How to Claim and Use Life Insurance

Many people have life insurance, and they have it for a multitude of reasons.  These include funeral costs, liquidity in an estate, help paying off taxes and so on.  Whatever your reason for having it, I wanted to talk about how to make a claim on it, and separately, what to do with it once you have.  You can see more at Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “What Is the Best Way for a Widow to Use Life Insurance Proceeds?”

When making a claim, you’ll need a couple of things.  First and foremost, perhaps blindly obvious, is that your beneficiaries need to know you have it.  If an insurance company becomes aware of a death they might reach out to named beneficiaries, but that is a big assumption.  So, your life insurance beneficiaries or whoever may claim the insurance needs to know it exists.

Holding that aside, the person entitled to the money will start by contacting the insurance company.  The company will send or direct that person on where to download a form to claim the insurance.  Beneficiaries typically need to provide proof of who they are, a death certificate for the insured (which in most places is issued within a few weeks of death) and other information about how to pay the insurance.  For example, some companies ask if you want to turn it into an investment fund at their financial institution, others arrange how to cut the check and so on.

It is worth noting that your executor or trustee won’t have the right to do this unless the estate or the trust is the beneficiary of the life insurance.  All told, the process typically takes something like 30 days.

Now, what to do with the insurance proceeds varies based upon the purpose and need of the life insurance.  I’m also going to assume for now that the insurance isn’t being paid to a trust which is designed to hold assets long term such as a descendant’s trusts.  That might have different concerns.

So, with that said, here are some ideas on how to use the life insurance.

Funeral Costs. Use life insurance money to cover these costs to decrease your financial strain.  Most funeral companies actually have you purchase a small insurance policy in order to prepay a funeral.

Ongoing Expenses. This is especially true when one spouse dies, but living expenses do not stop. Your income is frequently reduced. In fact, after the death of a spouse, household income generally declines by about 40% due to changes in Social Security benefits, spouse’s retirement income and earnings. The death benefit from a life insurance policy can help provide the funds you need to help cover your mortgage, car payment, utilities, food, clothing and health care premiums.

Debts. You are generally not personally responsible for paying off the debts of the decedent. However, when an estate does not have enough funds to pay all the debts, any gifts that were supposed to be paid out to beneficiaries will most likely be reduced. Note that you may be responsible for certain types of debt, such as debt that is jointly owned or a loan that you have co-signed. Talk to an experienced estate attorney to understand the laws of your state, so that you know where you stand concerning all debts.  By way of example, you have very few responsibilities to pay a decedent’s debts in Texas.

Taxes.  As a tie-in to debts, some people use life insurance to give an influx of liquidity to pay estate taxes.  This often helps when an estate is large due to real estate or businesses or other illiquid assets.  The IRS of course wants the tax paid in cash, so life insurance gives you the cash to do so without liquidating other assets.

Create an Emergency Fund. Life insurance can help build a liquid emergency fund, which should cover three to six months of expenses.

Supplement Your Retirement. When one spouse passes, the survivor becomes much more economically vulnerable. To retire, a person typically needs 80% of their preretirement income to live comfortably.  So, insurance provides and extra supplement to cover that need.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 17, 2021) “What Is the Best Way for a Widow to Use Life Insurance Proceeds?”

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Retaining Assets While Being Medicaid Eligible

Medicaid is a program with strict income and wealth limits to qualify, explains Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “You Can Keep Some Assets While Qualifying for Medicaid. Here’s How.” This is a different program from Medicare, the national health insurance program for people 65 and over that largely doesn’t cover long-term care. In this system, clients often have a goal of retaining assets while being Medicaid eligible.

If you can afford your own care, you’ll have more options because all facilities (depending on the level of medical care) don’t take Medicaid. Even so, couples with ample savings may deplete all their wealth for the other spouse to pay for a long stay in a nursing home. However, you can save some assets for a spouse and qualify for Medicaid using strategies from an Elder Law or Medicaid Planning Attorney.

You can allocate as much as $3,259.50 of your monthly income to a spouse, whose income isn’t considered, and still satisfy the Medicaid limit. Your countable assets must be $2,000 or less, with a spouse allowed to keep half of what you both own up to $130,380. Countable assets include things like cash, bank accounts, real estate other than a primary residence, and investments.  However, you can keep a personal residence, personal belongings (like clothes and home appliances), one vehicle (2 for married couple), engagement and wedding rings and a prepaid burial plot.  There are more detailed rules for countable and exempt assets, but suffice it to say most things count.

If you have too much income over the $2,382 income per month for the application, you can use a Miller Trust aka Qualified Income Trust for yourself, which is an irrevocable trust that’s used exclusively to satisfy Medicaid’s income threshold. If your income from Social Security, pensions and other sources is higher than Medicaid’s limit but not enough to pay for nursing home care, the excess income can go into a Miller Trust. This allows you to qualify for Medicaid, while keeping some extra money in the trust for your own care. The funds can be used for items that Medicare doesn’t cover.

However, your spouse may not have enough to live on. You could boost a spouse’s income with a Medicaid-compliant annuity. These turn your savings into a stream of future retirement income for you and your spouse and don’t count as an asset. You can purchase an annuity at any time, but to be Medicaid compliant, the annuity payments must begin right away with the state named as the beneficiary after you and your spouse pass away.

These strategies are designed for retaining assets while being Medicaid eligible for married couples; leaving an asset to other heirs is more difficult. Once you and your spouse pass away, the state government must recover Medicaid costs from your estate, when possible. This may be through a a claim on your probate estate (usually means the house) before assets go to heirs, reimbursement from a Miller Trust or other items.  That is a topic unto itself, albeit an important one, so see here for more information on Medicaid recovery.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/protect-assets-from-medicaid-recovery/

Note that any assets given away within five years of a Medicaid application date still count toward eligibility. Property transferred to heirs earlier than that is okay. One strategy is to create an irrevocable trust on behalf of your children and transfer property that way. You will lose control of the trust’s assets, so your heirs should be willing to help you out financially, if you need it.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 24, 2021) “You Can Keep Some Assets While Qualifying for Medicaid. Here’s How”

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Why Won’t My Power of Attorney Work?

Powers of attorney are critical estate planning tools, but there are some instances they don’t work, such as with SSA and the IRS.

Powers of Attorney (POAs) are excellent and often overlooked estate planning documents.  They name an agent to act on your behalf if you cannot do so yourself, such as due to incapacity.  However, there are some instances where traditional POAs won’t work.  The IRS and the Social Security Administration (SSA) are two examples of entities that don’t recognize traditional POAs. Forbes’s recent article entitled “Two Times When Your Power of Attorney Isn’t Going to Work” explains why.

The IRS says that you must use Form 2848, “Power of Attorney and Declaration of Representative” to allow anyone to act on your behalf. This form requires you to state the tax matters and years for which the agent is authorized to act. That’s different from a traditional POA for financial matters, which usually has blanket statements allowing the agent to take any or a broad range of actions on your behalf in certain matters.  For this reason, we often include language in our POAs to create a Form 2848 specifically to deal with the IRS.

A married couple that files joint tax returns must also have each spouse separately complete and sign a form. There is no joint form.

Technically, the IRS might accept other POAs as the instructions to Form 2848 indicate this. However, the POA must meet the requirements of Form 2848 to be accepted as a substitute. That can be a tall order.

The Social Security Administration is similar. It says on its web site that it doesn’t recognize POAs. When you need someone to manage your Social Security benefits, you contact the SSA and make an advance designation of a representative payee.

A 2018 law created this feature that lets you name one or more individuals to manage your Social Security benefits. The Social Security Administration must usually work with the named individual or individuals. You can rank up to three people as advance designees. Therefore, if the first one isn’t available or is unable to perform the role, the SSA will move to the next person on your list.

Someone who already is receiving Social Security benefits can designate an advance designee at any point, and a person claiming benefits for the first time can name the designee during the claiming process. The designation can be made using your “my Social Security” account on the Social Security web site or by contacting the Social Security Administration by phone (800-772-1213) or at the local field office. A designee can also be named through the mail by using Form SSA-4547 – Advance Designation of Representative Payee.

Representative payees generally must be individuals, but it also can be a social service agency, nursing home, or one of a number of other organizations recognized by the SSA to serve as payees. If you don’t name any representatives, the SSA will name a representative payee for you, if it decides you need help managing your money. A relative or friend can apply to be representative payees, or the SSA can make the selection.

These are two very common scenarios where a POA may not work, though there are others.  Aside from the obvious cases of badly prepared or defective POAs, the Veterans Administration has their own representative system as well. But, careful planning and the advice of competent counsel can help tremendously by preparing a POA that can address as many scenarios and contingencies as possible.  Counsel can also help you identify tools outside of the POA that can assist with financial management such as trusts.  Also, before addressing your POA it might be helpful to get an idea as to the types of POAs and issues to consider with them, which you can find here.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/what-is-the-right-kind-of-financial-power-of-attorney-for-you/

If you encounter problems using your power of attorney, consult with a lawyer who can help you navigate the system you are coping with and can advise you on how to take action for your loved one.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 28, 2021) “Two Times When Your Power Of Attorney Isn’t Going To Work”

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