When Should I Consult with an Elder Law Attorney?

Elder law attorneys assist seniors or their family caregivers with legal issues and planning that related to the aging process. These attorneys frequently help with tax planning, disability planning, probate and administration of an estate, nursing home placement and many other legal issues.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Hiring an Elder Law Attorney,” explains that elder law attorneys are specialists who work with seniors or caregivers of aging family members on legal matters that older adults face as they age. Many specialize in Medicaid planning to help protect a person’s financial assets, when they have Alzheimer’s disease or another debilitating illness that may require long-term care. They can also usually draft estate documents, including a durable power of attorney for health and medical needs, and even a trust for an adult child with special needs.

As you get older, there are legal issues you, your spouse or your family caregivers face. These issues can also change. For instance, you should have powers of attorney for financial and health needs, in case you or your spouse become incapacitated. You might also need an elder law attorney to help transfer assets, if you or your spouse move into a nursing home to avoid spending your life savings on long-term care.

Elder law attorneys can help with a long list of legal matters seniors frequently face, including the following:

  • Preservation and transfer of assets
  • Accessing health care in a nursing home or other managed care environment and long-term care placements
  • Estate and disability planning
  • Medicare, Social Security and disability claims and appeals
  • Supplemental insurance and long-term health insurance claims and appeals
  • Elder abuse and fraud recovery
  • Conservatorships and guardianships
  • Housing discrimination and home equity conversions
  • Health and mental health law.

Reference: Forbes (Oct. 4, 2021) “Hiring an Elder Law Attorney”

Do You Need a Revocable or Irrevocable Trust?

However, below the surface of estate planning and the world of trusts, things get complicated. Revocable trusts become irrevocable trusts, when the grantor becomes incapacitated or dies. It is just one of the many twists and turns in trusts, as reported in the article “What’s the difference between a revocable and irrevocable trust” from Market Watch.

For starters, the person who creates the trust is known as the “grantor.” The grantor can change the trust while living, or while the grantor has legal capacity. If the grantor becomes incapacitated, the grantor can’t change the trust. An agent or Power of Attorney for the grantor can make changes, if specifically authorized in the trust, as could a court-appointed conservator.

Despite the name, irrevocable trusts can be changed—more so now than ever before. Irrevocable trusts created for asset protection, tax planning or Medicaid planning purposes are treated differently than those becoming irrevocable upon the death of the grantor.

When an irrevocable trust is created, the grantor may still retain certain powers, including the right to change trustees and the right to re-direct who will receive the trust property, when the grantor dies or when the trust terminates (these don’t always occur at the same time). A “testamentary power of appointment” refers to the retained power to appoint or distribute assets to anyone, or within limitations.

When the trust becomes irrevocable, the grantor can give the right to change trustees or to change ultimate beneficiaries to other people, including the beneficiaries. A trust could say that a majority of the grantor’s children may hire and fire trustees, and each child has the right to say where his or her share will go, in the event he or she dies before receiving their share.

Asset protection and special needs trusts also appoint people in the role of trust protectors. They are empowered to change trustees and, in some cases, to amend the trust completely. The trust is irrevocable for the grantor, but not the trust protector. Another trust might have language to limit this power, typically if it is a special needs trust. This allows a trust protector to make necessary changes, if rules regarding government benefits change regarding trusts.

Irrevocable trusts have become less irrevocable over the years, as more states have passed laws concerning “decanting” trusts, reformation and non-judicial settlement of trusts. Decanting a trust refers to “pouring” assets from one trust into another trust—allowing assets to be transferred to other trusts. Depending on the state’s laws, there needs to be a reason for the trust to be decanted and all beneficiaries must agree to the change.

Trust reformation requires court approval and must show that the reformation is needed if the trust is to achieve its original purpose. Notice must be given to all current and future beneficiaries, but they don’t need to agree on the change.

The Uniform Trust Code permits trust reformation without court involvement, known as non-judicial settlement agreements, where all parties are in agreement. The law has been adopted in 34 states and the District of Columbia. Any change that doesn’t violate a material purpose of the trust is permitted, as long as all parties are in agreement.

Reference: Market Watch (Oct. 8, 2021) “What’s the difference between a revocable and irrevocable trust”

What Kind of Trust Is Right for You?

Everyone wins when estate planning attorneys, financial advisors and accounting professionals work together on a comprehensive estate plan. Each of these professionals can provide their insights when helping you make decisions in their area. Guiding you to the best possible options tends to happen when everyone is on the same page, says a recent article “Choosing Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts” from U.S. News & World Report.

What is a trust and what do trusts accomplish? Trusts are not just for the wealthy. Many families use trusts to serve different goals, from controlling distributions of assets over generations to protecting family wealth from estate and inheritance taxes.

There are two basic kinds of trust. There are also many specialized trusts in each of the two categories: the revocable trust and the irrevocable trust. The first can be revoked or changed by the trust’s creator, known as the “grantor.” The second is difficult and in some instances and impossible to change, without the complete consent of the trust’s beneficiaries.

There are pros and cons for each type of trust.

Let’s start with the revocable trust, which is also referred to as a living trust. The grantor can make changes to the trust at any time, from removing assets or beneficiaries to shutting down the trust entirely. When the grantor dies, the trust becomes irrevocable. Revocable trusts are often used to pass assets to adult children, with a trustee named to manage the trust’s assets until the trust documents direct the trustee to distribute assets. Some people use a revocable trust to prevent their children from accessing wealth too early in their lives, or to protect assets from spendthrift children with creditor problems.

Irrevocable trusts are just as they sound: they can’t be amended once established. The terms of the trust cannot be changed, and the grantor gives up any control or legal right to the assets, which are owned by the trust.

Giving up control comes with the benefit that assets placed in the trust are no longer part of the grantor’s estate and are not subject to estate taxes. Creditors, including nursing homes and Medicaid, are also prevented from accessing assets in an irrevocable trust.

Irrevocable trusts were once used by people in high-risk professions to protect their assets from lawsuits. Irrevocable trusts are used to divest assets from estates, so people can become eligible for Medicaid or veteran benefits.

The revocable trust protects the grantor’s wishes, if the grantor becomes incapacitated. It also avoids probate, since the trust becomes irrevocable upon death and assets are outside of the probated estate. The revocable trust may include qualified assets, like IRAs, 401(k)s and 403(b)s.

However, there are drawbacks. The revocable trust does not provide tax benefits or creditor protection while the grantor is living.

Your estate planning attorney will know which type of trust is best for your situation, and working with your financial advisor and accountant, will be able to create the plan that minimizes taxes and maximizes wealth transfers for your heirs.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Aug. 26, 2021) “Choosing Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts”

How Do You Divide Inheritance among Children?

A father who owns a home and has a healthy $300,000 IRA has two adult children. The youngest, who is disabled, takes care of his father and needs money to live on. The second son is successful and has five children. The younger son has no pension plan and no IRA. The father wants help deciding how to distribute 300 shares of Microsoft, worth about $72,000. The question from a recent article in nj.com is “What’s the best way to split my estate for my kids?” The answer is more complicated than simply how to transfer the stock.

Before the father makes any kind of gift or bequest to his son, he needs to consider whether the son will be eligible for governmental assistance based on his disability and assets. If so, or if the son is already receiving government benefits, any kind of gift or inheritance could make him ineligible. A Third-Party Special Needs Trust may be the best way to maintain the son’s eligibility, while allowing assets to be given to him.

Inherited assets and gifts—but not an IRA or annuities—receive a step-up in basis. The gain on the stock from the time it was purchased and the value at the time of the father’s death will not be taxed. If, however, the stock is gifted to a grandchild, the grandchild will take the grandfather’s basis and upon the sale of the stock, they’ll have to pay the tax on the difference between the sales price and the original price.

You should also consider the impact on Medicaid. If funds are gifted to the son, Medicaid will have a gift-year lookback period and the gifting could make the father ineligible for Medicaid coverage for five years.

An IRA must be initially funded with cash. Once funded, stocks held in one IRA may be transferred to another IRA owned by the same person, and upon death they can go to an inherited IRA for a beneficiary. However, in this case, if the son doesn’t have any earned income and doesn’t have an IRA, the stock can’t be moved into an IRA.

Gifting may be an option. A person may give up to $15,000 per year, per person, without having to file a gift tax return with the IRS. Larger amounts may also be given but a gift tax return must be filed. Each taxpayer has a $11.7 million total over the course of their lifetime to gift with no tax or to leave at death. (Either way, it is a total of $11.7 million, whether given with warm hands or left at death.) When you reach that point, which most don’t, then you’ll need to pay gift taxes.

Medical expenses and educational expenses may be paid for another person, as long as they are paid directly to the educational institution or health care provider. This is not considered a taxable gift.

This person would benefit from sitting down with an estate planning attorney and exploring how to best prepare for his youngest son’s future after the father passes, rather than worrying about the Microsoft stock. There are bigger issues to deal with here.

Reference: nj.com (June 24, 2021) “What’s the best way to split my estate for my kids?”

Should I Create a Trust?

Most people know that a will instructs your executor regarding where to transfer your assets when you die. You may also want to consider a trust.

Nbcnew25.com’s recent article entitled “Elder law and estate planning: What you need to know” explains that a trust can give you peace of mind that your wishes will be carried out when you pass away. Your property won’t need to go through the probate process, if it’s in a trust. Your family can focus on the grieving process without having any problems with wrapping up your estate.

In addition, financial and health care powers of attorney should also be part of your estate plan. Ask an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney to help you draft these documents to save your loved ones the worry, if you must be moved into a nursing home and are unable to make decisions for yourself.

Having the correct documents in place before you or a loved one goes into a nursing home is extremely important. With a financial power of attorney, an elder law attorney could design a Medicaid plan for someone entering a nursing home to help protect their assets.

If the correct documents aren’t in place when a loved one enters a nursing home, it could create issues—one of which is the inability to protect their assets. In that case, you may also be required to appear in front of a judge to get permission for an elder law attorney to assist in protecting assets. That request could even be denied by the judge.

For a married couple, 100% of cash assets, plus the home, can be protected, and Medicaid would cover most of the nursing home cost. This is big because the cost of nursing homes can exceed be tens of thousands of dollars every month.

For married couples, in many instances, the income of the spouse who is entering the nursing home may be able to be transferred to the spouse who still lives at home. That’s important because the spouse at home may depend on the other spouse’s income to help make ends meet.

For singles, at least 60% to 70% of cash assets, plus the home, can be protected, so that Medicaid would cover most of the nursing home cost.

Moving a loved one into a nursing home can be stressful enough, without having to worry about the cost. Help yourself and your family, by preparing the proper documents ahead of time to eliminate some of the stress.

Working with an elder law attorney who specializes in Medicaid planning is a wise move. Don’t wait until it is too late.

Have things in order, so you or a loved one can avoid any unnecessary stress and keep the assets that you’ve acquired during your lifetime.

Reference: nbcnew25.com (April 30, 2021) “Elder law and estate planning: What you need to know”

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”

Is an Irrevocable Trust a Good Idea?
Writing note shows the text irrevocable life insurance trust ILIT

Is an Irrevocable Trust a Good Idea?

An irrevocable trust is mainly used for tax planning, says a recent article from Think Advisor titled “10 Facts to Know About Irrevocable Trusts.” Its key purpose is to take assets out of an estate, reducing the chances of having to pay estate taxes. For estate planning purposes, placing assets inside the irrevocable trust is the same as giving it to an heir. If the estate exceeds the current limit of $11.7 million, then an irrevocable trust would be a smart move. Remember the $11.7 million includes life insurance policy proceeds. Many states with estate taxes also have far lower exemptions than the federal estate tax, so high income families still have to be concerned with paying estate taxes.

However, let’s not forget that beneficiaries must pay taxes on the income they receive from an irrevocable trust, usually at ordinary income tax rates. On the plus side, trusts are not subject to gift tax, so the trust can pay out more than the current gift tax limit of $15,000 every year.

If the trust itself generates income that remains inside the trust, then the trust will have to pay income taxes on the income.

Asset protection is another benefit from an irrevocable trust. If you are sued, any assets in the irrevocable trust are beyond the reach of a legal judgment, a worthwhile strategy for people who have a greater likelihood of being sued because of their profession. However, the irrevocable trust must be created long before lawsuits are filed.

A physician who transfers a million-dollar home into the trust on the eve of a malpractice lawsuit, for instance, may be challenged with having made a fraudulent transfer to the trust.

There is a cost to an irrevocable trust’s protection. You have to give up control of the assets and have no control over the trust. Legally you could be a trustee, but that means you have control over the trust, which means you will lose all tax benefits and asset protections.

Most people name a trusted family member or business associate to serve as the trustee. Consider naming a successor trustee, in case the original trustee is unable to fulfill their duties.

If you don’t want to give someone else control of your assets, you may wish to use a revocable trust and give up some of the protections of an irrevocable trust.

Despite the name, changes can be made to an irrevocable trust by the trustee. Trust documents can designate a “trust protector,” who is empowered to make certain changes to the trust. Many states have regulations concerning changes to the administrative aspects of a trust, and a court has the power to make changes to a trust.

An irrevocable trust can buy and sell property. If a house is placed into the irrevocable trust, the house can be sold, as long as the proceeds go into the trust. The trust is responsible for paying taxes on any profits from the sale. However, you can request that the trustee use the proceeds from selling a house to buy a different house. Be sure the new house is titled correctly: owned by the trust, and not you.

Asset swaps may be used to change irrevocable trusts. Let’s say you want to buy back an asset from the trust, but don’t want that asset to go back into your estate when you die. There are tax advantages for doing this. If the trust holds an asset that has become highly appreciated, swap cash for the asset and the basis on which the asset’s capital gains is calculated gets reset to its fair value, eliminating any capital gains on a later sale of the asset.

Loss of control is part of the irrevocable trust downside. Make sure that you have enough assets to live on before putting everything into the trust. You can’t sell assets in the trust to produce personal income.

Transferring assets to an irrevocable trust helps maintain eligibility for means-tested government programs, like Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income. Assets and income sheltered within an irrevocable trust are not counted as personal assets for these kinds of program limits. However, Medicaid has a look-back period of five years, so the transfer of a substantial asset to an irrevocable trust must have taken place five years before applying for Medicaid.

Talk with your estate planning attorney first. Not every irrevocable trust satisfies each of these goals. It is also possible that an irrevocable trust may not fit your needs. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan that suits your needs best for tax planning, asset protection and legacy building.

Reference: Think Advisor (Dec. 16, 2020) “10 Facts to Know About Irrevocable Trusts”

How Do You Keep Inheritance Money Separate?

Families with concerns about the durability of a child’s marriage are right to be concerned about protecting their children’s assets. For one family, where a mother wishes to give away all of her assets in the next year or two to her children and grandchildren, giving money directly to a son with an unstable marriage can be solved with the use of estate planning strategies, according to the article “Husband should keep inheritance in separate account” from The Reporter.

Everything a spouse earns while married is considered community property in most states. However, a gift or inheritance is usually considered separate property. If the gift or inheritance is not kept totally separate, that protection can be easily lost.

An inheritance or gift should not only be kept in a separate account from the spouse, but it should be kept at an entirely different financial institution. Since accounts within financial institutions are usually accessed online, it would be very easy for a spouse to gain access to an account, since they have likely already arranged for access to all accounts.

No other assets should be placed into this separate account, or the separation of the account will be lost and some or all of the inheritance or gift will be considered belonging to both spouses.

The legal burden of proof will be on the son in this case, if funds are commingled. He will have to prove what portion of the account should be his and his alone.

Here is another issue: if the son does not believe that his spouse is a problem and that there is no reason to keep the inheritance or gift separate, or if he is being pressured by the spouse to put the money into a joint account, he may need some help from a family member.

This “help” comes in the form of the mother putting his gift in an irrevocable trust.

If the mother decides to give away more than $15,000 to any one person in any one calendar year, she needs to file a gift tax return with her income tax returns the following year. However, her unified credit protects the first $11.7 million of her assets from any gift and estate taxes, so she does not have to pay any gift tax.

The mother should consider whether she expects to apply for Medicaid. If she is giving her money away before a serious illness occurs because she is concerned about needing to spend down her life savings for long term care, she should work with an elder law attorney. Giving money away in a lump sum would make her ineligible for Medicaid for at least five years in most states.

The best solution is for the mother to meet with an estate planning attorney who can work with her to determine the best way to protect her gift to her son and protect her assets if she expects to need long term care.

People often attempt to find simple workarounds to complex estate planning issues, and these DIY solutions usually backfire. It is smarter to speak with an experienced elder law attorney, who can help the mother and protect the son from making an expensive and stressful mistake.

Reference: The Reporter (Dec. 20, 2020) “Husband should keep inheritance in separate account”