How Do Special Needs Trusts Work?

A trust of any kind is a document that expresses your wishes while you are alive and after you have passed. The need for a dedicated trust for loved ones differs with the situations or issues of the family. Getting this wrong can lead to financial devastation, explains the article “Take special care with Special Needs trusts” from the Herald Bulletin.

A Special Needs Trust or supplemental trust provides protection and management for assets for specific beneficiaries. The trustee is in charge of the assets in the trust during the grantor’s life or at his death and distributes to the beneficiary as directed by the trust.

The purpose of a Special Needs or supplemental trust is to help people who receive government benefits because they are physically or mentally challenged or are chronically ill. Most of these benefits are means-tested. The rules about outside income are very strict. An inheritance would disqualify a Special Needs person from receiving these benefits, possibly putting them in dire circumstances.

The value of assets placed in a Special Needs trust does not count against the benefits. However, this area of the law is complex, and requires the help of an experienced elder law estate planning attorney. Mistakes could have lifelong consequences.

The trustee manages assets and disperses funds when needed, or at the direction of the trust. Selecting a trustee is extremely important, since the duties of a Special Needs trust could span decades. The person in charge must be familiar with the government programs and benefits and stay up to date with any changes that might impact the decisions of when to release funds.

These are just a few of the considerations for a trustee:

  • How should disbursements be made, balancing current needs and future longevity?
  • Does the request align with the rules of the trust and the assistance program requirements?
  • Will anyone else benefit from the expenditure, family members or the trustee? The trustee has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the beneficiary, first and foremost.

Parents who leave life insurance, stocks, bonds, or cash to all children equally may be putting their Special Needs child in jeopardy. Well-meaning family members who wish to take care of their relative must be made aware of the risk of leaving assets to a Special Needs individual. These conversations should take place, no matter how awkward.

An experienced elder law estate planning attorney will be able to create a Special Needs trust that will work for the individual and for the family.

Reference: Herald Bulletin (March 13, 2021) “Take special care with Special Needs trusts”

What’s a Living Will?

Living wills can be used to detail the type of healthcare you do or don’t want to receive in end-of-life situations or if you become permanently incapacitated or unconscious. A living will tells your healthcare providers and your family what type of care you prefer in these situations, explains Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “How to Make a Living Will.” These instructions may address topics, such as resuscitation, life support and pain management. If you don’t want to be on life support in a vegetative state, you can state that in your living will.

A living will can be part of an advance healthcare directive that also includes a healthcare power of attorney. This lets your chosen healthcare proxy make medical decisions on your behalf, when you’re unable. A living will typically only applies to situations where you’re close to death or you’re permanently incapacitated; an advance directive can cover temporary incapacitation.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney or elder care lawyer about the technical aspects of how to make a living will. You should consider what to include. Every state is different, so your attorney will help you with the specifics. However,  you’ll generally need to leave instructions on the following:

  • Life-prolonging care, like blood transfusions, resuscitation, or use of a respirator;
  • Intravenous feeding if you are incapacitated and cannot feed yourself; and
  • Palliative care can be used to manage pain, if you decide to stop other treatments.

You will want to be as thorough and specific as possible with your wishes, so there is no confusion or stress for your family when or if the day arrives. You next want to communicate these wishes to your loved ones. You should also give copies of your living will to your doctor. If you’re drafting a living will as part of an advance healthcare directive, be certain that you get a copy to your healthcare proxy.

Review your living well regularly to make sure it’s still accurate because you may change your mind about the type of care you’d like to receive.

Ask your attorney to help you draft a living will along with a healthcare power of attorney, so all of the bases are covered as far as healthcare decision-making. When choosing a healthcare proxy, select a person on whom you can rely, to execute your wishes.

A living will can be an important component of an estate plan and preparing your family for your death.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Feb. 18, 2021) “How to Make a Living Will”

What Should I Do when my Spouse Dies?

Mourning the loss of a spouse can be one of the hardest experiences one can face. The emotional aspects of grief can also be difficult enough without having to concern yourself whether you’re financially unprepared.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Financial planning considerations after the loss of a spouse” says that when a spouse passes away, there can be many impacts to the financial picture. These can include changes in income, estate planning and dealing with IRA and insurance distributions. The first step, however, is understanding and quantifying the financial changes that may happen when your spouse dies.

Income Changes – Social Security. A drop in income is frequently an unforeseen reality for many surviving spouses, especially those who are on Social Security benefits. For retirees without dependents that have reached full retirement age, the surviving spouse will typically get the greater of their social security or their deceased spouse’s benefits – but not both. For example, let’s assume Dirk and Melinda are receiving $2,000 and $1,500 per month in Social Security benefits, respectively. In the event Dirk dies, Melinda will no longer receive her benefit and will only receive Dirk’s $2,000 benefit. That is a 42% reduction in total social security income received.

Social Security benefits typically start at 62, but a widow’s benefit can be available at age 60 for the survivor or at 50 if the survivor is disabled within seven years of the spouse’s death. Moreover, unmarried children under 18 (up to age 19 if attending elementary or secondary school full time) of a worker who passes away may also be eligible to get Social Security survivor benefits.

Income Changes – Pension Benefits. This is another type of income that may be decreased because of a spouse’s death. Those eligible to receive a pension often choose little or no survivorship benefits, which results in a sudden drop in income. Therefore, a single life annuity pension payment will end at the worker’s death leaving the survivor with no additional benefits. However, a 50% survivor option will pay 50% of the worker’s benefit to the surviving spouse at their death. A surviving spouse needs to understand what, if any pension benefits will continue and the financial effect of these changes.

Spousal IRA Benefits. Spouses must understand their options for inherited retirement accounts. A spousal beneficiary can roll the funds to their own IRA account, which lets the spousal beneficiary delay Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) until age 72. In this case, the spousal beneficiary’s life expectancy is used to calculate future RMDs. This may be appropriate for those over 59½, but spousal beneficiaries under that age that require retirement account distributions may subject themselves to early withdrawal penalties, including a tax and a 10% early withdrawal penalty, even on inherited funds. Spouses younger than 59½ may consider rolling the account to a beneficial or inherited IRA for more flexibility. In this case, RMDs will be taken annually based upon the life expectancy of the beneficiary, with distributions avoiding the 10% penalty. Distributions greater than the RMD may also be taken, while still avoiding early withdrawal penalties. Inherited IRAs can be a great tool for spousal beneficiaries who need income now to help support their lifestyle but have not reached 59½.

Updating the Estate Plan of the Surviving Spouse. It is easy to forget to review your estate plan drafted before your spouse passed away. Check on this with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Updating Financial Planning Projections. You don’t want to make any major decisions after the loss of a loved one, you can still review the numbers. Create a new financial plan to help provide clarity.

Reference: nj.com (Jan. 9, 2021) “Financial planning considerations after the loss of a spouse”

Get Estate Plan in Order, If Spouse Is Dying from a Terminal Illness

Thousands of people are still dying from COVID-19 complications every day, and others are dealing with life-threatening illnesses like cancer, heart attack and stroke. If your spouse is ill, the pain is intensified by the anticipated loss of your life partner.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Your Spouse Is Dying: 5 Ways To Get Your Estate In Order Now,” says that it’s frequently the attending physician who suggests that your spouse get his affairs in order.

Your spouse’s current prognosis and whether he or she’s at home or in a hospital will determine whether updates can be made to your estate plan. If it has been some time since the two of you last updated your estate plan, you should review the planning with your elder law attorney or estate planning attorney to be certain that you understand it and to see if there are any changes that can and should be made. There are five issues on which to focus your attention:

A Fiduciary Review. See who’s named in your estate planning documents to serve as executor and trustee of your spouse’s estate. They will have important roles after your spouse dies. Be sure you are comfortable with the selected fiduciaries, and they’re still a good fit. If your spouse has been sick, you’ve likely reviewed his or her health care proxy and power of attorney. If not, see who’s named in those documents as well.

An Asset Analysis. Determine the effect on your assets when your partner dies. Get an updated list of all your assets and see if there are assets that are held jointly which will automatically pass to you on your spouse’s death or if there are assets in your spouse’s name alone with no transfer on death beneficiary provided. See if any assets have been transferred to a trust. These answers will determine how easily you can access the assets after your spouse’s passing.

A Trust Assessment. Any assets that are currently in a trust or will pass into a trust at death will be controlled by the trust document. See who the beneficiaries are, how distributions are made and who will control the assets.

Probate Prep. If there’s property solely in your spouse’s name with no transfer on death beneficiary, those assets will pass according to his or her will. Review the will to make sure you understand it and whether probate will be needed to settle the estate.

Beneficiary Designation Check. Make certain that beneficiaries of your retirement accounts and life insurance policies are current.

If changes need to be made, an experienced elder law or estate planning attorney can counsel you on how to best do this.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 26, 2021) “Your Spouse Is Dying: 5 Ways To Get Your Estate In Order Now”

When Does a Power of Attorney Fail to Do Its Job?

A power of attorney is an essential component of a comprehensive estate plan. However, there are at least two important situations when the power of attorney (POA) will not be recognized and followed.

The IRS and Social Security Administration don’t recognize traditional POAs, explains Forbes’ recent article entitled “Two Times When Your Power Of Attorney Isn’t Going To Work.”

The IRS requires the use of its Form 2848, “Power of Attorney and Declaration of Representative” before it will let anyone act on your behalf. This form is required when an agent, even a relative, tries to handle your tax matters, when you are not able to so.

One of the requirements of Form 2848 is that it requires you to state the tax matters and years for which the agent is authorized to act. Form 2848 also requires you to list the type of tax, the IRS form number and the year or periods involved. That is different from a traditional POA to handle financial matters, which frequently has a blanket statement allowing the agent to take a broad range of actions on your behalf in certain matters.

For a married couple that files joint tax returns, each spouse must also separately complete and sign a form. They cannot simply execute a joint form.

Technically, the IRS could accept other POAs, as indicated by the instructions to Form 2848. However, as you can see a POA must meet all the IRS’ requirements to be accepted.

The Social Security Administration is much the same. When you need someone to manage your Social Security benefits, you contact the Social Security Administration and make an advance designation of a representative payee.

This lets you name one or more people to manage your Social Security benefits. The Social Security Administration then is required to work with the named individual or individuals, in most cases.

A person who already is receiving Social Security benefits may name an advance designee at any time. A first-time claimer can also name the designee during the claiming process.

This designee can be changed at any time.

If you do not name any representatives, the Social Security Administration will designate a representative payee on your behalf, if it determines that you need help managing your money. Relatives or friends can apply to be representative payees, or the Social Security Administration can select someone.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 28, 2021) “Two Times When Your Power of Attorney Isn’t Going to Work”

Every Adult Needs a Will and a Health Care Power of Attorney
An concept Image of a power of attorney

Every Adult Needs a Will and a Health Care Power of Attorney

A serious illness can happen at any age, but just 18% of those 55 and older have a living will, power of attorney for health care and a last will and testament, according to a 2019 study by Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.

AZ Central’s recent article entitled “What to know about wills and health care power of attorney in Arizona” says that every adult should have these documents, including young professionals, single people and those without children.

These documents make it easier for an individual and their family during a stressful time. They make your wishes clear.

They also help give directions to family members and allow you to name a person you believe is the most responsible and able to fulfill your wishes.

Note that a power of attorney, living will and last will each has its own purpose.

A power of attorney for health care lets your named agent make medical decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated, while you are still alive. Without a health care power of attorney or living will, it can complicate and delay matters.

A living will or “advance directive” is used when a person needs end-of-life care. This document can provide instructions on how the person wants to be treated, like not wanting a feeding tube or wanting as much medical help as possible.

In contrast, a last will and testament states what happens to a person’s estate or assets after they pass away. A last will can also designate a guardian for minor children.

A last will can state who will be in charge of the person’s estate, known as an executor or a personal representative.

You should name a primary representative and an alternate to serve and provide copies of the documents to the people chosen for these roles.

Reference: AZ Central (Jan. 14, 2021) “What to know about wills and health care power of attorney in Arizona”

What to Do First when Spouse Dies

Forbes’ recent article entitled ‘Checklist for Handling the Death of a Spouse” tells us what to do when your spouse passes away:

Get Organized. Create a list of what you need to do. That way, you can tick off the things you have done and see what still needs to be done. Spending the time to get organized is critical.

Do an Inventory. Review your spouse’s will and estate plan, and then collect the documents you will need. Use a tax return to locate various types of financial assets.

Identify the Executor. The executor is the individual tasked with carrying out the terms of deceased’s will.

Get a Death Certificate. Request multiple copies of the death certificate, maybe at least a dozen because every entity will need that document.

Contact Your Professional Advisors. You will need to tell some professionals that your spouse has passed away. This may be your CPA, your estate planning attorney, financial advisors and perhaps bankers. These contacts will probably know nearly everything that is required to be done. You will also need to contact the Social Security Administration and report the death.

Take a Step Back. Take a breath. You should take the time to process your emotions and grieve with the other members of your family. Check on everyone and make sure the loved ones remaining are doing all right.

Avoid Making Any Major Decisions. Do not make any major financial decisions for a year. This includes things such as selling a house or making a lump sum investment. After the death of a spouse, you are emotional and looking for advice. It is easy to be pressured into making a decision that might not be in your best interests. Allow yourself permission to be emotional and not make any decision because you recognize you are grieving.

Make Certain Your Spouse’s Wishes Are Carried Out. The best way to honor your spouse is to make sure their requests and wishes are carried out. You are the only individual who can do that. Your spouse expects you to take care of their last wishes the way they had intended.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 28, 2020) ‘Checklist for Handling the Death of a Spouse”

How to Plan for Spouse’s Medicaid

Medicaid eligibility is based on income. This means that there are restrictions on the resources—both income and assets—that you can have when you apply.

The Times Herald’s recent article entitled “Medicaid planning for a spouse” says that one of the toughest requirements for Medicaid to grasp is the financial eligibility. These rules for the cost of long-term care are tricky, especially when the Medicaid applicant is married.

To be eligible for Medicaid for long-term care, an applicant generally cannot have more than $2,400 in countable assets in their name, if their gross monthly income is $2,382 (which is the 2021 income limit) or more. An applicant may have no more than $8,000 in countable assets, if their gross monthly income is less than $2,382 (2021 income limit).

However, federal law says that certain protections are designed to prevent a spouse from becoming impoverished when their spouse goes into a nursing home and applies for Medicaid. In 2021, the spouse of a Medicaid recipient living in a nursing home—known as “the community spouse”—can keep up to $126,420 (which is the maximum Community Spouse Resource Allowance “CSRA”) and a minimum of $26,076 (the minimum CSRA) without placing the Medicaid eligibility of the spouse who is receiving long-term care in jeopardy.

The calculation to determine the amount of the CSRA, the countable assets of both the community spouse and the spouse in the nursing home are totaled on the date of the nursing home admission. That is known as the “snapshot” date. The community spouse is entitled to retain 50% of the couple’s total countable assets up to a max. The rest must be “spent-down” to qualify for the program.

In addition to the CSRA, there are also federal rules concerning income for the spouse. In many states, the community spouse can keep all of his or her own income no matter how much it is. If the community spouse’s income is less than the amount set by the state as the minimum needed to live on (“the Minimum Monthly Maintenance Needs Allowance” or “MMMNA”), then some of the applicant spouse’s income can also be allocated to the community spouse to make up the difference (called “the Spousal Allowance”). These rules are pretty complex, so speak with an experienced elder law attorney.

Reference: The Times Herald (Jan. 8, 2021) “Medicaid planning for a spouse”

What Changes Have Been Made to Protect Senior Investors?

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority or “FINRA,” is a private corporation that acts as a self-regulatory organization of investment brokers and investment firms.

Its rules and guidance are designed to protect investors and to “ensure the integrity of today’s rapidly evolving market.”

The new FINRA Sanction Guidelines now expressly contemplate “whether the customer is age 65 or older” and “whether the respondent exercised undue influence over the customer and whether the customer had a mental or physical impairment that renders the person unable to protect his or her own interests”.

The National Law Review’s recent article entitled “National Adjudicatory Council Revises FINRA Sanction Guidelines” reports that FINRA Regulatory Notice 20-37 states the revised Sanction Guidelines that became effective Oct. 20, 2020.

In the revised Sanction Guidelines, FINRA and the NAC now directly discuss the issue of potential senior investor abuse. They also have revised the Sanction Guidelines to be consistent with FINRA Rule 2165 – Financial Exploitation of Specified Adults.

Further, FINRA asserts that “as with other considerations in the Sanction Guidelines, adjudicators should take a principles-based approach to assessing if the rule violations have more impact on elderly or impaired customers, including the customer’s ability to recover from sustaining financial losses.”

Moreover, FINRA states that these revisions to the Sanction Guidelines should be considered by adjudicators as only “aggravating factors” when considering an appropriate sanction for a FINRA violation.

The FINRA Sanction Guidelines don’t state specific sanctions for a particular violation. They now provide adjudicators with an additional “aggravating factor” to contemplate in determining the appropriate sanction.

The watchdog said that it was feedback from its Securities Helpline for Seniors that showed a pattern of concerns among senior citizens about brokers exploiting their financial accounts that caused them to take action “by putting in place the first uniform, national standards to protect senior investors.”

Reference: The National Law Review (Nov. 2, 2020) “National Adjudicatory Council Revises FINRA Sanction Guidelines”

Is Transferring House to Children a Good Idea?

Transferring your house to your children while you’re alive may avoid probate. However, gifting a home also can mean a rather large and unnecessary tax bill. It also may place your house at risk, if your children get sued or file for bankruptcy.

You also could be making a mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being consumed by nursing home bills.

There are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since died, says Considerable’s recent article entitled “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

If a parent signs a quitclaim to give her son the house and then dies, it can potentially mean a tax bill of thousands of dollars for the son.

Families who see this error in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

People will also transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, but any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for Medicaid can result in a penalty period when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.

In addition, transferring your home to another person can expose you to their financial problems because their creditors could file liens on your home and, depending on state law, take some or most of its value. If the child divorces, the house could become an asset that must be divided as part of the marital estate.

Section 2036 of the Internal Revenue Code says that if the parent were to retain a “life interest” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift. However, there are rules for what constitutes a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills.

There are other ways to avoid probate. Many states and DC permit “transfer on death” deeds that let homeowners transfer their homes at death without probate.

Another option is a living trust, which can ensure that all assets avoid probate.

Many states also have simplified probate procedures for smaller estates.

Reference: Considerable (Sep. 18) “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”