What If You Don’t have a Will?

Studies suggest that a majority of adults do not have an estate plan of any kind, even a will.  The issue of what happens when a person doesn’t have a will comes up frequently in our practice.  The answer to the question, which is what I’ll discuss here, provide lots of reasons to have one.  You can see a recent article entitled “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for a bit more background, although state processes vary.

First, a will is a written document stating wishes and directions for dealing with the property you own after your death, also known as your “estate.” When someone dies without a will, property is distributed according to their state’s intestacy laws.  Intestacy sets who your beneficiaries will be since you haven’t chosen them, and generally are next of kin (with some wrinkles). If your next of kin is someone you loathe, or even just dislike, they may become an heir, whether you or the rest of your family likes it or not. If you are part of an unmarried couple, your partner has no legal rights, unless you’ve created a will and an estate plan to provide for them.

Intestacy rules vary greatly from state to state, especially in a community property state like Texas.  In general, intestacy laws distribute property to a surviving spouse or certain descendants. A very common exception, which many people don’t know and are surprised to learn, is that if you have children from outside of the current marriage, not everything goes to that spouse.  I frequently encounter families who assume spouse gets everything, regardless of family makeup, and this often leads to conflicts with family.

While practicing in Pennsylvania I actually had a situation in which one spouse died young without children and with living parents.  Not everything goes to the spouse in that situation, but instead, partially to spouse and the rest would have been divided between the surviving spouse and parents.  The surviving spouse was not pleased to learn that.

This may also lead to a difficult result for the beneficiary.  If they have disabilities and are using government benefits, receiving the inheritance may cause them to lose those benefits, which may be critical for that person’s care.  Wills and other estate planning documents can prevent that outcome.

If you don’t have a will, at least in Texas, it may be necessary to have a proceeding to determine who the heirs even are.  This is called an heirship proceeding and can be quite expensive as the court appoints another attorney (who you pay) to look for unknown heirs.  This whole process also adds time and uncertainty to a process which is already difficult due to the loss of a loved one.

Additionally, a will designates a person to handle the estate, often called an executor, and typically names successors should the first named person be unable or unwilling to serve.  In the absence of these directions, the heirs will have to figure it out among themselves, hopefully amicably and without litigation.

Many states also have limited proceedings that may or may not be helpful when a person doesn’t have a will.  For example, Texas has affidavits of heirship which can address retitling of land interests, such as the residence.  However, that won’t help for bank accounts.  Pennsylvania actually has a rule permitting small bank accounts to be distributed to next of kin after the funeral is paid.  That too may help, unless the account is $10,000 and is useless for land.  Many states have small estate proceedings that can work, but in practice are often cumbersome.

A much better solution: speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared to protect yourself and those you love.

Start by determining your goals and speaking with family members. You may be surprised to learn an adult child doesn’t need or want what you want to leave them. If you have a vacation home you want to leave to the next generation, ask to see if they want it. It may reveal new information about your family and change how you distribute your estate. A grandchild who has already picked out a Ferrari, for instance, might make you consider setting up a trust with distributions over time, so they can’t blow their inheritance in one purchase.

Determining who will be your executor is another important decision for your will. They are a fiduciary, with a legal obligation to put the estate’s interest above their own. They need to be able to manage money, make sound decisions and equally important, stick to your wishes, even when your surviving loved ones have other opinions about “what you would have wanted.”  See this article for further ideas:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/what-are-the-duties-of-an-executor/  

If there is no one suitable or willing, your estate planning attorney will have some suggestions. Depending on the size of the estate, a bank or trust company may be able to serve as executor.

The will is just the first step. An estate plan includes planning for incapacity. With a Will, a Power of Attorney, Medical Powers of Attorney and other documents appropriate for your state, you and your loved ones will be better positioned to address the inevitable events of life.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 24, 2022) “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will”

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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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Role of Insurance in Estate Planning

Insurance in estate planning addresses liquidity, tax concerns and is even a vehicle for affordable long term care coverage.

I often discuss life insurance when working with a client on their estate plan and the role of insurance in estate planning in general.  Some have term life insurance policies from when they are young, others whole life policies promoted to them as money available into late retirement, and even a few solely because of the tax benefits to life insurance.  It’s possible that life insurance may play a much bigger role in your estate planning than you might have thought, says a recent article in Kiplinger titled “Other Uses for Life Insurance You May Not Know About.”

If you own a life insurance policy, you’re in good company—just over 50% of Americans own a life insurance policy and more say they are interested in buying one. When the children have grown up and it feels like your retirement nest egg is big enough, you may feel like you don’t need the policy. However, don’t do anything fast—the policy may have far more utility than you think.

Tax benefits. The tax benefits of life insurance policies are even more valuable now than when you first made your purchase. Now that the SECURE Act has eliminated the Stretch IRA, most non-spouse beneficiaries must empty tax-deferred retirement accounts within ten years of the original owner’s death unless some other exception applies. Depending on how much is in the account and the beneficiary’s tax bracket, they could face an unexpected tax burden and quick demise to the benefits of the inherited account.

Life insurance proceeds are usually income tax free, making a life insurance policy an ideal way to transfer wealth to the next generation. For business owners, life insurance can be used to pay off business debt, fund a buy-sell agreement related to a business or an estate, or fund retirement plans.

Even more, life insurance is often a very good tool to pay estate taxes.  This is true for two reasons.  First, the tax has to be paid in dollars, so an infusion of cash from a life insurance policy provides funds to pay it without selling off other assets such as real estate or business interests.  Second, life insurance is an easy asset to include an irrevocable trust.  It would be held outside of your estate (thus doesn’t make your estate tax bill go up) and for most insurance you don’t need immediate access to it.  See here for more information:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/the-irrevocable-life-insurance-trust-why-should-you-have-one/

What about funding Long Term Care? Most Americans do not have long-term care insurance, which is potentially the most dangerous threat to their or their spouse’s retirement. The median annual cost for an assisted living facility is $51,600, and the median cost of a private room in a nursing home is more than $100,000. Long-term care insurance is not inexpensive, but long-term care is definitely expensive. Traditional LTC care insurance is not popular because of its cost, but long-term care is more costly. Some insurance companies offer life insurance with long-term care benefits. They can still provide a death benefit if the owner passes without having needed long-term care, but if the owner needs LTC, a certain amount of money or time in care is allotted.

Financial needs change over time, but the need to protect yourself and your loved ones as you age does not change. Speak with an estate planning attorney about the role of insurance in estate planning for you.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 21, 2021) “Other Uses for Life Insurance You May Not Know About”

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