Getting a Spousal Waiver for Medicaid Isn’t as Easy as You May Think in New Jersey 

This blog post is intended to help educate your family regarding the limited instances in which a spousal waiver may be available and help guide you through the tedious process of obtaining one in a suitable case. 

The Managed Long Term Services and Supports (MLTSS) Medicaid Program offers valuable benefits, which can provide for long term services and supports in the home, in an assisted living setting or in a nursing home.  However, federal Medicaid law and policy requires the states to evaluate all of the resources available to the Medicaid applicant during the five years immediately preceding the date of filing of the Medicaid application.  This requirement can make it very difficult to obtain a MLTSS approval, particularly if the Medicaid applicant has been separated from a spouse, has a obtained a divorce from bed and board, or has been divorced in the past five years.

Medicaid law and policy provides for Medicaid eligibility as a last resort, requiring the applicant to spend down any excess resources available over the $2,000 countable asset limit.  Under New Jersey common law, spouses can be held liable for necessary expenses (i.e., the cost of medical care) of their spouse and if their assets are in excess of the maximum community spouse reserve allowance (currently set at $130,380), even if the Medicaid applicant has less than $2,000, his or her Medicaid eligibility can be jeopardized by the funds in the name of the healthy spouse. 

Consequently, in determining eligibility for Medicaid, the County Welfare Office (CWO) will ask an applicant’s marital status, and will consider the applicant and his or her spouse legally married until the entry of a final judgment of divorce.  If the CWO determines that you are still married (which can happen even if you have been separated for years or have a divorce from bed and board), it will typically take a “what’s your’s is mine” approach in determining Medicaid eligibility.  This policy is typically enforced by requiring the Medicaid application to provide the spouse or former spouse’s social security number, if the Medicaid applicant has been married at any point during the five year Medicaid lookback period.  The social security number may be used to conduct an asset search, which will probably enable the CWO to identify and consider the current assets of the healthy current or former spouse.   This verification process places the Medicaid applicant in a Catch-22, because banking privacy laws block access to the healthy spouse’s statements, and the healthy spouse is unlikely to spend down assets under his or her sole control for the care of the sick former partner. 

What is spousal refusal? In some other states, especially New York, the strategy of “spousal refusal” is commonly used.  Under this strategy, the healthy spouse refuses to pay the nursing home bills of the spouse applying for Medicaid.  In response, the CWO in “spousal refusal” states evaluates Medicaid eligibility on the basis of the sick spouse’s own assets and income.  This result is referred to as a spousal waiver

New Jersey’s Strict Policy Regarding Spousal Waivers.  For years, the Garden State had a policy against awarding spousal waivers, in all but the most extreme cases, such was where spouses had lived separate and apart for many years.   As a result, spouse waivers were a rarity, making it best to obtain a final judgment of divorce and then wait more than five years to file a Medicaid application. 

How I was able to obtain spousal waiver for one of my recent clients:

In a nut shell, New Jersey was refusing to recognize federal law which provided for spousal refusal. Other states, including NY, do recognize spousal refusal. A little over a year prior to this case, another attorney’s application for a spousal waiver was denied by the New Jersey Department of Human Services, which prompted the case to be taken to the appellate division and the policy against spousal refusal/spousal waivers was overturned. Par for the course, New Jersey was very reluctant to grant the applications.

In my case, the spouses were still married.  The sick spouse was well-educated, extremely bright and conversant. However, their marriage was so difficult that the healthy spouse obtained a domestic violence restraining order against the other spouse, who nine years later became my client.  From that date forward, the two spouses lived separate and apart.  Eventually, one of the spouses needed long term care, and the spousal waiver was obtained largely on the basis of the restraining order.  It was critical to obtain all of that documentation.  Having the spousal waiver meant that the sick spouse was able to get the skilled nursing care needed, without the cooperation of the healthy spouse in the Medicaid application process.

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.

Medicaid Estate Recovery and the Home

Jane Fearn-Zimmer explains Medicaid Estate Recovery and the Home

MLTSS Medicaid pays for long term care for individuals with low income (below $2,313 gross monthly in 2019) and low assets.

Post-mortem (after death) Medicaid liens protect the fiscal integrity of the MLTSS Medicaid program by attaching to property held by a Medicaid enrollee at death. In most cases, such Medicaid liens are imposed upon property held by a former Medicaid enrollee to recoup the cost of care and services provided to the enrollee after reaching the age of 55. After the death of the Medicaid beneficiary, the Medicaid estate recovery program collects on the Medicaid liens, with the lien proceeds being paid to the government.

In most cases, Medicaid liens attach only to property in which the Medicaid enrollee held an interest at the moment immediately before death. If the Medicaid enrollee retained no interest just before death, there is nothing subject to a Medicaid lien.

An important planning strategy is to remove the name of the future MLTSS Medicaid recipient from the title to valuable property, such as a home. If the future Medicaid recipient is married, often this property can be transferred to the healthy spouse without any Medicaid penalty period, even during the five year Medicaid look back period.

If the future Medicaid enrollee’s name is not removed from the property at the correct time, a Medicaid lien on real property can cloud title, accelerate a mortgage, and potentially place the property in foreclosure.  Even if the mortgage is not accelerated, the Medicaid lien must be paid before the real property can be sold, given away or refinanced.  Consequently, that is one reason why you should only trust your Medicaid application to an experienced Medicaid attorney, who can determine the best strategy to avoid a Medicaid lien.

Every case is different.  Irrevocable trusts will be suitable for some clients; others may be able to transfer the home without incurring a Medicaid penalty period, where there is a blind or disabled child, a sibling with an equity interest in the home, or, less frequently, to a caregiver child.  There are also some limited exceptions to Medicaid estate recovery.

The good news is that an experienced and knowledgeable elder law attorney can explain how to protect your home and your life savings, even if your loved one is already in long-term care.

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.

Returning From a Nursing Home to the Home

Senior woman sitting on the wheelchair aloneWhat are the options available to a long-term care resident who wants to return home? Consider using the Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) centered planning rules to help the resident transition back into the community. The care plan can be written in a manner to facilitate the resident’s discharge to the community.  If the individual experiences delay on the part of the Managed Care Organization (MCO) in updating the planning, the individual has a right to a service plan at her request and then annually, or upon a change in condition. Should the individual encounter delays by the MCO’s or if the individuals requested by the resident fail or decline to attend important meetings, one solution may be to involve an Omsbudsman and/or the Managed Long Term Services and Supports (MLTSS) offices, which can enforce a service plan. Generally, the initial meeting should be used to generate a list of action items, including the identification of the Medicare cutoff date and the filing of a MLTSS Medicaid application, obtaining therapies to strengthen the individual for her return to the community. A second meeting may be necessary to draft the plan. Any plan adopted must differentiate between paid and unpaid services to the individual. For instance, if a grandchild is not willing to provide free care and services on a Saturday evening, this should be stated in the plan.

Under the HCBS person-centered planning rules, the MCO must hold a care conference at the time and place selected by the resident.  A care conference is a meeting held by social worker, nurse and other long term care professionals to discuss the best care plan for the resident. The care needs and preferences of the resident are discussed and a written plan of care is documented. The care plan must reflect the goals and objectives for care. For instance, if the resident who is unable to move without assistance, needs to be provided with an air mattress and needs to be turned every two hours to prevent bedsores, this should be stated in the care plan. The cultural affinities of the resident may also be stated in the care plan.

The resident is entitled to have a representative in the care planning process. This can, but does not need to be, his or her financial power of attorney. The resident should not wait for the providers to initiate the process. The MCO must provide the resident with enough information so that he or she can make an informed decision.  If the resident is being discharged back into the community, and will require care 24/7, the post-discharge plan of care must provide whether any unpaid services is going to be performed on a volunteer versus paid basis. The MCO cannot require family members or friends who are not willing to commit to providing free care on a continuing basis to provide the care without compensation.  If various therapies will be needed to strengthen the individual so that she may return to the community, a physician’s order for skilled therapy should be incorporated into the care plan.

The written service plan prepared and implemented through the MCO must spell out how the individual will transition from care in a facility to care in the community and should identify specific goals and services. What funding is available to facilitate an individual’s transition back to the community?  Under the post-eligibility treatment of income rules found at 42 C.F.R. § 435.72, the individual may keep all of her income up to a limit of $2,005.00 per month for up to six months, which can be used to pay rent for an apartment in the community.

The discharge service plan should be prepared taking into consideration the unique abilities and preferences of the disabled and whatever decision –making capacity the soon-to-be discharged resident has retained.  Where the resident is unable to make and implement care-related decisions independently, one possibility is to empower the resident by involving him or her in a collaborative, or supportive decision making (SDM), process.  In this model, the resident awaiting discharge helps define the post-charge plan of care through the assistance of “supporters,” who can help the resident plan the he or she will receive in the community. The SDM decision-making model works best when the “supporters” remain available and cooperative in assisting with the implementation of the decision selected by the disabled or incompetent individual. SDM can be incorporated into the in the discharge planning process for an individual with limited or diminishing capacity. If this is not feasible, where there is not already a power of attorney, alternatives may include obtaining a limited guardianship order (as opposed to a plenary guardianship order) and using the limited guardianship process to define and constrain the authority of the facility’s representative in the discharge process, so that the discharge plan optimally furthers the best interests of the resident returning to the community. Finally, the resident department from a nursing home has a right to seek a Fair Hearing upon transfer or discharge and the service plan itself should incorporate appeal/Fair Hearing rights incorporate within the plan.

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.