Increase in the SSI Federal Benefit Rate for 2020

Jane Fearn Zimmer Elder Law Attorney

The federal government recently released its 2020 Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Spousal Impoverishment guidelines.  The guidelines, which took effect on January 1, 2020, set the SSI Federal benefit rate at $783.00 for an individual and $1,175 for a couple.

SSI is a monthly cash benefit to blind, disabled or elderly individuals with low income and resources.  Subject to the exclusion of certain sources of income, the SSI monthly income cap is set at $2,349 for an individual.  In order to qualify for the SSI benefit, the applicant must have a disability or diseases severe enough such that the applicant cannot engage in substantial gainful activity.  An applicant who is earning more than a set monthly amount of income is considered to be engaging in substantial gainful activity.  In 2020, the substantial gainful activity monthly limit for an elderly or disabled individual who is not blind, is $1,260 in earned income.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.

 

SECURE Act May Put A Stop To Most Stretch Individual Retirement Account Planning

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Good things come when you least expect them, but for wealthy retirees and their children and grandchildren, the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act (passed in the United States House of Representatives on May 23, 2019) may not be one of them.

Congress presently has until December 20, 2019 to balance the federal budget for fiscal year 2020. The SECURE Act could become law as part of the new budget package.

For most Americans, their home and their retirement accounts are their largest assets. Viewed from the vantage point of retirees with large individual retirement accounts or qualified retirement accounts hoping to transfer much of their wealth to future generations, the SECURE Act is Trojan horse.

The SECURE Act would change the existing IRA and qualified retirement plan distribution rules, derailing many existing estate plans which incorporate stretch-IRA planning.  Stretch-IRA planning is a distribution strategy popular under the current federal income tax law because it facilitates deferred taxation of retirement account income well beyond the lifetime of the original account owner.

Take the example of Mr. Jones.  Supposed Mr. Jones is age 70, has $500,000 in his individual retirement account and has not begun taking any minimum required distributions.  Mr. Jones is married and his wife is five years younger.  If Mr. Jones dies at 70, and has not begun taking any required minimum distributions, his wife can roll the entire $500,000 from her late husband’s IRA into her own IRA and name a new, younger beneficiary. Assume that the wife has enough assets and income outside of the retirement accounts to pay for her care.  Assume also that she dies at age 65 and prior to her death, names her 37 year old daughter as the individual retirement account beneficiary.

The daughter is much younger and has a longer actuarial life expectancy. Now the daughter will be the “measuring life” for the retirement account and under the current tax law, the daughter’s required minimum distribution could be approximately $11,000 per calendar year.  If the daughter chooses, she may leave the remaining funds in the inherited IRA and can expect the funds to grow tax-free within the account for many years.  Let’s assume that the daughter takes only the minimum required distribution with a 4% rate of return until she reaches the age of 56. At that time, her minimum required distribution may be approximately $23,000 annually and she can expect the account value to have increased to over $600,000.  Using the stretch-IRA strategy, the father, mother and daughter in this illustration are able to defer taxable income for many years.

The SECURE Act would curtail stretch retirement account planning for account owners who die before beginning to take their required minimum distributions by forcing their younger, non-spouse beneficiaries to take large distributions of income over a compressed ten year period of time beginning after the death of the original account owner.

If the SECURE Act were passed in its current form, and if the father and mother in the example above died after December 31, 2019, the daughter would have to distribute out the entire $500,000 from the retirement account within a ten year period.  During this period, she could potentially be in her peak earning years and in a higher income tax bracket, than she might expect to be after her own retirement.  This provision of the SECURE Act threatens to dramatically increase the collection of income tax dollars by forcing distributions from retirement accounts over a compressed period of time.  The tradeoff for the repeal of the stretch IRA is the SECURE Act’s deferral of the required beginning date for taking required minimum distributions to age 72. The SECURE Act also facilitates the ownership of annuities within retirement accounts.

For retirees with large IRA’s or retirement accounts wishing to transfer their retirement account proceeds to their children, grandchildren or other non-spouse beneficiaries, it is very important to contact an estate planning attorney to review their options in light of the changes the SECURE Act will probably bring.

The silver lining is that retirees whose intended beneficiaries have special needs or chronic illness will have important planning opportunities under the new law.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.

Changes to Social Security in 2020

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The year 2020 will bring important changes to the Social Security program, including a 1.6 percent Social Security benefit increase and an increased annual earnings cap for the Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI) tax, which is a component of the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) tax.  Beginning in 2020, the maximum annual amount of earnings subject to the OASDI will increase to $137,700 from the current limit of $132,900 applicable in 2019.

Also beginning in 2020, the maximum retirement earnings test exempt amounts will be $18,240 annually (or approximately $1,520 monthly) for individuals under full retirement age.  That means that for every two dollars earned in excess of that limit, one dollar in Social Security benefits will be withheld.

In addition, starting in 2020, the SSI federal payment standard will increase to $783 monthly for an individual and to $1,175 per couple. Here is a helpful fact sheet summarizing these and other important 2020 Social Security numbers.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.

Minimizing Elder Financial Abuse

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It seems like every month, there is a news broadcast of a new form of elder financial abuse.  Statistically, it is very prevalent, especially among individuals with dementia who are residing alone in the community.

Unfortunately, elder financial abuse comes in many forms. One version is where a trusted advisor, family member or caregiver with whom the senior has a relationship takes the senior to an attorney to execute a new Last Will and Testament, changing the existing estate plan in favor of the trusted individual.  These are difficult cases to enforce because by the time the fraud is discovered the victim is deceased.

Another variety of elder financial fraud is tech support fraud, where there is a pop up on the senior’s computer screen that routes the victim to a bogus website to input information. Someone calls the senior and asks the person to send in money for software that doesn’t exist. The perpetrator remotes into the computer and tells the senior to log into the bank account. Then the perpetrator minimizes the window and withdraws funds without permission from the senior’s account. Some con artists may pose as representatives of well-known industry giants such as Microsoft and Google.

There are romance scams where someone pretends to be in a relationship and convinces the senior to send money. There are lottery scams and prize scams where a senior is asked to pay money to get the winnings.  But the majority of elder financial abuse the SEC sees is theft.  These cases are hard to put together due to the challenges of gathering the evidence.

In many cases, the victims may not even realize they have been victimized, or they may have had a long term relationship with their trusted advisor or family member and just convincing the senior to speak with an investigator or another attorney is problematic.  It may be easier for seniors to talk about financial abuse by emphasizing that this also happens to younger people and to focus on protecting yourself. Reassure them that their fear of compromising their appearance of competency and independence if they complain will likely not materialize.  Do not hesitate to report the incidents to the authorities. This is an area of enforcement which the Securities Exchange Commission and other federal agencies are currently focusing on and there are a lot of resources at both the state and local levels.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.

Medicare Open Season – Important Deadlines

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The Medicare Open Enrollment window for 2020 runs from October 15, 2019 until December 7, 2019. Individuals who prefer not to have responsibility for out of pocket costs might consider enrolling in a Medicare Part F plan, which covers most deductibles and out of pocket costs. It is critical to enroll in such a plan during the upcoming open season window, because Part F plans are being phased out and will no longer be available to Medicare enrollees who are not enrolled in such a plan, or have not elected to enroll, as of December 31, 2019.

Medicare Part C enrollment will also be phased out for individuals who have not enrolled in a Medicare Part C plan as of December 31, 2019. Medicare Supplemental Plans C are private plans that deliver Medicare Part A and B services through a private insurance company.

The bottom line is that seniors and disabled individuals who will be eligible for Medicare A prior to January 1, 2020 and who prefer Medicare Part C or F coverage will need to sign up for these plans during the upcoming open enrollment period.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.

Estate Administration in the Digital Era: Digital Assets, Cryptocurrency and More

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The probate proceedings for the estate of the late musical artist, Prince Rogers Nelson, have been repeatedly profiled in the national news for a variety of reasons. Here are some digital age strategies for dealing with cutting-edge estate administration issues, including identifying heirs, working with digital assets and block chain technology, and administering estate assets in specialized industries.

  1. Genetic testing can determine the rightful heirs. If parentage may become an issue, obtain an order authorizing DNA testing of the decedent’s blood sample as soon as possible after death. Obtain a court order for genetic testing of purported heirs early on in the proceedings.
  1. Identify, catalogue, disclose and value digital assets. Digital assets include a wide variety of electronic files and works. Some examples are digital accounts (i.e., social media, e-mail and online commercial accounts such as Etsy and Amazon), video and audio files and electronically stored media (such as photographs, art, music, and original works and blogs), knowledge stored in electronic databases or formats (i.e., software and architectural plans). Cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin) and block-chain technologies are also digital assets. Some forms of digital assets are more easily monetized than others. Digital assets are regarded as personal property by the taxing authorities and as such, must be clearly identified and properly valued on death tax returns. See I.R.S. Notice 2014-21. In some cases, discounts for lack of marketability may be appropriate. Initial coin offerings (ICO’s) may be subject to registration requirements under the Securities Exchange Act of 1933.
  1. Hire experts for specialized industries. Prince’s estate held a wide range of intellectual property. The personal representative faced unique business challenges, such as operating multiple entertainment businesses, overseeing a real estate portfolio and a museum, archiving a vast quantity of audio and video assets, and safeguarding personal property. The use of entertainment and other industry experts was needed to help monetize the estate’s assets.
  2. File any confidential information disclosed to the court under seal. Consider whether to file sensitive information under seal. Sensitive matters could range from business and licensing negotiations and confidential litigation settlements to details relating to parentage.

Questions? Contact Jane.

Jane Fearn ZimmerJane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA. You can contact Jane by phone at 856.661.2283 or by emailing jane.zimmer@flastergreenberg.com.

New PACE Program Regulations: Six Important Changes You Need to Know

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On June 3rd, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a final rule that updates the program requirements for the PACE program (Program for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly), a cost-effective program that helps keep frail, elderly individuals over the age of 55 in the home using Medicare or Medicaid dollars.  PACE organizations, also referred to as Living Independence for the Elderly (LIFE) organizations, are government or nonprofit entities delivering comprehensive care and services via an interdisciplinary team (IDT) to elderly and frail individuals ages 55 and over who are clinically assessed as needing nursing home care.

The new rule reflects 21st century service-delivery practices, communications and technology.

Here are six of the most impactful changes:

  1. Thirty (30) day deadline to complete the interdisciplinary plan of care. In rare circumstances, it may not be possible to make a timely assessment and care plan. In such cases, the PACE organization must document the specific circumstances why the initial assessment cannot be completed within the thirty-day period, and must detail the steps taken to provide immediate care as needed and to complete the assessment process and the plan-of-care as soon as feasible.
  2. Care delivery by non-physician primary care providers. Primary care and care management may now be provided by a nurse practitioner, physician assistant or a community physician duly licensed in accordance with state law, without having to obtain a waiver.
  3. Interactive remote technologies may be used to perform unscheduled reassessments. Video conferencing, live instant messaging, chat software and other media may be used by IDT members to perform an unscheduled reassessment in response to a request for a change in PACE services, where clinically appropriate and necessary to improve or maintain the patient’s overall health status. In order for the remote technology to be used, the patient or her representative must consent to its use.  In-person follow up may be warranted. Using remote technologies to perform reassessments may not be appropriate for medically complex patients.
  4. Mandatory attendance of the semi-annual reassessment meeting by the primary care provider, a registered nurse, and a Master’s-level social worker, with team members from other disciplines participating as needed in the professional judgment of the primary care provider, the registered nurse, and the Master’s-level social worker.
  5. Disenrollment for “disruptive behavior” on the part of either the participant or caregiver. In order to justify involuntary disenrollment, the disruptive behavior must jeopardize the patient’s health or safety or the safety of others. For instance, if a PACE participant who is able to make her own medical decisions repeatedly refuses to follow her plan of care, or if her caregiver exhibits threatening behavior which jeopardizes the participant’s health or safety, or the safety of the caregiver or others, involuntary disenrollment may be an option, after the PACE organization has ruled out alternative arrangements.
  6. PACE organizations offering qualified prescription drug coverage must comply with Medicare Part D prescription drug program requirements.

There are other major changes to the PACE program rules that may not directly impact the elderly and disabled. For more information, contact Jane at 856.661.2283 or by emailing jane.zimmer@flastergreenberg.com.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.