Can You Refuse an Inheritance?

It’s a bit of a strange thought, but occasionally there are reasons for people not to want their inheritance.  They may have expected the money to go to someone else and want to facilitate that, they may feel they have enough money and want it to pass to someone else, or perhaps they are concerned about taxes.  Whatever, the reason, no one can be forced to accept an inheritance they don’t want. However, what happens to the inheritance after they reject, or “disclaim” the inheritance depends on a number of things, says the recent article “Estate Planning: Disclaimers” from NWI Times.

A disclaimer is a legal document used to disclaim the property. To be valid for at least most tax purposes, the disclaimer must be irrevocable, in writing and executed within nine months of the death of the decedent. You can’t have accepted any of the assets or received any of the benefits of the assets and then change your mind later on.  Basically, you can’t receive the assets, and then decide to give them back as though you didn’t want them in the first place.

Once you accept an inheritance, it’s yours. If you know you intend to disclaim the inheritance, have an estate planning attorney create the disclaimer to protect yourself.

If the disclaimer is valid and properly prepared, you simply won’t receive the inheritance. Instead, the property will go to whomever would have received had you predeceased the decedent.  That might be many individuals, so it is important to understand to whom the property will go if you disclaim.  It might be based upon the trust or will that named you originally, a beneficiary designation on a financial asset or the intestate laws of the state where the decedent lived.

Once you disclaim an inheritance, it’s permanent and you can’t ask for it to be given to you. If you fail to execute the disclaimer after the nine-month period, the disclaimed property might then be treated as a gift, not an inheritance, which could have an impact on your tax liability.

Persons with disabilities who receive means-tested government benefits should never accept an inheritance, since they can lose eligibility for benefits.  Now, some states will consider a disclaimer a transfer for government benefits, meaning you may lose the benefits anyway.  So, the best solution is to consult with a lawyer as soon as possible how to handle such an inheritance.

A supplemental needs trusts may be a good solution so the beneficiary with a disability can receive the inheritance without loss of benefits.  You can see more on SNTs here.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-do-special-needs-trusts-work/  

The high level of federal exemption for estates has led to fewer disclaimers than in the past, but in a few short years—January 1, 2026—the exemption will drop down to a much lower level, and it’s likely inheritance disclaimers will return.  So, if you want to consider a disclaimer, definitely speak to a qualified attorney who can assist you with the process.

Reference: NWI Times (Nov. 14, 2021) “Estate Planning: Disclaimers”

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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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Trusts Aren’t Just for Billionaires: Reasons for a Trust

Occasionally clients are hesitant to utilize trusts in their estate plan because they “just have a simple estate” or believe they need substantial assets to warrant a trust.   In fact, trusts are for everyone and solve a variety of purposes in estate planning.  According to an article entitled “3 Reasons a trust may make sense for your family even though your name isn’t Trump, Gates or Rockefeller” from Market Watch, trusts give great flexibility in how assets are divided after your death, no matter how modest or massive the size of your estate. Using trusts in your estate plan is a smart move, for many reasons.

There are two basic types of trust. A Revocable Trust is flexible and can be changed at any time by the person who creates the trust.  This person is known by many different names based upon the convention of where the trust is established, but is often known as the “grantor” or “trustor” or something similar.   These are commonly used because they allow a high degree of control while you are living, especially if your goal is to avoid probate while being able to revise your plan in the future.  The idea is that if your trust is the owner of an asset or properly receives the assets at your death, there will be no need for a Will to be probated through the court system.

Once the trust is created, homes, bank and investment accounts and any other asset you want to be owned by the trust are retitled in the name of the trust or directed to it upon death, depending on the type of asset and what your goals are. This is a step that sometimes gets forgotten, with terrible consequences. Once that’s done, then any documents that need to be signed regarding the trust are signed by you as the trustee, not as yourself. You can continue to sell or manage the assets as you did before they were moved into the trust.

See here for a more robust discussion of how a trust works versus a will.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/will-vs-living-trust-a-quick-and-simple-reference-guide/

There are many kinds of trusts for particular situations. A Special Needs Trust, or “SNT,” is used to help a disabled person, without making them ineligible for government benefits. A Charitable Trust is used to leave money to a favorite charity, while providing income to a family member during their lifetime.

Assets that are placed in trusts do not go through the probate process and can control how your assets are distributed to heirs, both in timing and conditions.

An Irrevocable Trust is permanent and once created, cannot be changed subject to a few caveats. This type of trust is often used to save on estate taxes, by taking the asset out of your taxable estate. Funds you want to take out of your estate and bequeath to grandchildren are often placed in an irrevocable trust.  These types of trust are becoming more and more useful as the estate tax exemption is expected to go down leaving more and more clients exposed to potential estate taxes.

If you have relationships, properties or goals that are not straightforward, talk with your estate planning attorney about how trusts might benefit you and your family. Here’s a few reasons for a trust and why this makes sense:

Reducing estate taxes. While the federal exemption is $11.58 million in 2020 and $11.7 million in 2021, state estate tax exemptions are far lower. New York excludes $6 million, Massachusetts exempts $1 million, Texas has none at all.  Some states are even more complicated in having inheritance tax (taxes are applied against the exact amount transferred).  Further, it is widely accepted that the federal estate tax exemption will be lowered as well.  An estate planning attorney in your state will know what your state’s estate taxes are, and how trusts can be used to protect your assets.  You can also see here for a recent article I wrote on life insurance trusts as a good example of a common trust used to reduce estate tax exposure.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/the-irrevocable-life-insurance-trust-why-should-you-have-one/ 

If you own property in a second or third state, your heirs will face a second or third round of probate and estate taxes. If the properties are placed in a trust, there’s less management, paperwork and costs to settling your estate.

Avoiding family battles. Families are a bit more complicated now than in the past. There are second and third marriages, children born to parents who don’t feel the need to marry and long-term relationships that serve couples without being married. Trusts can be established for estate planning goals in a way that traditional wills do not. For instance, stepchildren do not enjoy any legal protection when it comes to estate law. If you die when your children are young, a trust can be set up so your children will receive income and/or principal at whatever age you determine. Otherwise, with a will, the child will receive their full inheritance when they reach the legal age set by the state. An 18- or 21-year-old is rarely mature enough to manage a sudden influx of money. You can control how the money is distributed.

Protect your assets while you are living. Having a trust in place prepares you and your family for the changes that often accompany aging, like Alzheimer’s disease. A trust also protects aging adults from predators who seek to take advantage of them. Elder financial abuse is an enormous problem, when trusting adults give money to unscrupulous people—even family members.

Talk with an estate planning attorney about your wishes and your worries. They will be able to create an estate plan and trusts that will protect you, your family and your legacy.

Reference: Market Watch (Dec. 4, 2020) “3 Reasons a trust may make sense for your family even though your name isn’t Trump, Gates or Rockefeller”

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