You finally did it! You met with an elder law attorney to “put your affairs in order”. Like most people, however, you have done nothing with your estate plan since meeting with your attorney other than to file your documents with the rest of your personal papers. As I tell any clients, your estate plan is an ongoing process, especially immediately following the execution of your estate planning documents. This article contains some of the more common oversights made after the drafting process is complete.
I’m leaving for vacation. Can I write my last wishes on paper in case something happens?
This is referred to as a holographic will. In the context of estate planning, holographic means something that is handwritten. Under New York law, a will is holographic when it is written entirely in the handwriting of the testator and is not executed and attested in accordance with the formalities prescribed by New York law.
The formalities of a will execution are somewhat strict. First, a will must be in writing. Second, the will must be signed at the end by the testator and by at least two witnesses. Finally, the testator must declare to the witnesses that the instrument they are signing is, in fact, the testator’s will.
Parents want their children to be taken care of after they die. But children with disabilities have increased financial and care needs, so ensuring their long-term welfare can be tricky. Proper planning by parents is necessary to benefit the child with a disability, including an adult child, as well as assist any siblings who may be left with the caretaking responsibility.
Special Needs Trusts
The best and most comprehensive option to protect a loved one is to set up a special needs trust (also called a supplemental needs trust). These trusts allow beneficiaries to receive inheritances, gifts, lawsuit settlements, or other funds and yet not lose their eligibility for certain government programs, such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The trusts are drafted so that the funds will not be considered to belong to the beneficiaries in determining their eligibility for public benefits.
There are three main types of special needs trusts:
- A first-party trust is designed to hold a beneficiary's own assets. While the beneficiary is living, the funds in the trust are used for the beneficiary's benefit, and when the beneficiary dies, any assets remaining in the trust are used to reimburse the government for the cost of medical care. These trusts are especially useful for beneficiaries who are receiving Medicaid, SSI or other needs-based benefits and come into large amounts of money, because the trust allows the beneficiaries to retain their benefits while still being able to use their own funds when necessary.
- The third-party special needs trust is most often used by parents and other family members to assist a person with special needs. These trusts can hold any kind of asset imaginable belonging to the family member or other individual, including a house, stocks and bonds, and other types of investments. The third-party trust functions like a first-party special needs trust in that the assets held in the trust do not affect a beneficiary's access to benefits and the funds can be used to pay for the beneficiary's supplemental needs beyond those covered by government benefits. But a third-party special needs trust does not contain the “payback” provision found in first-party trusts. This means that when the beneficiary with special needs dies, any funds remaining in the trust can pass to other family members, or to charity, without having to be used to reimburse the government.
- A pooled trust is an alternative to the first-party special needs trust. Essentially, a charity sets up these trusts that allow beneficiaries to pool their resources with those of other trust beneficiaries for investment purposes, while still maintaining separate accounts for each beneficiary's needs. When the beneficiary dies, the funds remaining in the account reimburse the government for care, but a portion also goes towards the non-profit organization responsible for managing the trust.
Not everyone has a large chunk of money that can be left to a special needs trust, so life insurance can be an essential tool. If you've established a special needs trust, a life insurance policy can pay directly into it, and it does not have to go through probate or be subject to estate tax. Be sure to review the beneficiary designation to make sure it names the trust, not the child. You should make sure you have enough insurance to pay for your child's care long after you are gone. Without proper funding, the burden of care may fall on siblings or other family members. Using a life insurance policy will also guarantee future funding for the trust while keeping the parents' estate intact for other family members. When looking for life insurance, consider a second-to-die policy. This type of policy only pays out after the second parent dies, and it has the benefit of lower premiums than regular life insurance policies.
An Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) account allows people with disabilities who became disabled before they turned 26 to set aside up to $15,000 a year in tax-free savings accounts without affecting their eligibility for government benefits. This money can come from the individual with the disability or anyone else who may wish to give him money.
Created by Congress in 2014 and modeled on 529 savings plans for higher education, these accounts can be used to pay for qualifying expenses of the account beneficiary, such as the costs of treating the disability or for education, housing and health care, among other things. ABLE account programs have been rolling out on a state-by-state basis, but even if your state does not yet have its own program, many state programs allow out-of-state beneficiaries to open accounts. (For a directory of state programs, click here.)
Although it may be easy to set up an ABLE account, there are many hidden pitfalls associated with spending the funds in the accounts, both for the beneficiary and for her family members. In addition, ABLE accounts cannot hold more than $100,000 without jeopardizing government benefits like Medicaid and SSI. If there are funds remaining in an ABLE account upon the death of the account beneficiary, they must be first used to reimburse the government for Medicaid benefits received by the beneficiary, and then the remaining funds will have to pass through probate in order to be transferred to the beneficiary's heirs.
Get Help With Your Plan
However you decide to provide for a child with special needs, proper planning is essential. Talk to your attorney to determine the best plan for your family.
Hospital patients who need additional care after being discharged from the hospital are usually sent to either an inpatient rehabilitation facility (IRF) or a skilled nursing facility (SNF). Although these facilities may look similar from the outside, Medicare offers very different coverage for each. While you may not have complete say in where you go after a hospital stay, understanding the difference between the two facilities can help you advocate for what you need and know what to expect with regard to Medicare coverage.
An IRF can be either part of a hospital or a stand-alone facility that offers intensive physical and occupational therapy under the supervision of a doctor and nurses. IRFs offer a minimum of three hours a day of rehabilitation therapy. An SNF, on the other hand, provides full-time nursing care. Patients also receive physical and occupational therapy, but the care is generally less intensive and specialized than in an IRF.
IRFs and Medicare
Medicare Part A covers a stay in an IRF in the same way it covers hospital stays. Medicare pays for 90 days of hospital care per “spell of illness,” plus an additional lifetime reserve of 60 days. A single “spell of illness” begins when the patient is admitted to a hospital or other covered facility, and ends when the patient has gone 60 days without being readmitted to a hospital or other facility. There is no limit on the number of spells of illness. However, the patient must satisfy a deductible before Medicare begins paying for treatment. This deductible, which changes annually, is $1,364 in 2019.
After the deductible is satisfied, Medicare will pay for virtually all hospital charges during the first 60 days of a recipient's hospital stay. If the hospital stay extends beyond 60 days, the Medicare beneficiary begins shouldering more of the cost of his or her care. From day 61 through day 90, the patient pays a coinsurance of $341 a day in 2019. Beyond the 90th day, the patient begins to tap into his or her 60-day lifetime reserve. During hospital stays covered by these reserve days, beneficiaries must pay a coinsurance of $682 per day in 2019.
To qualify for care in an IRF, you must need 24-hour access to a doctor and a nurse with experience in rehabilitation. You must also be able to handle three hours of therapy a day (although there can be exceptions).
SNFs and Medicare
Medicare's coverage of skilled nursing care is more limited. Medicare Part A covers up to 100 days of “skilled nursing” care per spell of illness. Beginning on day 21 of the nursing home stay, there is a copayment equal to one-eighth of the initial hospital deductible ($170.50 a day in 2019). However, the conditions for obtaining Medicare coverage of a nursing home stay are quite stringent. Here are the main requirements:
- The Medicare recipient must enter the nursing home no more than 30 days after a hospital stay (meaning admission as an inpatient; “observation status” does not count) that itself lasted for at least three days (not counting the day of discharge).
- The care provided in the nursing home must be for the same condition that caused the hospitalization (or a condition medically related to it).
- The patient must receive a “skilled” level of care in the nursing facility that cannot be provided at home or on an outpatient basis. In order to be considered “skilled,” nursing care must be ordered by a physician and delivered by, or under the supervision of, a professional such as a physical therapist, registered nurse or licensed practical nurse. Moreover, such care must be delivered on a daily basis. (Few nursing home residents receive this level of care.)
A new spell of illness can begin if the patient has not received skilled care, either in an SNF or in a hospital, for a period of 60 consecutive days. The patient can remain in the SNF and still qualify as long as he or she does not receive a skilled level of care during that 60 days.
Keep in mind that some or all of Medicare’s deductibles and co-payments for both IRF and SNF care may be covered by Medicare supplemental insurance, also called Medigap coverage.
After a Medicaid recipient dies, the state must attempt to recoup from his or her estate whatever benefits it paid for the recipient's care. This is called “estate recovery.” For most Medicaid recipients, their house is the only asset available, but there are steps you can take to protect your home.
For many people, setting up a “life estate” is the simplest and most appropriate alternative for protecting the home from estate recovery. A life estate is a form of joint ownership of property between two or more people. They each have an ownership interest in the property, but for different periods of time. The person holding the life estate possesses the property currently and for the rest of his or her life. The other owner has a current ownership interest but cannot take possession until the end of the life estate, which occurs at the death of the life estate holder.
Example: Jane gives a remainder interest in her house to her children, Robert and Mary, while retaining a life interest for herself. She carries this out through a simple deed. Thereafter, Jane, the life estate holder, has the right to live in the property or rent it out, collecting the rents for herself. On the other hand, she is responsible for the costs of maintenance and taxes on the property. In addition, the property cannot be sold to a third party without the cooperation of Robert and Mary, the remainder interest holders.
When Jane dies, the house will not go through probate, since at her death the ownership will pass automatically to the holders of the remainder interest, Robert and Mary. Although the property will not be included in Jane's probate estate, it will be included in her taxable estate. The downside of this is that depending on the size of the estate and the state's estate tax threshold, the property may be subject to estate taxation. The upside is that this can mean a significant reduction in the tax on capital gains when Robert and Mary sell the property because they will receive a “step up” in the property's basis.
As with a transfer to a trust, if you transfer the deed to your home to your children and retain a life estate, this can trigger a Medicaid ineligibility period of up to five years. Purchasing a life estate in another home can also cause a transfer penalty, but the transfer penalty can be avoided if the individual purchasing the life estate resides in the home for at least one year after the purchase and pays a fair amount for the life estate.
Life estates are created simply by executing a deed conveying the remainder interest to another while retaining a life interest. In many states, once the house passes to the remainder beneficiaries, the state cannot recover against it for any Medicaid expenses that the ife estate holder may have incurred.
Another method of protecting the home from estate recovery is to transfer it to an irrevocable trust. Trusts provide more flexibility than life estates but are somewhat more complicated. Once the house is in the irrevocable trust, it cannot be taken out again. Although it can be sold, the proceeds must remain in the trust. This can protect more of the value of the house if it is sold. Further, if properly drafted, the later sale of the home while in this trust might allow the settlor, if he or she had met the residency requirements, to exclude up to $250,000 in taxable gain, an exclusion that would not be available if the owner had transferred the home outside of trust to a non-resident child or other third party before sale.
Contact your attorney to find out what method will work best for you.