What Worries Retirees the Most?

Retirees don’t want to run out of money. However, homeowners over 62 who have considerable equity in their homes may want to look at a strategy that can minimize their money anxiety. A reverse mortgage will let them tap into home equity, by providing funds to keep them financially stable. Could the reverse mortgage payments take a bite out of their Social Security or Medicare benefits?

Motley Fool’s recent article asks, “Can a Reverse Mortgage Impact Your Social Security or Medicare Benefits?” The article explains that reverse mortgages, also called home equity conversion mortgages (HECM), were created in 1980 to help seniors stay solvent, while remaining in their homes.

You know that in a regular mortgage, you pay the bank monthly installments. However, with a reverse mortgage, the bank pays you. You take out money against the equity in your home, and the loan doesn’t come due until you sell the home, move out of it, or die. The amount you can get is based on a formula that takes into account your age, the equity in your home, its market value and the interest rate you’ll be paying. You can get your reverse mortgage funds as a lump sum, a monthly payment, or a line of credit.

There are some drawbacks to a reverse mortgage. This type of loan can have big fees, including origination fees, closing costs (similar to a regular mortgage) and mortgage insurance premiums.  These fees can usually be rolled into the loan. It will, however, increase the amount the bank is entitled to receive once the loan ends.

A reverse mortgage isn’t for you, if you want to leave your home to your family. Perhaps they can pay off the balance of your HECM once you die or move out, but that could be costly. If you want to sell it (perhaps to simplify the splitting up of that inheritance), the share your heirs will receive from the proceeds may not be as much as you’d anticipated. If you’re having a hard time keeping up with the day-to-day costs of running the house, a reverse mortgage may not be the best option. However, if you’re just looking to add to your retirement income for peace of mind, it’s a decent financial planning tool to consider.

The good news is that it has no impact on your Social Security benefits, because the program is not means-tested. Therefore, the amount of income you have won’t affect your monthly benefit when you file. As a result, you don’t need to take Social Security into account when you’re thinking about this type of loan.

Likewise, Medicare is a non-means-tested program. However, a reverse mortgage can have an impact on Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, because those are based on your current financial assets. If you’re receiving either of those, talk to an elder law attorney or estate planning attorney to discuss how a reverse mortgage might have an effect on your specific circumstances.

Reference: Motley Fool (November 1, 2019) “Can a Reverse Mortgage Impact Your Social Security or Medicare Benefits?”

What is a Special Needs Trust?

Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid are critical sources of support for those with disabilities, both in benefits and services.

To be eligible, a disabled person must satisfy restrictive income and resource limitations.

That’s why many families ask elder law and estate planning attorneys about the two types of special needs trusts.

Moberly Monitor’s recent article, “Things to know, things to do when considering a special needs trust,” explains that with planning and opening a special needs trust, family members can hold assets for the benefit of a family member, without risking critical benefits and services.

If properly thought out, families can continue to support their loved one with a disability long after they’ve passed away.

After meeting the needs of their disabled family member, the resources are kept for further distribution within the family. Distributions from a special needs trust can be made to help with living and health care needs.

To establish a special needs trust, meet with an attorney with experience in this area of law. They work with clients to set up individualized special needs trusts frequently.

Pooled trust organizations can provide another option, especially in serving lower to more moderate-income families, where assets may be less and yet still affect eligibility for vital governmental benefits and services.

Talk to an elder law attorney to discuss what public benefits are being received, how a special needs trust works and other tax and financial considerations. With your attorney’s counsel, you can make the best decision on whether a special needs trust is needed or if another option is better, based on your family’s circumstances.

Reference: Moberly Monitor (October 27, 2019) “Things to know, things to do when considering a special needs trust”

How Much Will Long-Term Care Cost?

The recent article from MarketWatch, “This is how much long-term care could cost you, and don’t expect Medicare to help,” reports that most people over 65 will eventually need help with daily living tasks, like bathing, eating, or dressing. Men will need assistance for an average of 2.2 years, and women will need it for 3.7 years, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging.

Many will rely on unpaid care from spouses or children, but over a third will spend time in a nursing home, where the median annual cost of a private room is now more than $100,000, according to insurer Genworth’s 2018 Cost of Care Survey. Four out of ten will choose paid care at home; the median annual cost of a home health aide is more than $50,000. Finally, more than 50% of people over 65 will incur long-term care costs, and 15% will incur more than $250,000 in costs, according to a study by Vanguard Research and Mercer Health and Benefits.

Note that Medicare and private health insurance typically don’t cover these “custodial” expenses. This means that such costs can quickly deplete the $126,000 median retirement savings for people age 65 to 74. People who exhaust their savings could wind up on Medicaid, the government health program for the indigent that pays for about half of all nursing home and custodial care.

People who live alone, are in poor health, or who have a family history of chronic conditions are more likely to require long-term care. Women face special risks, since they typically outlive their husbands and, as a result, may not have anyone to provide them with unpaid care. If husbands require paid care that erases all of the couple’s savings, women could have years or even decades of living on nothing but Social Security.

The earlier you start planning, the more choice and control you’ll have. Let’s look at some of the options:

Long-term care insurance. The average annual premium for a 55-year-old couple was $3,050 in 2019, according to the American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance. Premiums are higher for older people, and those with chronic conditions might not be eligible. Policies typically cover part of long-term care costs for a defined period, like three years.

Hybrid long-term care insurance. With life insurance or annuities with long-term care benefits, money that isn’t used for long-term care can be left to your heirs. These products typically require you to commit large sums or are paid in installments over 5 to 10 years, although some now have “lifetime pay” options.

Home equity. People who move permanently into a nursing home may be able to sell their houses to help fund the care. Reverse mortgages may be an option, if one member of a couple remains in the home. This type of loan lets them use their home equity. However, it must be repaid if the owners die, sold, or they must move out.

Contingency reserve. People with a great deal of investments could plan on using some of those assets for long-term care. Their investments can produce income, until there’s a need for long-term care, and then can be sold to pay for a nursing home or home health aide.

Medicaid spend-down. Those who don’t have much saved or who face a catastrophic long-term care cost that cleans out their entire savings, could wind up applying for Medicaid. Ask an elder law attorney about ways to protect, at least some assets for your spouse.

Reference: MarketWatch (July 19, 2019) “This is how much long-term care could cost you, and don’t expect Medicare to help”

How Can I Avoid a Retirement Home and Live at Home?

Staying at home requires planning. The sooner you begin, the more prepared you’ll be, even if you’re around at 102.

The Washington Post’s article, “Aging in place helps you to avoid a retirement community or nursing home,” explains that there’s plenty of work to do.

You might start by remodeling or retrofitting your home to suit senior-specific issues, such as decreased mobility or impaired eyesight (think replacing a bathtub with a walk-in shower or improved lighting). Some seniors add a first-floor bedroom and bathroom and an outdoor ramp onto their homes. Other changes can include wider doorways (the better to potentially accommodate a wheelchair or walker), a bathroom with grab bars and an easy-access shower.

This is known as universal design, which means building or remodeling a home to accommodate all ages and abilities. It can usually be implemented or planned by builders or contractors who are Certified Aging in Place Specialists (CAPS), an educational designation offered by the National Association of Home Builders.

Even if you can’t afford a major remodel, there are some simple changes you can do, like installing shower grab bars or improving interior and exterior lighting to avoid falls and other accidents. You can also secure throw rugs to the floor with special two-sided tape to prevent slips.

You can speak with an elder law attorney about health agencies, resources for financial assistance, elder abuse prevention, as well as estate planning, Medicare, Medicaid and other state programs.

Keep busy by taking yoga at the local rec center, business or computer classes at the public library, or even getting a roommate to help combat loneliness and keep feeling connected and emotionally healthy.

For dining, in addition to the community-based food delivery from Meals on Wheels, you can get restaurant food or groceries delivered to your home by services, such as Uber Eats, Caviar and Peapod.

There are also a number of meal prep companies—Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, and others—that make it easier to put a healthy meal on the table, without the need to journey to the grocery store.

Reference: Washington Post (July 1, 2019) “Aging in place helps you to avoid a retirement community or nursing home”

Planning for the Impact of Medicaid

One of the most complicated and fear-inducing aspects of Medicaid is the financial eligibility. The rules for the cost of long-term care are complicated and can be difficult to understand. This is especially true when the Medicaid applicant is married, reports Delco Times in the article “Medicaid–Protecting Assets for a Spouse.”

Generally speaking, to be eligible for Medicaid long-term care, the applicant may not have more than $2,400 in countable assets in their name, if their gross monthly income is $2,313 or more. That’s the 2019 income limit.

There are Federal laws that mandate certain protections for a spouse, so they do not become impoverished when their spouse enters a nursing home and applies for Medicaid. This is where advance planning with an experienced elder law attorney is needed. The spouse of a Medicaid recipient living in a nursing home, who is referred to as the Community Spouse, is permitted to keep as much as $126,420 and a minimum of $25,284, known as the “Community Spouse Resource Allowance,” without putting the Medicaid eligibility of the spouse who needs long-term care at risk.

Determining the Community Spouse Resource Allowance requires totaling the countable assets of both the community spouse and the spouse in the long-term care facility, as of the date of admission to the nursing home. The date of admission is referred to as the “snapshot” date. The community spouse is also permitted to keep one-half of the couple’s total countable assets up to a maximum of $126,420 in 2019 and no less than the minimum of $25,284. The rest of the assets must be spent down.

Countable assets for Medicaid include all belongings. However, there are a few exceptions. These are personal possessions, including jewelry, clothing and furniture, one car, the applicant’s principal residence (if the equity in the home does not exceed $585,500 in 2019) and assets that are considered inaccessible, such as a spouse’s retirement accounts.

Unless an asset is specifically excluded, it is countable.

There are also Federal rules regarding how much the spouse is permitted to earn. This varies by state. In Pennsylvania, the spouse is permitted to keep all of their own income, regardless of the amount.

The rules regarding requests for additional income are also very complicated, so an elder law attorney’s help will be needed to ensure that the spouse’s income aligns with their state’s requirements.

These are complicated matters, and not easily navigated. Talk with an experienced elder law estate planning attorney to help plan in advance, if possible. There are many different strategies for Medicaid applications, and they are best handled with experienced professional help.

Reference: Delco Times (June 26, 2019) “Medicaid–Protecting Assets for a Spouse”

Long-Term Care Costs and Your Estate Plan

There are many misunderstandings about long-term or nursing home care and how to plan from a financial and legal standpoint. The article “Five myths about nursing home costs and estate planning” from The Sentinel seeks to clarify the facts and dispel the myths. Some of the truths may be a little hard to hear, but they are important to know.

Myth One: Before any benefits can be received for nursing home care, a married couple must have spent at least half of their assets and everything but $120,000. If the person receiving nursing home care is single, they must spend almost all assets on the cost of care, before they qualify for aid.

Fact: Nursing homes have no legal duty to advise anyone before or after they are admitted about this myth.

Several opportunities to spend money on items other than a nursing home, include home improvements, debt retirement, a new car and funeral prepayment. An elder law attorney will know how to use a Medicaid-compliant annuity to preserve assets, without spending them on the cost of care, depending on state law.

There are people who say that an attorney should not help a client take advantage of legally permitted methods to save their money. If they don’t like the laws, let them lobby to change them. Experienced elder law and estate planning attorneys help middle-class clients preserve their life savings, much like millionaires use CPAs to minimize annual federal income taxes.

Myth Two: The nursing home will take our family’s home, if we cannot pay for the cost of care.

Fact: Nursing homes do not want and will not take your home. They just want to be paid. If you can’t afford to pay, the state will use Medicaid money to pay, as long as the family meets the eligibility requirements. The state may eventually attach a collection lien against the estate of the last surviving homeowner to recover funds that the state has used for care.

A good elder law attorney will know how to help the family meet those requirements, so that the adult children are not sued by the nursing home for filial responsibility collection rights, if applicable under state law. The attorney will also know what exceptions and legal loopholes can be used to preserve the family home and avoid estate recovery liens.

Myth Three. We’ve promised our parents that they’ll never go to a nursing home.

Fact: There is a good chance that an aging parent, because of dementia or the various frailties of aging, will need to go to a nursing home at some point, because the care that is provided is better than what the family can do at home.

What our loved ones really want is to know that they won’t be cast off and abandoned, and that they will get the best care possible. When home care is provided by a spouse over an extended period of time, often both spouses end up needing care.

Myth Four: I love my children equally, so I am going to make all of them my legal agent.

Fact: It’s far better for one child to be appointed as the legal agent, so that disagreements between siblings don’t impact decisions. If health care decisions are delayed because of differing opinions, the doctor will often make the decision for the patient. If children don’t get along in the best of circumstances, don’t expect that to change with an aging parent is facing medical, financial and legal issues in a nursing home.

Myth Five. We did our last will and testament years ago, and nothing’s changed, so we don’t need to update anything.

Fact: The most common will leaves everything to a spouse, and thereafter everything goes to the children. That’s fine, until someone has dementia or is in a nursing home. If one spouse is in the nursing home and receiving government benefits, eligibility for the benefits will be lost, if the other spouse dies and leaves assets to the spouse who is receiving care in the nursing home.

A fundamental asset preservation strategy is to make changes to the will. It is not necessary to cut the spouse out of the will, but a well-prepared will can provide for the spouse, preserve assets and comply with state laws about minimal spousal election.

When there has been a diagnosis of early stage dementia, it is critical that an estate planning attorney’s help be obtained as soon as possible, while the person still has legal capacity to make changes to important documents.

The important lesson for all the myths and facts above: see an experienced estate planning elder law attorney to make sure you are prepared for the best care and to preserve assets.

Reference: The Sentinel (May 10, 2019) “Five myths about nursing home costs and estate planning”

Special Needs Families and Special Needs Trust

If nothing prepares a person for parenting, consider how much harder it is to be prepared to raise a child with special needs. Parents often sink in uncharted waters. It’s not just a matter of negotiating all of the day-to-day details, says Newsday in the article “Be ‘biggest advocate’: Parents plan future for adult children with special needs.” Special needs families need to plan for what will happen as the parents age, become ill or die.

As an adult child with disabilities ages, eventually there will be medical issues. If the parents are gone, who will be able to make medical decisions? Where they live, who will oversee their finances and who will be there for them to rely on in a parenting role? There are many questions and they all need answering.

For one family, raising their special needs daughter was a full-time challenge. Their daughter, now 24, has autism. The couple sought out others in their same situation, noting that often even their own family members could not relate to their daily experiences.

It takes a village for special needs families to do more than survive. That includes estate planning and elder law attorneys with deep experience in special needs planning, social workers, therapists and medical professionals. Here’s what needs to be top-of-mind:

Don’t wait to plan. Families often think they have time, but you never know when unexpected events occur. Have a plan in place for legal guardianship, finances and health care.

Work with experienced legal help. You want to work with an attorney who has a great deal of experience and knowledge in special needs law and estate planning. Someone who dabbles on the side of a real estate practice is not the right professional for the task.

Stay in control. When children turn 18, they are adults. Parents and guardians will need to go through Surrogate’s Court to become the child’s guardian. Unless that is done, the parents and guardians will have no legal rights about the child’s medical, financial or other affairs. A successor guardian also needs to be named, so that when the parents are no longer able to serve, someone is in place to care for the child.

Create a Special Needs Trust. A trusts attorney with experience in Special Needs planning will be able to work with the family to create and structure a Special Needs Trust (SNT). A disabled person usually cannot earn enough to support himself, or the caregiver who remains at home to care for them and care-related expenses. The SNT helps to meet current needs and plan for future needs. The trust is used to preserve eligibility for any means-tested state and federal benefits. It allows the individual to have a better quality of life, by providing for expenses that are not covered by their benefits.

It’s very important that no assets be left to the child in an inheritance. Any assets must be placed in the trust. A well-meaning relative could put their eligibility for aid in jeopardy.

Parents and guardians also need to name a trustee and a successor trustee. The person needs to be competent, good with money management, organized and focused on caring for the loved one. It cannot be an emotional decision.

Parents of special needs children are advised to create a Letter of Intent, a narrative that outlines their child’s likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, activities and friends they enjoy and other details that will help them to continue an enjoyable life, when their parents are gone.

Parent’s own estate planning must be done with an eye to maintaining the SNT and caring for their other children. This is a case when assets need to be distributed in a realistic and fair manner. If one sibling is the successor trustee, for example, they may need a larger portion of an estate to help care for their sibling.

Reference: Newsday (May 9, 2019) “Be ‘biggest advocate’: Parents plan future for adult children with special needs.”

What is Congress Doing for Seniors?

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, informed the House Democratic Caucus in an April 25th “Dear Colleague” letter that he intends to bring H.R. 1994,the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act of 2019, to the House floor in May.

Think Advisor’s recent article, “SECURE Act to Get House Vote in May,” explains that the SECURE Act passed the House Ways and Means Committee on April 2. There’s been action on the companion bill—the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act (RESA) of 2019. That legislation has yet to be scheduled by the Senate Finance Committee.

In discussing the actions taken during the first 100 days of the 116th Congress, Representative Hoyer said that the House will soon take up H.R. 9, the Climate Action Now Act, “to affirm the principles of the Paris Climate Agreement, in spite of President Trump’s pledge to withdraw the United States.”

Hoyer signaled that a vote on the SECURE Act would follow “over the coming work period,” and noted that with the flood insurance program set to expire at the end of May, “I expect the House to take action to address that as well.”

Hoyer said in the next few weeks, “as committees continue to markup legislation, the House will also take up legislation to strengthen the Affordable Care Act and to address rising prescription drug costs.”

Another possibility for consideration in May by the full House is Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters’ Consumers First Act, H.R. 1500. That bill passed out of that committee on March 28. Waters’ bill is aimed at reversing the damage done to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, under former acting director Mick Mulvaney.

The Senior Security Act of 2019 would require the SEC to create a Senior Investor Taskforce. That bill could be up for a House vote very soon. The House docket also has a resolution on Supporting the Protection of Elders Through Financial Literacy.

The bill includes a provision requiring law enforcement and regulatory agencies to work together to understand and detect elder frauds and scams.

Reference: Think Advisor (April 29, 2019) “SECURE Act to Get House Vote in May”

How Do I Cash in My Life Insurance Policy?

There are some drawbacks to using life insurance to meet immediate cash needs, especially if you’re compromising your long-term goals or your family’s financial future. Investopedia’s recent article “Cashing in Your Life Insurance Policy” says that if other options are not available, life insurance—especially cash-value life insurance—can be a source of needed income.

Cash-value life insurance, like whole life and universal life, builds reserves through excess premiums plus earnings. These deposits are held in a cash-accumulation account within the policy. You can access cash accumulations within the policy through withdrawals, policy loans, or partial or full surrender of the policy. Another alternative is selling your policy for cash, known as a life settlement. Note that although cash from the policy might be useful during stressful financial times, you could face unwanted consequences, depending on the method you use to access the funds.

You can usually withdraw limited cash from a life insurance policy, based on the type of policy you own and the insurance company. The big advantage is that the withdrawals aren’t taxable up to your policy basis, as long as your policy isn’t classified as a modified endowment contract (MEC). However, these can have unexpected or unrealized consequences. Withdrawals that decrease your cash value, could cause a reduction in your death benefits. This is a potential source of funds you or your family might need for income replacement, business purposes or wealth preservation. Cash-value withdrawals also aren’t always tax-free. If you take a withdrawal during the first 15 years of the policy, and the withdrawal causes a reduction in the policy’s death benefit, some or all of the withdrawn cash could be subject to tax. Withdrawals are treated as taxable, to the extent that they exceed your basis in the policy.

Withdrawals that reduce your cash surrender value could mean higher premiums to maintain the same death benefit, or the policy could lapse.

If your policy is determined to be an MEC, withdrawals are taxed, according to the rules applicable to annuities–cash disbursements are considered to be made from interest first and are subject to income tax and possibly a 10% early-withdrawal penalty, if you’re under age 59½ at the time of the withdrawal. Policy loans are treated as distributions, so the amount of the loan up to the earnings in the policy will be taxable and could also be subject to the pre-59½ early-withdrawal penalty.

Surrendering the policy can provide the cash you need, but you’re relinquishing the right to the death-benefit protection. You can sell your life insurance policy to a life settlement company in exchange for cash. The new owner will keep the policy in force (by paying the premiums) and get a return on the investment, by receiving the death benefit when you die.

To qualify for a life settlement, the insured must be at least 65 years old, have a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years or less, and usually have a policy death benefit of at least $100,000. However, the taxation of life settlements is complicated. The gain in excess of your basis in the policy is taxed to you as ordinary income. In addition to the tax liability, life settlements usually include up to a 30% in commissions and fees, which reduces the net amount you receive.

If you are interested in learning more about tax planning or how your life insurance policy can affect your estate plan, speak with your local estate planning or elder law attorney.

Reference: Investopedia (January 9, 2019) “Cashing in Your Life Insurance Policy”