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Elder Law

Monday, November 30, 2015

Common Estate Planning Mistakes Regarding Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs)

For many people, retirement savings accounts are among the largest assets they have to bequeath to their children and grandchildren in their estate plans.  Sadly, without professional and personally tailored advice about how best to include IRAs in one’s estate plan, there may be a failure to take advantage of techniques that will maximize the amount of assets that will be available for future generations.

Failure to Update Contingent Beneficiaries

Assets in an IRA account usually transfer automatically to the named beneficiaries upon the death of the account holder, outside of the probate process.  If the account holder’s desired beneficiaries change, due to marriage, divorce, or other major life events, it is critically important to update the named beneficiaries as quickly as possible to prevent the asset from passing to an outdated beneficiary.  When updating beneficiaries, account holders should not neglect contingent beneficiaries – those individuals named to receive the asset if the primary named beneficiary is already deceased when the account holder dies.

Example:  Sarah’s IRA documents name her husband, Harold, as the primary beneficiary of her IRA.  The contingent beneficiary is Harold’s son, George, from Harold’s first marriage.  Sarah and Harold divorce.  Harold dies.  If Sarah dies before changing her IRA beneficiaries, George will receive the IRA.  This may no longer be the result Sarah would have wanted.

Failure to Consider a Trust as the Contingent Beneficiary of an IRA


There are three main advantages of naming a trust as the contingent beneficiary of your IRA: 

  1. It avoids the problem described above of having incorrect contingent beneficiaries named at death.
  2. It protects the IRA if the desired beneficiary is a minor, has debt or marital troubles, or is irresponsible with money.
  3. It protects the IRA from intentional or unintentional withdrawal.

Since 2005, the IRS has allowed a type of trust created specifically to be the beneficiary of an IRA.  The IRA Beneficiary Trust is also known as an IRA trust, an IRA stretch trust, an IRA protection trust, or a standalone IRA trust.

The main advantage of using an IRA Beneficiary Trust instead of a standard revocable living trust is that the IRA trust can restrict distributions to ensure compliance with tax rules and minimum distribution requirements – thus maximizing the amount of tax-free growth of the investments.

Another advantage is that the IRA stretch trust has a framework that allows it to be structured in a way that guarantees protection of the distributions from the IRA as well as protection of the principal of the IRA.  When you first establish the IRA protection trust, you structure the trust as either a conduit trust or an accumulation trust.  A conduit trust will pass the required minimum distributions directly to your named beneficiaries, maximizing the tax deferral benefits.  An accumulation trust passes the required minimum distributions into another trust over which a named trustee has discretion to accumulate the funds, resulting in greater asset protection for the benefit of the beneficiary.

During your lifetime, the IRS allows you to switch between the conduit trust and accumulation trust for each of your beneficiaries, as circumstances change.  Furthermore, you may name a “trust protector” who may change the type of trust one last time after your death.  This change may be made on a beneficiary-by-beneficiary basis, so that some of your intended heirs have accumulation trusts for their portion of the IRA and others have conduit trusts.

IRA Beneficiary Trusts are complicated legal documents with intricate IRS rules and tremendous implications for your family’s wealth accumulation for future generations.  It is wise to seek advice specific to your family’s unique circumstances when considering the establishment of this powerful type of trust.


 


Monday, November 2, 2015

Should you withdraw your Social Security benefits early?

Should you withdraw your Social Security benefits early?

You don’t have to be retired to dip into your Social Security benefits which are available to you as early as age 62.  But is the early withdrawal worth the costs?

A quick visit to the U.S. Social Security Administration Retirement Planner website can help you figure out just how much money you’ll receive if you withdraw early. The benefits you will collect before reaching the full retirement age of 66 will be less than your full potential amount.

The reduction of benefits in early withdrawal is based upon the amount of time you currently are from full retirement age. If you withdraw at the earliest point of age 62, you will receive 25% less than your full benefits.  If you were born after 1960, that amount is 30%. At 63, the reduction is around 20%, and it continues to decrease as you approach the age of 66.

Withdrawing early also presents a risk if you think there is a chance you may go back to work. Excess earnings may be cause for the Social Security Administration to withhold some benefits. Though a special rule is in existence that withholding cannot be applied for one year during retired months, regardless of yearly earnings, extended working periods can result in decreased benefits. The withheld benefits, however, will be taken into consideration and recalculated once you reach full retirement age.

If you are considering withdrawing early from your retirement accounts, it is important to consider both age and your particular benefits. If you are unsure of how much you will receive, you can look to your yearly statement from Social Security. Social Security Statements are sent out to everyone over the age of 25 once a year, and should come in the mail about three months before your birthday. You can also request a copy of the form by phone or the web, or calculate your benefits yourself through programs that are available online at www.ssa.gov/retire.

The more you know about your benefits, the easier it will be to make a well-educated decision about when to withdraw. If you can afford to, it’s often worth it to wait. Ideally, if you have enough savings from other sources of income to put off withdrawing until after age 66, you will be rewarded with your full eligible benefits.
 


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Senior Citizens Comprise Growing Demographic of Bankruptcy Filers

It’s called your “golden years” but for many seniors and baby boomers, there is no gold and retirement savings are too often insufficient to maintain even basic living standards of retirees. In fact, a recent study by the University of Michigan found that baby boomers are the fastest growing age group filing for bankruptcy. And even for those who have not yet filed for bankruptcy, a lack of retirement savings greatly troubles many who face their final years with fear and uncertainty.

Another study, conducted by Financial Engines revealed that nearly half of all baby boomers fear they will be in the poor house after retirement. Adding insult to injury, this anxiety also discourages many from taking the necessary steps to establish and implement a clear, workable financial plan. So instead, they find themselves with mounting credit card debt, and a shortfall when it comes time to pay the bills.

In fact, one in every four baby boomers have depleted their savings during the recession and nearly half face the prospect of running out of money after they retire. With the depletion of their savings, many seniors are resorting to the use of credit cards to maintain their standard of living.  This is further exacerbated by skyrocketing medical costs, and the desire to lend a helping hand to adult children, many of whom are also under financial distress.  These circumstances have led to a dramatic increase in the number of senior citizens finding themselves in financial trouble and turning to the bankruptcy courts for relief.

In 2010, seven percent of all bankruptcy filers were over the age of 65. That’s up from just two percent a decade ago. For the 55-and-up age bracket, that number balloons to 22 percent of all bankruptcy filings nationwide.

Whether filing for bankruptcy relief under a Chapter 7 liquidation, or a Chapter 13 reorganization, senior citizens face their own hurdles. Unlike many younger filers, senior citizens tend to have more equity in their homes, and less opportunity to increase their incomes. The lack of well-paying job prospects severely limits older Americans’ ability to re-establish themselves financially following a bankruptcy, especially since their income sources are typically fixed while their expenses continue to increase.
 


Thursday, August 6, 2015

You’ve Finally Done Your Healthcare Directives – Now What?

Healthcare directives can be vitally important, as recent cases, like that of Terry Schiavo, clearly brought to light. These important documents can mean the difference between your health care wishes being carried out or family members fighting over whether a loved one should be placed in a nursing home or removed from life support. Healthcare directives usually include both a healthcare power of attorney and a living will, or a form which is a combination of the two. In a healthcare power of attorney, an individual authorizes another individual to make healthcare decisions for him or her if the individual becomes unable to do so. A living will expresses an individual’s preferences about life support.

Once you have executed your healthcare directives, you may be uncertain as to what to do with them. First, you should make copies of the documents and inform others of their existence. In addition to your health care agent, persons you should consider notifying of the directives include family members and your health care providers.  Ideally, the originals should be kept in a place that is both safe and easily accessible.

You may wish to consider using a secure registry service to store your healthcare directives. Such services allow you to access healthcare directives any time and in any location with access to the Internet.  Some also allow the documents to be accessed via an automated fax-back service. In addition to providing the healthcare directives, many registries also allow caregivers to access information like emergency contacts, allergies, and other pertinent medical information.

You should review your healthcare directives regularly.  As individuals get older, their preferences about health care and life support change, and it’s important that your directives reflect your current health care wishes.   Of course, life changing events such as marriage, divorce, or the death of a loved one typically require changes in those documents to ensure that the people named in them are still those you wish to make decisions on your behalf.  

Moving to another state? Many states provide that healthcare directives prepared in another state are valid, but you should consult an attorney to make sure your wishes will be carried out in the manner you desire.

Establishing your healthcare directives can spare your family a great deal of anguish if they need to make decisions at a time that is already very emotionally-charged. By keeping the documents in a secure place, providing copies to loved ones, and reviewing them regularly, you can be more certain that your healthcare wishes will be carried out.
 


Monday, December 15, 2014

Guardianships & Conservatorships and How to Avoid Them

If a person becomes mentally or physically handicapped to a point where they can no longer make rational decisions about their person or their finances, their loved ones may consider a guardianship or a conservatorship whereby a guardian would make decisions concerning the physical person of the disabled individual, and conservators make decisions about the finances.

Typically, a loved one who is seeking a guardianship or a conservatorship will petition the appropriate court to be appointed guardian and/or conservator. The court will most likely require a medical doctor to make an examination of the disabled individual, also referred to as the ward, and appoint an attorney to represent the ward’s interests. The court will then typically hold a hearing to determine whether a guardianship and/or conservatorship should be established. If so, the ward would no longer have the ability to make his or her own medical or financial decisions.  The guardian and/or conservator usually must file annual reports on the status of the ward and his finances.

Guardianships and conservatorships can be an expensive legal process, and in many cases they are not necessary or could be avoided with a little advance planning. One way is with a financial power of attorney, and advance directives for healthcare such as living wills and durable powers of attorney for healthcare. With those documents, a mentally competent adult can appoint one or more individuals to handle his or her finances and healthcare decisions in the event that he or she can no longer take care of those things. A living trust is also a good way to allow someone to handle your financial affairs – you can create the trust while you are alive, and if you become incompetent someone else can manage your property on your behalf.

In addition to establishing durable powers of attorney and advanced healthcare directives, it is often beneficial to apply for representative payee status for government benefits. If a person gets VA benefits, Social Security or Supplemental Security Income, the Social Security Administration or the Veterans’ Administration can appoint a representative payee for the benefits without requiring a conservatorship. This can be especially helpful in situations in which the ward owns no assets and the only income is from Social Security or the VA.

When a loved one becomes mentally or physically handicapped to the point of no longer being able to take care of his or her own affairs, it can be tough for loved ones to know what to do. Fortunately, the law provides many options for people in this situation.  
 


Monday, December 8, 2014

Joint Bank Accounts and Medicaid Eligibility

Like most governmental benefit programs, there are many myths surrounding Medicaid and eligibility for benefits. One of the most common myths is the belief that only 50% of the funds in a jointly-owned bank account will be considered an asset for the purposes of calculating Medicaid eligibility.

Medicaid is a needs-based program that is administered by the state.  Therefore, many of its eligibility requirements and procedures vary across state lines.  Generally, when an applicant is an owner of a joint bank account the full amount in the account is presumed to belong to the applicant. Regardless of how many other names are listed on the account, 100% of the account balance is typically included when calculating the applicant’s eligibility for Medicaid benefits.    

Why would the state do this? Often, these jointly held bank accounts consist solely of funds contributed by the Medicaid applicant, with the second person added to the account for administrative or convenience purposes, such as writing checks or discussing matters with bank representatives. If a joint owner can document that both parties have contributed funds and the account is truly a “joint” account, the state may value the account differently. Absent clear and convincing evidence, however, the full balance of the joint bank account will be deemed to belong to the applicant.  


Monday, November 17, 2014

Making Your Home Senior-Proof

Let’s face it – it’s tough getting old. The aches, pains, and pills often associated with aging are things that many members of the baby-boomer generation know all too well by now. Though you might not be able to turn back time, you can help an aging loved one enjoy their golden years by giving them a safe, affordable place to call home. If an aging parent is moving in with you and your family, there are many quick fixes for the home that will create a safe environment for seniors.

Start by taking a good look at your floor plan. Are all the bedrooms upstairs? You may want to think about turning a living area on the main floor into a bedroom. Stairs grow difficult with age, especially for seniors with canes or walkers. Try to have everything they need accessible on one floor, including a bed, full bathroom, and kitchen. If the one-floor plan isn’t possible, make sure you have railings installed on both sides of staircases for support. A chair lift is another option for seniors who require walkers or wheelchairs.

Be sure to remove all hazards in hallways and on floors. Get rid of throw rugs – they can pose a serious tripping hazard. Make sure all child or pet toys are kept off the floor. Add nightlights to dark hallways for easy movement during the night when necessary. Also install handrails for support near doorframes and most importantly, in bathrooms.

Handlebars next to toilets and in showers are essential for senior safety. Use traction strips in the shower, which should also be equipped with a seat and removable showerhead. To avoid accidental scalding, set your hot water heater so that temperatures can’t reach boiling. You may also want to consider a raised seat with armrests to place over your toilet, to make sitting and standing easier.

This applies to all other chairs in the house as well. Big, puffy chairs and couches can make it very difficult for seniors to sit and stand. Have living and dining room chairs with stable armrests, and consider an electronic recliner for easy relaxation.

To keep everyone comfortable and help avoid accidents, store all frequently used items in easily accessible places. Keep heavy kitchen items between waist and chest height.

Even with appropriate precautions, not all accidents can be avoided. Purchasing a personal alarm system like Life Alert can be the most important preparation you make for a senior family member. If they are ever left alone, Life Alert provides instant medical attention with the push of a button that they wear at all times.

Amidst all the safety preparations, remember that it’s important to keep the brain healthy, too. Have puzzles, cards, large-print books and magazines, computer games, and simple exercises available to keep seniors of healthy body and mind.

These simple preparations can not only help extend the life of your loved one, but help to make sure their remaining years are happy and healthy.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Do I Really Need Advance Directives for Health Care?

Many people are confused by advance directives. They are unsure what type of directives are out there, and whether they even need directives at all, especially if they are young. There are several types of advance directives. One is a living will, which communicates what type of life support and medical treatments, such as ventilators or a feeding tube, you wish to receive. Another type is called a health care power of attorney. In a health care power of attorney, you give someone the power to make health care decisions for you in the event are unable to do so for yourself. A third type of advance directive for health care is a do not resuscitate order. A DNR order is a request that you not receive CPR if your heart stops beating or you stop breathing. Depending on the laws in your state, the health care form you execute could include all three types of health care directives, or you may do each individually.

If you are 18 or over, it’s time to establish your health care directives. Although no one thinks they will be in a medical situation requiring a directive at such a young age, it happens every day in the United States. People of all ages are involved in tragic accidents that couldn’t be foreseen and could result in life support being used. If you plan in advance, you can make sure you receive the type of medical care you wish, and you can avoid a lot of heartache to your family, who may be forced to guess what you would want done.

Many people do not want to do health care directives because they may believe some of the common misperceptions that exist about them. People are often frightened to name someone to make health care decisions for them, because they fear they will give up the right to make decisions for themselves. However, an individual always has the right, if he or she is competent, to revoke the directive or make his or her own decisions.  Some also fear they will not be treated if they have a health care directive. This is also a common myth – the directive simply informs caregivers of the person you designate to make health care decisions and the type of treatment you’d like to receive in various situations.  Planning ahead can ensure that your treatment preferences are carried out while providing some peace of mind to your loved ones who are in a position to direct them.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Medicare vs. Medicaid: Similarities and Differences

With such similar sounding names, many Americans mistake Medicare and Medicaid programs for one another, or presume the programs are as similar as their names. While both are government-run programs, there are many important differences. Medicare provides senior citizens, the disabled and the blind with medical benefits. Medicaid, on the other hand, provides healthcare benefits for those with little to no income.

Overview of Medicare
Medicare is a public health insurance program for Americans who are 65 or older. The program does not cover long-term care, but can cover payments for certain rehabilitation treatments. For example, if a Medicare patient is admitted to a hospital for at least three days and is subsequently admitted to a skilled nursing facility, Medicare may cover some of those payments. However, Medicare payments for such care and treatment will cease after 100 days.

In summary:

  • Medicare provides health insurance for those aged 65 and older
  • Medicare is regulated under federal law, and is applied uniformly throughout the United States
  • Medicare pays for up to 100 days of care in a skilled nursing facility
  • Medicare pays for hospital care and medically necessary treatments and services
  • Medicare does not pay for long-term care
  • To be eligible for Medicare, you generally must have paid into the system

Overview of Medicaid
Medicaid is a state-run program, funded by both the federal and state governments. Because Medicaid is administered by the state, the requirements and procedures vary across state lines and you must look to the law in your area for specific eligibility rules. The federal government issues Medicaid guidelines, but each state gets to determine how the guidelines will be implemented.

In summary:

  • Medicaid is a health care program based on financial need
  • Medicaid is regulated under state law, which varies from state to state
  • Medicaid will cover long-term care
     

Monday, October 6, 2014

Estate Planning: The Medicaid Asset Protection Trust

The irrevocable Medicaid Asset Protection Trust has proven to be a highly effective estate planning tool for many older Americans. There are many factors to consider when deciding whether a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust is right for you and your family. This brief overview is designed to give you a starting point for discussions with your loved ones and legal counsel.

A Medicaid Asset Protection Trust enables an individual or a married couple to transfer some of their assets into a trust, to hold and manage the assets throughout their lifetime. Upon their deaths, the remainder of the assets will be transferred to the heirs in accordance with the provisions of the trust.

This process is best explained by an example. Let’s say Mr. and Mrs. Smith, both retired, own stocks and savings accounts valued at $300,000. Their current living expenses are covered by income from these investments, plus Social Security and their retirement benefits. Should either one of them ever be admitted to a skilled nursing facility, the Smiths likely will not have enough money left over to cover living and medical expenses for the rest of their lives.

Continuing the above example, the Smiths can opt to transfer all or a portion of their investments into a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust. Under the terms of the trust, all investment income will continue to be paid to the Smiths during their lifetimes. Should one of them ever need Medicaid coverage for nursing home care, the income would then be paid to the other spouse. Upon the deaths of both spouses, the trust is terminated and the remaining assets are distributed to the Smiths’ children or other heirs as designated in the trust. As long as the Smiths are alive, their assets are protected and they enjoy a continued income stream throughout their lives.

However, the Medicaid Asset Protection Trust is not without its pitfalls. Creation of such a trust can result in a period of ineligibility for benefits under the Medicaid program. The length of time varies, according to the value of the assets transferred and the date of the transfer. Following expiration of the ineligibility period, the assets held within the trust are generally protected and will not be factored in when calculating assets for purposes of qualification for Medicaid benefits. Furthermore, transferring assets into an irrevocable Medicaid Asset Protection Trust keeps them out of both spouses’ reach for the duration of their lives.

Deciding whether a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust is right for you is a complex process that must take into consideration many factors regarding your assets, income, family structure, overall health, life expectancy, and your wishes regarding how property should be handled after your death. An experienced elder law or Medicaid attorney can help guide you through the decision making process.
 


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

First Party and Third Party Pooled Income Trusts, Explained

Generally, a "pooled trust" holds assets for people that have a disability, and/or elderly individuals. The trust is established and run by a not-for-profit organization, which will establish separate accounts for each individual within their system. However, the money of all of the individuals served is added together (in other words, it is pooled together) for investment and management purposes.

There are typically two types of pooled trusts. The first type is sometimes referred to as a "first party" trust. In this type of trust the disabled person places his or her own assets into the trust. Doing so will cause those assets to be non-countable for government benefit programs, such as Medicaid. The trustee of the trust (the not-for-profit organization) can use that person's money to pay for things that Medicaid will not cover. So, the assets are still there for the benefit of the person but their use is restricted. In this type of "first party" trust, any assets that remain when the person dies must be paid to the state up to the amount that the state has paid out for the person's care under the Medicaid program.

The second type of pooled trust is referred to as a "third party" trust. This means that the money did not come from the disabled person. For example, a parent with a disabled child could leave that child's inheritance to a pooled trust for the benefit of the child. The benefit is that the money would still be there for the child but would not disqualify the child from receiving SSI or Medicaid because the money would not be counted for these government programs. Unlike the first party trust, upon the death of the disabled person (in this example, the child) any remaining assets do not have to go to the state but can pass to any other beneficiaries that the parent wanted to have them.

Whether a pooled trust would be of any benefit to you depends upon many factors. Seek the advice of a qualified estate planning attorney to determine your best course of action.


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