How Do I Find a Great Elder Law Attorney?

Elder law attorneys specialize in legal affairs that uniquely concern seniors and their adult children, says Explosion’s recent article entitled “The Complete Guide on How to Find an Elder Law Attorney.”

Finding the right elder law attorney can be a big task. However, with the right tips, you can find an experienced elder law attorney who is knowledgeable, has the right connections and fits your budget.

While, technically, a general practice attorney will be able to handle your retirement, Medicaid and even your estate planning, an elder law lawyer is deeply entrenched in elder law. This means he or she will have extensive knowledge and experience to handle any case within the scope of elder law, like the following:

  • Retirement planning
  • Long-term care planning and insurance
  • Medicaid
  • Estate planning
  • Social Security
  • Veterans’ benefits; and
  • Other related areas of law.

While a general practice lawyer may be able to help you with one or two of these areas, a competent elder law lawyer knows that there’s no single formula in elder law that applies across the board. That’s why you’ll need a lawyer with a high level of specialization and understanding to handle your specific circumstances. An elder law attorney is best suited for your specific needs.

A referral from someone you trust is a great place to start. When conducting your elder law lawyer search, stay away from attorneys who charge for their services by the hour. For example, if you need an elder law attorney to work on a Medicaid issue, they should be able to give you an estimate of the charges after reviewing your case. That one-time flat fee will cover everything, including any legal costs, phone calls, meetings and court fees.

When it comes to elder law attorneys, nothing says more than experience. An experienced elder law lawyer has handled many cases similar to yours and understands how to proceed. Reviewing the lawyer’s credentials at the state bar website is a great place to start to make sure the lawyer in question is licensed. The website also has information on any previous ethical violations.

In your search for an elder law attorney, look for a good fit and a high level of comfort. Elder law is a complex area of law that requires knowledge and experience.

Reference: Explosion (Aug. 19, 2020) “The Complete Guide on How to Find an Elder Law Attorney”

How Does Social Security Benefits Work in My Estate Planning?

A financial power of attorney (POA) is a critical element of an estate plan. This document makes certain that a person you named takes care of your finances, when you are unable. Part of managing your finances is coordinating your Social Security benefits—whether you already are getting them or will apply for them down the road.

However, what many people don’t realize, is that the Social Security Administration (SSA) doesn’t recognize POAs. Instead, as part of your estate plan, you need to contact the SSA and make an advance designation of a representative payee, according to Forbes’ article entitled “The Surprising But Essential Estate Planning Step For Social Security Benefits.”

This feature lets an individual select one or more people to manage their Social Security benefits. The SSA then, in most situations, must work with the named individual or individuals. You can designate up to three people as advance designees and list them in order of priority. If the first one isn’t available or is unable to perform the role, the SSA will move to the next one on your list.

A person who’s already getting benefits may name an advance designee at any point. Someone claiming benefits can name the designee during the claiming process. You can also change the designees at any time.

When you name a designee, the SSA will evaluate him or her and determine the person’s suitability to act on your behalf. Once he or she is accepted, a designee becomes the representative payee for your benefits. They will get the benefits on your behalf and are required to use the money to pay for your current needs.

A representative payee typically is an individual. However, it can also be a social service agency, a nursing home, or one of several other organizations recognized by the SSA to serve in this capacity.

If you don’t name designated appointees, the SSA will designate a representative payee on your behalf, if it feels you need help managing your money. Relatives or friends can apply to be a representative payee, or the SSA can choose a person. When a person becomes a designated payee, he or she is required to file an annual report with SSA as to how the benefits were spent.

Being a designated representative doesn’t give that person any legal authority over any other aspect of your finances or personal life. You still need the financial POA, so they can manage the rest of your finances.

Reference: Forbes (April 17, 2020) “The Surprising But Essential Estate Planning Step For Social Security Benefits”

What Must Be Done when a Loved One Dies?

When a member of a family dies, it falls to the people left behind to pick up the pieces. Someone has to find out if the person left a last will, get the bills paid, stop Social Security or other automatic payments and file final tax returns. This is a hard time, but these tasks are among many that need to be done, according to the article “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die” from Business Insider.

This year, more families than usual are faced with the challenge of taking care of the business of a loved one’s life while grieving a loss. When death comes suddenly, there isn’t always time to prepare.

The first step is to determine who will be in charge. If there is a will, then it contains the name of the person selected to be the executor. When a married person dies, usually the surviving spouse has been named as the executor. Otherwise, the family will need to work together to pick one person, usually the one who lives closest to the person who died. That person may need to keep an eye on the house and obtain documents, so proximity is a plus. In a perfect world, the person would have an estate plan, so these decisions would have been made in advance.

Don’t procrastinate. It is hard, but time is an issue. After the funeral and mourning period, it’s time to get to work. Obtain death certificates, and make sure to get enough certified copies—most people get ten or twelve. They’ll be needed for banks, brokerage houses and utility service providers. You’ll also need death certificates for taking control of some digital assets, like the person’s Facebook page.

The first agency to notify is Social Security. If there are other recurring payments, like VA benefits or a pension, those organizations also need to be notified. Contact banks, insurance companie, and financial advisors.

Get the person’s credit cards into your possession and call the credit card companies immediately. Fraud on the deceased is common. Scammers look at death notices and then go onto the dark web to find the person’s Social Security number, credit card and other personal identification info. The sooner the cards are shut down, the better.

Physical assets need to be secured. Locks on a house may be changed to prevent relatives or strangers from walking into the house and taking out property. Remove any possessions that are of value, both sentimental or financial. You should also take a complete inventory of what is in the house. Take pictures of everything and be prepared to keep the house well-maintained. If there are tenants or housemates, make arrangements to get them out of the house as soon as possible.

Accounts with beneficiaries are distributed directly to those beneficiaries, like payable-on-death (POD) accounts, 401(k)s, joint bank accounts and real property held in joint tenancy. The executor’s role is to notify the institutions of the death, but not to distribute funds to beneficiaries.

The executor must also file a final tax return. The final federal tax return is due on April 15 of the year after death. Any taxes that weren’t filed for any prior years, also need to be completed.

This is a big job, which is made harder by grief. Your estate planning attorney may have some suggestions for who might be qualified to help you. An attorney or a fiduciary will take a fee, either based on an hourly rate for services performed or a percentage of the entire value of the estate. If no one in the family is able to manage the tasks, it may be worth the investment.

Reference: Business Insider (May 2, 2020) “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die”

 

 

Social Security Issues, if You’re Self-Employed

Did you know that when you’re self-employed, you’re thought of by the IRS as both the employee and the employer? Therefore, it’s your job to withhold Social Security from your earnings—contributing the employer’s matching portion of Social Security and the individual’s portion. Instead of withholding Social Security taxes from each paycheck and, because many self-employed people don’t get regular paychecks, you pay all the Social Security taxes on your earnings, when you file your annual federal income tax return. This is both your personal contribution and your business’ contribution.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “How Social Security Works for the Self-Employed” explains how to calculate the Social Security taxes you owe, if you’re self-employed.

IRS Schedule SE is where you report your business’ net profit or loss as calculated on Schedule C. The federal government uses this information to calculate the Social Security benefits you’ll be entitled to in the future. Self-employment tax consists of both the employee and employer portion of Social Security (6.2% + 6.2% = 12.4%), as well as the employee and employer portion of Medicare (1.45% + 1.45% = 2.9%). Therefore, the total the self-employment tax rate is 15.3%.

If you are self-employed, what you pay in Social Security taxes is derived from your net income. On Schedule SE, you multiply your business’ net profit or loss as calculated on Schedule C by 92.35%, then you see how much self-employment tax you owe.

Note that the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act lets employers defer employee Social Security taxes through Dec. 31, 2020—50% of the deferred amount will be due Dec. 31, 2021, and the other half by Dec. 31, 2022. Good news: this break also applies to the self-employed.

There are many business expenses that the self-employed can use to decrease their tax liability, in addition to the Social Security tax deductions you can take when you’re self-employed. Business expenses reduce your overall tax, which ultimately lowers your Social Security taxes. These tax deductions are a way of minimizing self-employment tax and Social Security taxes. However, you should know that this can be a negative as far as your Social Security benefit calculations. That’s because these are based in part on your taxable earnings. The more deductions you have, the lower your Schedule C income. Lowering your Schedule C income is a good way to reduce how much federal, state, and local income tax you owe, but that lower amount will be part of your Social Security earnings history. As a result, you may receive lower benefits in retirement, than if you didn’t take those deductions.

There’s no Social Security taxes on your wages that exceed a certain earnings threshold. The wage base for 2020 is $137,700 (up from $132,900 in 2019), and you don’t owe Social Security taxes on your earnings that are greater than that amount.

Social Security really isn’t much different whether you’re self-employed or work for someone else. Self-employed individuals earn Social Security work credits the same way employees do and qualify for benefits based on their work credits and earnings. It’s the business tax deductions that are the biggest difference. If you work for someone else, you pay Social Security taxes on all of your earnings, up to the $137,700 limit in 2020. However, if you work for yourself, deductions you claim on Schedule C can make your taxable income substantially lower. That may decrease your Social Security taxes today, but also may decrease your Social Security benefits later.

Reference: Investopedia (April 29, 2020) “How Social Security Works for the Self-Employed”

Medicare Patients Be Wary of COVID-19 Scams!

It’s still not easy to get tested for COVID-19 in many states, so it’s not surprising to learn that scammers are exploiting the shortage. They’re especially preying on the elderly.

Money Talks News’ recent article entitled “Are You on Medicare? Beware Coronavirus Scammers” reports that scammers use stolen personal data to commit Medicare fraud and identity theft, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Medicare warned beneficiaries in a recent email, “Unfortunately, scammers are using the COVID-19 pandemic to try to steal your Medicare number, personal information and money. And they’re using robocalls, social media posts and emails to do it.”

Some of these criminals are even knocking on people’s doors to talk them out of their personal data.

Seniors are advised to not divulge their personal information, including their Medicare number, with anyone, except a trusted health care provider or other qualified expert. If you’re unsure who’s legitimate, call for help and advice from your Senior Medicare Patrol, volunteer groups funded by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Health and Human Services says that your personal information can be used to fraudulently bill federal health care programs and commit medical identity theft.

You may also wind up being responsible for charges, if Medicare denies the claim for an unapproved test. You need to protect your Medicare and Social Security information, because it can be used in fraud schemes. If you think you’ve been contacted by a scammer, do the following:

  • Report suspected criminals to the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or write to disaster@leo.gov.
  • Be on guard, if someone requests your Medicare number, when you didn’t ask for services.
  • Be suspicious of those offering coronavirus supplies or testing.
  • When using social media, don’t click or respond to advertisements and offers for coronavirus testing.
  • If you think you should get a COVID-19 test, ask your doctor or doctor’s office.

In addition, the FBI advises everyone — not only seniors — to be aware of and to report:

  • Bogus emails purporting to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Phishing emails, which try to trick you into sharing personal information.
  • Counterfeit treatments and equipment, like sanitizing products, masks, face shields, goggles, respirators, protective gloves or gowns.

Reference: Money Talks News (May 19, 2020) “Are You on Medicare? Beware Coronavirus Scammers”

When will Social Security Stimulus Checks Arrive?

There have been a few hiccups in the distribution of stimulus checks, and some people may have to wait months before their check is delivered. Most of us are able to monitor the status of our check by using the IRS’s Get My Payment tool. However, for many Social Security beneficiaries, they’ll see a message that says “Payment Status Not Available.” That’s because most Social Security recipients don’t file tax returns.

Motley Fool’s ’s recent article entitled “Social Security Beneficiaries: Here’s When You’ll Get Your Stimulus Check” advises that if you are unable to track your payment, here’s when you can expect to receive your stimulus money if you’re collecting Social Security benefits.

Those first to see their stimulus checks will be the ones who have their direct deposit information on file with the IRS. The agency will deposit the stimulus check straight to their bank account.

However, if you receive your benefits in the mail via paper check, or if you’re not certain if your bank account information is on file, you can provide your information through the Get My Payment tool. This will help you get your check faster.

While using direct deposit will ensure you get your check the quickest, you can get your check in the mail instead if your bank account info isn’t on file. The IRS started sending stimulus checks the week of April 20, and it expects to mail out about five million checks per week. At that rate, it could take 20 weeks for all checks to be delivered.

Whether you receive your check in days or months will depend on your income. The IRS is sending checks in a particular order, and those with the lowest-income individuals will get their checks first. If your income is nearer to the $99,000 per year income limit (or $198,000 per year for married couples), you might not receive your check until late August or early September.

If your income is somewhere in the middle, it’s estimated that you’ll get your check sometime this summer.

If you’re receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), you’ll see your stimulus payment in early May, according to the IRS. Whether you receive that money via direct deposit or paper check will be based on whether the IRS has your bank account information on file.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a real financial hardship for millions of Americans, and waiting for your stimulus check can be stressful, especially if money is tight and you need the extra money. However, it’s a little easier when you can at least calculate when your cash is expected to be delivered.

Reference: Motley Fool (April 27, 2020) “Social Security Beneficiaries: Here’s When You’ll Get Your Stimulus Check”

Do I Really Need a Health Care Proxy?

The Pauls Valley Democrat’s recent article entitled “Advance directives and living wills” explains that an Advance Directive has three parts:

  • A living will
  • Naming of your health care agent; and
  • Your directions for anatomical gifts.

The individual that you name as your Health Care Proxy will make decisions for your treatment and care, if you’re unable to do so. These decisions may extend to all medical issues and aren’t limited to end-stage, life determining decisions that are mentioned in your living will. This is a form of power of attorney that authorizes your agent to act in your behalf to address issues like these:

  1. Accessing your medical information
  2. Discussing your treatment options with your healthcare providers
  3. Getting second opinions on your diagnosis
  4. Selecting and authorizing various medical tests
  5. Your placement in a hospital or care facility
  6. Transferring your care to a new physician; and
  7. Communicating your wishes on life support in terminal or unconscious situations.

For end of life decisions, your health care proxy is bound by your written wishes as expressed in your living will. Life support can be terminated, only if you so authorize in writing. Your healthcare proxy can’t make that decision for you, because that is “personal” to you. You may select one or more persons to act as your proxy, although if two are selected, you should predefine what to do in the event of a conflict.

A best practice is to choose a person who’s younger than you who is geographically close, a person with time to assist you and with whom you’re willing to share in advance your wishes, likes and dislikes as to medical care. This person should be trusted to act and honor your wishes.

Because many decisions relate to your very personal concerns about religion, death and dying, these feelings should be shared with your health care proxy before any serious situation.

The Advance Directive is a very important document that pertains to your wishes, as they relate to medical care, end-of-life and death.

Parts I and II can discuss your wishes for care treatment, as well as your choice of a person to represent your wishes. These are two very important issues. Take the time to consider the advance written expression of your own wishes.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (Feb. 12, 2020) “Advance directives and living wills”

How Can I Fund A Special Needs Trust?

TapInto’s recent article entitled “Ways to Fund Special Needs Trusts” says that when sitting down to plan a special needs trust, one of the most urgent questions is, “When it comes to funding the trust, what are my options?”

There are four main ways to build up a third-party special needs trust. One way is to contribute personal assets, which in many cases come from immediate or extended family members. Another possible way to fund a special needs trust, is with permanent life insurance. In addition, the proceeds from a settlement or lawsuit can also make up the foundation of the trust assets. Finally, an inheritance can provide the financial bulwark to start and fund the special needs trust.

Families choosing the personal asset route may put a few thousand dollars of cash or other assets into the trust to start, with the intention that the initial investment will be augmented by later contributions from grandparents, siblings, or other relatives. Those subsequent contributions can be willed to the trust, or the trust may be named as a beneficiary of a retirement or investment account. It is vital that families use the services of an elder law or special trusts lawyer. Special needs trusts are very complicated, and if set up incorrectly, it can mean the loss of government program benefits.

If a special needs trust is started with life insurance, the trustor will name the trust as the beneficiary of the policy. When the trustor passes away, the policy’s death benefit is left, tax free, to the trust. When a lump-sum settlement or inheritance is invested within the trust, this can allow for the possibility of growth and compounding. With a worthy trustee in place, there is less chance of mismanagement, and the money may come out of the trust to support the beneficiary in a wise manner that doesn’t risk threatening government benefits.

In addition, a special needs trust can be funded with tangible, non-cash assets, such as real estate, securities, art or antiques. These assets (and others like them) can be left to the trustee of the special needs trust through a revocable living trust or will. Note that the objective of the trust is to provide the trust beneficiary with non-disqualifying cash and assets owned by the trust. As a result, these tangible assets will have to be sold or liquidated to meet that goal.

As mentioned above, you need to take care in the creation and administration of a special needs trust, which will entail the use of an experienced attorney who practices in this area and a trustee well-versed in the rules and regulations governing public assistance. Consequently, the resulting trust will be a product of close collaboration.

Reference: TapInto (February 2, 2020) “Ways to Fund Special Needs Trusts”

Facts and Figures for Older Workers and Retirees in 2020

A new year always brings change, and this year is no exception. From Market Watch, the article “Numbers that older workers and retirees need to know in 2020” provides key information for this new year.

Retirement Plan Changes. Limits for how much can be saved in 401(k), 403(b), Thrift Savings Plan, and most 457 plans have increased by $500 to $19,500 for 2020. If you are 50 and older, the “catch-up” contribution has also increased by $500, so you can now save an additional $6,500 in those accounts.

For those with SIMPLE retirement plans, which are usually from small businesses with 100 or fewer employees, you can increase savings by $500 to $13,500.

What hasn’t changed—if you have an individual traditional IRA, you can save $6,000, with a catch-up contribution of $1,000.

Social Security Changes. The Social Security Administration reports that the average monthly benefit in 2019 was $1,356.05. This will rise by 1.6% in 2020, which will mean an increase of $21.69 per month. Last year, some 63.8 million Americans took Social Security benefits. It was the first year since the program began in 1935 that spending topped $1 trillion.

Another change to Social Security in 2020 is the longer period of time to reach full retirement age. For people born in 1958, this now increases to 66 years and eight months. If you were born in 1958, you’ll need to be that age to collect your full retirement benefit. The longer period is also going to increase in 2021 and 2022—making the full retirement age 67 for anyone born in 1960 or later.

That doesn’t mean people can’t get Social Security benefits earlier—you can elect to take benefits as early as age 62—but you’ll receive less. If you take benefits at age 62, they’ll be 75% of the monthly benefits because you will have added 48 months. At age 65, you’ll receive 93.3% of full benefits because of adding an additional 12 months. If you are taking spousal benefits, there are more numbers to consider.

Medicare Changes. The good news was the increase from Social Security. The bad news? Standard monthly Part B premiums will increase 6.7%, from $135.50 in 2019 to $144.60. That’s the minimum premium. Depending upon your premium, they could go as high as $491.60 per month. Medicare officials blame higher drug prices on the increase.

Health care costs are part of a rising tide of costs facing retirees and older workers. Considering how few Americans have enough money saved for retirement, this is going to become more of a national issue as boomers and millennials age. It should serve as a reminder for all—save as much as you can for retirement, starting now.

Reference: Market Watch (Dec. 28, 2019) “Numbers that older workers and retirees need to know in 2020”