Medicaid Spend Down Strategies

Medicaid is not just for the indigent.  Medicaid is a government program which offers a variety of benefits to those in need, which includes elderly individuals who need assistance with paying for long term care costs. With the right planning, assets can be protected for the next generation, while helping a person become eligible for help with long term care costs.

Medicaid was to help with insurance coverage and protect seniors from the costs of medical care, regardless of their income, health status or past medical history, reports Kiplinger in a recent article “How to Restructure Your Assets to Qualify for Medicaid.” Medicaid was a state-managed, means-based program, with broad federal parameters that is run by the individual states. Eligibility criteria, coverage groups, services covered, administration and operating procedures are all managed by each state.

With the increasing cost and need for long term care, Medicaid has become a life-saver for people who need long term nursing home care costs and home health care costs not covered by Medicare.  So, this article will discuss various techniques and ideas on how to become eligible for Medicaid when appropriate.  However, this article is for ideas only, and I cannot stress this enough, but you should never undertake a Medicaid spend down without the advice and direction of an attorney.

If the household income exceeds your state’s Medicaid eligibility threshold, two commonly used trusts may be used to divert excess income to maintain program eligibility and thereby spend down income.

QITs, or Qualified Income Trusts. Also known as a “Miller Trust,” income is deposited into this irrevocable trust, which is controlled by a trustee. Restrictions on what the income in the trust may be used for are strict, and include things such as medical care costs and the cost of private health insurance premiums. However, the funds are owned by the trust, not the individual, so they do not count against Medicaid eligibility.  This tool is extremely effective, which facilities eligibility despite the amount of income.

If you qualify as disabled, you may be able to use a Pooled Income Trust. This is another irrevocable trust where your “surplus income” is deposited. Income is pooled together with the income of others. The trust is managed by a non-profit charitable organization, which acts as a trustee and makes monthly disbursements to pay expenses for the individuals participating in the trust. When you die, any remaining funds in the trust are used to help other disabled persons.

Meeting eligibility requirements are complicated and vary from state to state. An estate planning attorney in your state of residence will help guide you through the process, using his or her extensive knowledge of your state’s laws. Mistakes can be costly, and permanent, and often appear in Medicaid spend down.

For instance, your home’s value (up to a maximum amount) is exempt, as long as you still live there or intend to return. Several other exemptions may apply depending on the assets.  Otherwise, the amount of countable assets for an individual is $2,000, more for a married couple.

Transferring assets to other people, typically family members, is a risky strategy. There is a five-year look back period and if you’ve transferred asset without getting adequate value in return during that period your eligibility could be affected. So, gifting strategies could be risky.  If the person you transfer assets to has any personal financial issues, like creditors or divorce, they could lose your property.

Asset Protection Trusts, also known as Medicaid Trusts. You may transfer most or all of your assets into this trust, especially if they are otherwise countable. Upon your death, assets are transferred to beneficiaries, according to the trust documents.  This needs to be done in advance of the 5 year look-back, which is why this works best in anticipation of long term care need in the future, not when its imminent.

Right of Spousal Transfers and Refusals. Assets transferred between spouses are not subject to the five-year look back period or any penalties. Some states allow Spousal Refusal, where one spouse can legally refuse to provide support for a spouse, making them immediately eligible for Medicaid. The only hitch? Medicaid has the right to request the healthy spouse to contribute to a spouse who is receiving care but does not always take legal action to recover payment.

I should also point out that Medicaid recovery is an important aspect of Medicaid planning.  You can see this link for more details on that topic.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/protect-assets-from-medicaid-recovery/

Talk with your estate planning attorney if you believe you or your spouse may require long-term care and before undertaking Medicaid spend down. Consider the requirements and rules of your state. Keep in mind that Medicaid gives you little or no choice about where you receive care. Planning in advance is the best means of protecting yourself and your spouse from the excessive costs of long term care.

Reference: Kiplinger (Nov. 7, 2021) “How to Restructure Your Assets to Qualify for Medicaid”

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Benefits of 529 Plans

529 Plans have benefits beyond tax-deferred earnings which make them attractive options for educational funding.

I’ve been discussing 529 plans, how they work and their benefits far more frequently with clients than I used to.  You might think that tax-deferred savings is the main benefit, along with tax-free withdrawals for qualifying higher education expenses in 529 plans. However, there are also state tax incentives, such as tax deductions, credits, grants, or exemption from financial aid consideration from in-state schools in certain states.  Forbes’ recent article entitled “7 Benefits You Didn’t Know About 529 College Savings Plans (But Should)” says there are many more advantages to the college savings programs than simple tax benefits.

1) Registered Apprenticeship Programs Qualify. You can make qualified withdrawals from a 529 plan for registered apprenticeship programs. These programs cover a wide range of areas with an average annual salary for those that complete their apprenticeship of $70,000.

2) International Schools Usually Qualify. More than 400 schools outside of the US are considered to be qualified higher education institutions. You can, therefore, make tax-free withdrawals from 529 plans for qualifying expenses at those colleges.

3) Gap Year and College Credit Classes for High School. Some gap year programs have partnered with higher education institutions to qualify for funding from 529 accounts. This includes some international and domestic gap year, outdoor education, study-abroad, wilderness survival, sustainable living trades and art programs. Primary school students over 14 can also use 529 plans for college credit classes, where available.

4) Get Your Money Back if Not Going to College. If your beneficiary meets certain criteria, it’s possible to avoid a 10% penalty and changing the plan from tax-free to tax-deferred. For this to happen, the beneficiary must:

  • Receive a tax-free scholarship or grant
  • Attend a US military academy
  • Die or become disabled; or
  • Get assistance through a qualifying employer-assisted college savings program.

Note that 529 plans are technically revocable. Therefore, you can rescind the gift and pull the assets back into the estate of the account owner. However, there are tax consequences, including tax on earnings plus a 10% penalty tax.

5) Private K–12 Tuition Is Qualified. 529 withdrawals can be used for up to $10,000 of tuition expenses at private K–12 schools. However, other expenses, such as computers, supplies, travel and other costs are not qualified.

6) Pay Off Your Student Loans. If you graduate with some money leftover in a 529 account, it can be used for up to $10,000 in certain student loan repayments.

7) Estate Planning. Contributions to a 529 plan are completed gifts to the beneficiary. These can be “superfunded” for up to $75,000 per beneficiary in a single year, effectively using five years’ worth of annual gift tax exemption up front. For retirees with significant RMDs (required minimum distributions) from qualified accounts, such as 401(k)s and traditional IRAs, the 529 plan offers high contribution limits across multiple beneficiaries, while retaining control of the assets during the lifetime of the account owner. Assets also pass by contract upon death, avoiding probate and estate tax.

7.5) Medicaid Benefit.  I’m going to cheat and add one more.  In Texas, transfers to 529 plans for CERTAIN beneficiaries are exempt as transactions for longterm Medicaid.  As with all Medicaid planning, you would want to do this at the advice of an attorney, but for situations where it fits, it is a very powerful spend down tool, especially where grandchildren are school age.

Reference: Forbes (July 15, 2021) “7 Benefits You Didn’t Know About 529 College Savings Plans (But Should)”

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Which Powers should a Power of Attorney Include?

Most clients have at least heard of powers of attorney (POA), and I find that many people with an existing estate plan have one.  However, I find the biggest problem with powers of attorney is not the lack of one, but having one without sufficient powers or provisions to work well for the client.  For that reason, you need to know powerful this document is and identify its limits. A recent article from Forbes titled “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On” addresses many key provisions to consider in the power of attorney.

First, as a primer, the POA is a document that assigns decision making to another person during your life.  People often do this for when they become incapacitated in life, but also for convenience, such as a spouse having authority to interact with a bank, signing at a remote real estate closing and so on.

The agent acting under the authority of your POA only controls assets in your name. Assets in a trust are not owned by you, so your agent can’t access them. The trustee (you or a successor trustee, if you are incapacitated) appointed in your trust document would have control of the trust and its assets.  Also, POAs are for lifetime delegation of decision-making, so they cease to be effective when you die.

If you want more background on what they are, see this classic blog.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/power-of-attorney-planning-for-incapacity/

With all of that said, here are three key provisions to consider within your POA to make it effective for your circumstances.

Determine gifting parameters. Will your agent be authorized to make gifts? Depending upon your estate, you may want your agent to be able to make gifts, which is useful if you want to reduce estate taxes or if you’ll need to apply for government benefits in the future. You can also give directions as to who gets gifts and how much.

In recent years I’ve discussed the possibility of extensive gifting quite a lot so that wealthier clients can consider making large gifts for estate tax purposes. In elder law cases this is one of the most key provisions in a POA as it provides options for long term care planning.

Can the POA agent change beneficiary designations? Chances are a lot of your assets will pass to loved ones through a beneficiary designation: life insurance, investment, retirement accounts, etc. Banks tend to build products that provide for this, which is good, but does raise issues within your estate plan.  Do you want your POA agent to have the ability to change these? In most states, Texas included, your POA needs to expressly provide for this power.  So, it is important to consider if you will need this power to adequately control assets in the future.

Can the POA create or amend a trust? Depending upon your circumstances, you may or may not want your POA to have the ability to create or make changes to trusts. This would allow the POA to change the terms of the trust, and potentially beneficiaries depending on the terms of the POA.  It is also worth considering this if you’ll need long term care in the future as these provisions assist with qualified income trusts which are helpful in Medicaid planning.

The POA is a more powerful document than people think, and that is especially true with powers crafted to fit your wishes and needs. Downloading a POA and hoping for the best can undo a lifetime of financial and estate planning. It’s best to have a POA created that is uniquely drafted for your family and your situation.

Reference: Forbes (July 19, 2021) “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On”

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