Finding the best long-term care, and a way to pay for that care with public benefits, is of critical importance to the elderly, the disabled and their families. The national median cost of long term care in a private room in a skilled nursing facility is over $9,000 per month, with the average statewide median cost ranging from over $10,000 to well more than $12,000 in other states, including New Jersey, New York, and as high as $24,000 monthly for a private room in Alaska.
Many seniors do not realize that Medicare will cover limited skilled care for a short period of time, and will not be an option to pay for the care they may need for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, Medicaid and the Veteran’s Administration Improved Pension (or the Dependency Indemnity Compensation benefit for a surviving spouse), combined with the applicant’s income, are means-tested public benefits programs that can often pay for a lifetime of long term care facility and other medical care costs.
Benefit through these programs are limited to applicants with low assets and low income. The rules for Medicaid eligibility are quite complex and vary somewhat from state to state based on the provisions of each state’s Medicaid plan. For instance, in my home state of New Jersey, in order for a single individual to qualify for Medicaid, that individual’s countable assets must not be even one penny over the sum of $2,000. In general, one cannot give away one’s money and receive institutional or waiver service Medicaid benefits within five years of the date of the gift without incurring a Medicaid penalty period. (A Medicaid penalty period is the period of time during which Medicaid benefits will not be available to pay for custodial care. The length of the penalty period corresponds to the value of the total uncompensated gifts made during the five year Medicaid look back period. The Medicaid penalty period will not begin to run until the last of the following events to occur: there is a filed Medicaid application for the applicant, the applicant is clinically eligible for Medicaid, and the application is either already in a long-term care facility or other care setting permitted under any Medicaid waiver program in his or her state, such as the home or an adult medical day care facility.)
Elder lawyers refer to the process of legally reducing assets to a level below the Medicaid threshold as “spend down and conversion.” Where one member of a married couple will apply for Medicaid, the spend down and conversion process must be carefully timed and for best results, should be started only after the prospective Medicaid applicant has entered into a nursing home or has a filed application for a Medicaid waiver program and has already been determined clinically eligible for Medicaid. In order to avoid a Medicaid penalty period as a result of the spend down process, all payments should be for fair market value for the Medicaid applicant or his spouse. A typical Medicaid spend down may include the repayment of debt for the Medicaid applicant or his or her spouse (but not for another adult, which would be an uncompensated transfer), the payment of legal fees for crisis Medicaid planning and a Medicaid application, payments for other services to the Medicaid applicant and his spouse, the payment of real estate taxes and other costs of home ownership, the purchase of irrevocable prepaid burial arrangements for the Medicaid applicant and his spouse, the payment of “key money” to facilitate the admission of the Medicaid applicant to the best long-term care facility available. (This can frequently require private payment for several months of long term care). Where the applicant owns a home, he may consider repairs and deferred maintenance to the home, especially where there is a healthy spouse who will remain at home or if the home needs repairs and maintenance to facilitate its sale. Many seniors may also consider buying a new car, or new household furnishing or personal goods.
The purchase of a life estate in a child’s home may be a suitable spend down strategy for an elderly parent who is presently independent but may need Medicaid in the next few years, the parent wishes to reside in the child’s home and the child is amenable. A life estate is an undivided ownership interest in the real property and gives the holder the right to reside in the home during his lifetime as well as favorable capital gains income tax consequences and responsibilities for the home’s financial upkeep. If the parent reside in the child’s home for a period of at least one year and the value of the life estate is properly computed and both parent and child execute a deed memorializing the life estate purchase, the parent’s payment to the child for the life estate will not result in a Medicaid penalty period.
One of the most powerful spend down strategies is the purchase of a Medicaid compliant annuity. This is an annuity which meets strict criteria in the federal Medicaid statute. The annuity can be funded with either non-qualified or qualified retirement funds. If the annuity is non-qualified, the annuity contract must provide for equal monthly payments (with no balloon payments), be irrevocable, non-assignable and the annuity term must be for a period longer than the actuarial life expectancy of the annuitant, as calculated according to actuarial life expectancy tables promulgated by the Social Security Administration or the state of residence of the Medicaid applicant. The annuity contract must name the state from which Medicaid benefits are sought as either the first remainder beneficiary to the extent of any Medicaid lien, or the state is named in the second position after the community spouse. If these requirements are satisfied, and assuming that the Medicaid applicant is otherwise eligible for Medicaid, the annuity contract cannot be treated as a countable asset and the annuity purchase cannot result in the imposition of any Medicaid penalty period. See 42 U.S.C. 1396p(c)(1)(G); Carlini v. Velez, 947 F.Supp.2d 842 (D.N.J. 2013).
Similar rules apply for a qualified Medicaid-compliant annuity contract.
Here is an illustration of why the Medicaid compliant annuity purchase can be a powerful strategy to retitle a couple’s assets and preserve funds for the healthy spouse to remain for years in the family home.
Example. Mary and James are ages 80 and 85, respectively. James needs nursing home care and Mary needs assisted living care. Mary’s only income is an estimated $600 monthly from her Social Security benefit. James’ income is comprised of $1,200 from Social Security, and he is not a veteran. After their home is sold, the couple has $438,000 in liquid assets and James is ineligible for Medicaid due to the couple’s excess funds. Without Medicaid planning, due to their home states’ maximum community spouse reserve allowance, Mary would have to spend down approximately $310,000, in order for James to become eligible for Medicaid. Fortunately, she can spend the sum of $310,000 on a Medicaid annuity, which will enable James to become eligible for Medicaid in the following month and will provide her with sufficient monthly income to pay for her assisted living. If the term of the annuity is for three years and for 36 equal monthly payments to Mary in the sum of over $8,600. Mary is now able to pay for at least four years of assisted living care and can remain comfortably in the community. After the annuity term expires, Mary will likely be financially eligible for Medicaid herself.
Spend down is also important for United States military veterans and their spouses who are seeking the Veteran’s improved pension or the Dependency Indemnity Compensation for a surviving spouse or child. In computing the applicant’s net worth for this means-tested benefit, federal law allows a deduction for unreimbursed medical expenses.
Medical expenses can include costs paid for services from health care providers, custodial care and must constitute a payment for an item or service that is medically necessary; improves the disabled individual’s functioning; or prevents, slows, or eases an individual’s functional decline.
Medical expenses may include care by a health care provider, i.e., someone who can only be an individual appropriately licensed by the state or country in which the service is provided to provide health care in that state or country. In-home care providers are not always subject to licensure.
The definition of “health care provider” in the final rule incorporates a licensure requirement and the term may include, but is not limited to, a doctor, physician’s assistant, psychologist, chiropractor, registered nurse, licensed vocational nurse, and a physical or occupational therapist. Other categories of deductible medical expenses (to the extent not reimbursed) include medications, medical supplies, medical equipment and medical food, vitamins, and supplements if prescribed or directed by a health care provider authorized to write prescriptions, adaptive equipment, or service animals, including the cost of any veterinary care, used to assist a person with an ongoing disability; the cost of transportation for medical purposes, i.e., to and from a health care provider’s office, health insurance premiums, smoking cessation products; and institutional forms of care and in home care, including hospitals, nursing homes, medical foster homes, and inpatient treatment centers.
Questions? Let Jane know.
Jane Fearn-Zimmer is an Elder and Disability Law, Taxation, and Trusts and Estates attorney. 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.