in: it’s a concept that tries to make products and structures usable by everyone, regardless of age, ability, or other factors.

Money Talks News’s  article entitled “8 Essential Home Features for Aging in Place” says that aging in place requires homes that accommodate our needs as we age. The article sets out a list of eight design features buyers focused on accessibility are looking for based on survey data from the National Association of Home Builders’ 2021 “What Home Buyers Really Want” report.

  1. Lower countertops. The kitchen is the center of most homes, and it’s an important part of universal design. Countertops that are three inches lower than the standard height of 36 inches lets seniors and those with limited mobility to fully participate in meal prep. You can round all countertop edges and corners because fewer 90-degree angles may reduce bumping and bruising and minimize injury in the event of a fall.
  2. Lower kitchen cabinets. According to Aging in Place, upper kitchen cabinets that are three inches lower than standard height lessens the tendency to overreach and potentially lose balance. Lower cabinets that feature pull-out shelves, “lazy Susan” corner cabinets and easy-pull handles offer additional convenience for seniors and those who rely on a wheelchair or mobility scooter.
  3. Bathroom aids. For seniors, using the bathroom safely can a challenge. Aging-in-place design recommends these features to make bathrooms more practical and convenient:
  • A walk-in tub or a shower with non-slip seating
  • An adjustable or hand-held showerhead
  • A comfort-height toilet
  • Ground-fault interrupter (GFI) outlets that reduce the risk of shock; and
  • Grab bars near the toilet and shower.
  1. A Stepless entrance. To age in place safely, AgingCare recommends that a home’s main entrance not have steps and should have a threshold height of no more than a half an inch. Here are a couple of ways that an entryway without steps can make life better for seniors:
  • It facilitates smooth entrance/exit by wheelchair, scooters, or walker
  • It decreases the risk of falls, particularly in snowy or icy conditions; and
  • It makes it easier to get deliveries and enter the home carrying groceries.
  1. Non slip floors. According to the CDC, more than 35 million older adults fell at least once in 2018, and 32,000 died from fall-related injuries. To help, non-slip surfaces like low-pile carpet, cork and slip-resistant vinyl can minimize the risk.
  2. Wide hallways. Wide hallways (defined as at least four feet wide) let seniors access every space in their home with a walker, wheelchair, or scooter, or with the assistance of a home health aide.
  3. Wide doorways. A standard doorway can be as narrow as 24 inches, which is a tight fit for seniors who rely on wheelchairs, scooters, or walkers. Seniors like wide doorways, defined as at least three feet wide. According to the ADA, doorways should have at least 32 inches of clear width. To help with an easy transition from room to room, thresholds should be as flush to the floor as possible.
  4. Full bath on main level. Not just convenient, it’s a critical safety feature for seniors. Besides eliminating the need to go up and down stairs several times a day, main floor bathrooms also allow the elderly to (i) respond to incontinence issues more quickly; (ii) practice regular self-care; and (iii) access a private space when required.

Reference: Money Talks News (Aug. 5, 2021) “8 Essential Home Features for Aging in Place”

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?”