Authors Posts by Nancy Burner Esq., CELA

Nancy Burner Esq., CELA

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Chronic Medicaid is the program that covers nursing home care.

By Nancy Burner, ESQ.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

When someone enters a nursing facility, an application for Chronic Medicaid may be appropriate. The average cost of a nursing facility on Long Island is $15,000 per month. This type of cost would exhaust assets very quickly in most cases.

Chronic Medicaid is the program that covers nursing home care. Medicaid is a needs-based program, which means there are resource and income requirements that must be met.

For 2017, an individual applying for Chronic Medicaid can have no more than $14,850 in liquid nonqualified assets, an unlimited amount of retirement assets so long as the applicant is taking a monthly required distribution and an irrevocable prepaid funeral trust. The applicant may keep no more than $50 per month in income.

Chronic Medicaid has a five-year look-back. The look-back refers to the period of time that the Department of Social Services will review your assets and any transfers that you have made. To the extent that the applicant has made transfers or has too many assets in their name to qualify, they will be ineligible for Medicaid. If the applicant gifted or transferred money out of his or her name in order to qualify for Medicaid, the Department of Social Services will total the dollar amount of gifts and for each approximately $12,811 that was gifted, one month of Medicaid ineligibility is imposed.

For example, if an individual gifted away approximately $50,000 within the five-year time period, the Department of Social Services will impose a four-month penalty. It is also important to note that the ineligibility begins to run on the day that the applicant enters the nursing home rather than on the day that the gift was made.

If the applicant entered the nursing home in September, the four-month penalty would run for September, October, November and December. Medicaid would pick up starting in January and the applicant would be responsible for the nursing home bill from September through December. If the applicant exceeds $14,850 in liquid assets, there are certain planning mechanisms that can be used in order to qualify the applicant for Chronic Medicaid benefits. One of those mechanisms is establishing an irrevocable pre-need funeral. New York State law mandates that pre-need burial trusts for applicants or recipients of Medicaid be irrevocable.

This means that the prearrangement may not be canceled prior to death nor can funds be refunded if the actual funeral costs are less than then funded agreement. Thereby, an individual with a revocable agreement would have to convert it to an irrevocable agreement if they were to require Medicaid in the future.

The Medicaid applicant is also permitted to set up pre-needs for a spouse, minor and adult children, stepchildren, brothers, sisters, parents and the spouses of these persons. The timing of when these pre-need funeral trusts are established can be crucial to the Medicaid application.

It is important to note aside from the irrevocable pre-need there are other exempt transfers that can be used to qualify an individual for Chronic Medicaid. Transfer of assets to a spouse in an unlimited amount, transfer of the primary residence to a caretaker child, transfer of assets to a disabled child and transfer of the primary residence to a sibling with an equity interest are exempt transfers used to qualify an individual for Chronic Medicaid. Even when there are no exempt transfers, there is last minute planning that can be accomplished that could save approximately half of the remaining assets.

It is crucial to consult an elder law attorney in your area as soon as possible in order to preserve the maximum amount of assets.

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office. For more information, call 631-941-3434 or visit www.burnerlaw.com.

A trustee must put the interests of the trust beneficiaries before their own

By Nancy Burner, ESQ.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

If you have been named as a trustee of someone’s trust, you may be wondering what you are supposed to do. It is important that the trustee understand his or her duties and responsibilities. The most important thing to remember as a trustee is that the trust assets are not your assets. You are safeguarding them for the settlor and/or beneficiaries, who will receive them after the settlor dies.

As a trustee, you stand in a “fiduciary” role with respect to the beneficiaries of the trust. As a fiduciary, you will be held to a very high standard. The trustee must read the trust document carefully, upon acting initially and when any questions arise. The trust is the road map and the trustee must follow its directions in administering the trust. A trustee should be aware that failing to abide by the terms of the trust document and mismanaging the assets can have serious financial repercussions for the trustee personally such as forfeiture of commissions and surcharge.

This very issue came up in the recent Suffolk County Surrogate’s Court case of Accounting Proceeding the Schweiger Family 2013 Irrevocable Trust decided on Sept. 7, 2017.

The subject trust stated that during the lifetime of the settlor, the trustees in their sole discretion may pay the net income to or for the benefit of the settlor’s beneficiaries or accumulate such income. With respect to principal, the trustees were given the discretion to pay so much of the principal to or for the benefit of the settlor’s beneficiaries. The trust did not require equal principal distributions and same may be made to any or all of the settlor’s beneficiaries.

Distributions made to any beneficiaries during the settlor’s lifetime shall be considered as advancements in determining the beneficiary’s respective share, unless waived by the remaining nonrecipient beneficiaries in writing. The trustees had no authority to pay principal to the settlor.

Despite the language in the trust document, the trustees made distributions to themselves and to individuals that were not beneficiaries, namely the settlor, their children/grandchildren and the spouse of one of the trustees.

In addition, the trustees indicated in their accounting that several of the distributions that were made to themselves as “per settlor’s request.”

After a review of the facts and the language of the trust document, the court held that even if the distributions to the trustees were at the settlor’s suggestion, those distributions were either impermissible gifts of trust assets by the settlor or distributions that the trustees should have assessed against their respective shares as advancements.

With respect to commissions, the court held that intentionally making distributions to individuals who were not beneficiaries of the trust is, in and of itself, a basis to deny commissions. Further, with respect to their self-dealing, either the trustees were in fact aware of the language regarding offsetting advance distributions and chose to disregard it or they were grossly negligent in their failure to seek professional advice to assist them in understanding the duties and responsibilities associated with being trustees. In the end, the trustees were surcharged approximately $230,000 for their self-dealing and failure to abide by the terms of the trust document.

The take away from all of this is that a trustee must follow the terms of the trust instrument and put the interests of the trust beneficiaries before their own. If this is not done the trustee is at risk of personal liability for any breach of duty in the form of denial of commissions or surcharge.

In addition, if you are the trustee of a Medicaid-qualifying irrevocable trust and fail to abide by the terms of the trust, not only do you run the risk of denial of commissions or surcharge, but you can also nullify any protections that the trust provides to the assets held by the trust. This would make all of the assets in the trust be considered an available resource when determining Medicaid eligibility for the settlor and could result in a denial of Medicaid benefits.

With a trustee’s personal liability at stake, it is advisable to retain an attorney to provide advice regarding the trustee’s fiduciary duties and obligations in administering a trust.

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.

There are many benefits to naming a minor as beneficiary of a tax-deffered retirement account.

By Nancy Burner, ESQ.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

Many of our clients have retirement assets held in a traditional IRA, 401K, 403(b) or other similar plan. It is important to periodically review the beneficiary designations on these types of plans. A review should confirm that the institution still has the proper designations on file, the clients’ wishes are being followed, the designations fit into the larger estate plan of the client and that the best interests of the beneficiaries are taken into account. This is of special concern if the beneficiaries are grandchildren or other minors.

There are certain benefits to leaving retirement assets to a minor who is a much younger beneficiary than the original account holder. When you leave retirement assets to a nonspouse, the beneficiary has the right to take it in an “inherited IRA.”

The beneficiary of an inherited IRA must start taking distributions the year after the death of the original account holder. These distributions are taken as a “stretch,” meaning they are determined by the life expectancy of the new IRA beneficiary. In that case, the account can grow tax deferred over a much longer life expectancy.

The rule of thumb is that the account will be worth approximately 30 times its value if distributions are taken over the life expectancy of a grandchild. For example, suppose you name your grandchild as beneficiary of an IRA account with a $100,000 balance. If your grandchild takes distributions based upon her life expectancy each year, then the account could be worth $3,000,000 over her lifetime. This is one of the great benefits of naming a minor as beneficiary of a tax-deferred retirement account.

The problem is that you cannot achieve the benefit of the stretch if you name a minor directly as the beneficiary of any account — you must name a trust for the benefit of the minor.

Since she is not an adult, the minor will be unable to take the distributions as required beginning the year after your death. The only way to access the account is for the court to appoint a guardian for the property of the child, usually the parent. First, this will be a costly and unnecessary proceeding. But the result is even worse.

The court will direct the guardian to distribute the entire IRA and pay the income tax. The income tax will be based upon the parents’ income if the child is under 14 years of age, also known as the “kiddie tax.”

In addition, the monies that are left after paying the income tax will be deposited in a bank account earning very little interest. If that isn’t bad enough, the account will be turned over to the child upon attaining the age of 18. This will obviously impact the child’s financial aid when he or she applies for college. This is a financial disaster. In addition to retirement accounts, you do not want to name minors directly as beneficiaries on IRA accounts, annuities, insurance policies, bank accounts or any other account. Any and all distributions for a minor should be distributed to a trust that is drafted for the benefit of the child.

The trust should be created as part of the estate plan, either through a last will and testament or in an inter vivos trust. Providing for the beneficiary’s share to go into a trust will ensure the benefits of inheriting a retirement asset are received.

The beneficiary can get the stretch on the account and the asset will not need to be held by the court. However, be certain that the trust you are naming for the benefit of the minor is drafted for the purpose of receiving retirement accounts; all trusts are not created equal in this respect. A trust must be properly drafted and meet certain requirements set by the IRS in order to accept the IRA distribution and receive the benefits described above.

Before naming a beneficiary on an account, one should check with the institution holding the account. Each plan has its own individual rules regarding the designation of beneficiaries. For example, the New York State Teacher’s Retirement system has certain benefits for which you can name a trust as beneficiary, while other benefits, including pensions, do not allow this type of beneficiary. Retirement savings can be the largest asset one leaves behind. Being sure it is properly designated can protect the best interests of your beneficiaries long after you are gone.

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.

Portrait of Elderly man lost in thought

By Nancy Burner, ESQ.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

Much of the estate planning discourse revolves around planning techniques for the married couple, whether it be for tax planning or asset protection planning. However, for seniors who have never married or for those whose spouse is deceased, what, if any, special considerations need to be made? This article will focus on some of the unique challenges that the unmarried senior may face.

For the single individual who is living with another person but is unmarried, planning should be done to specifically provide for that partner, if so desired. It is important to recognize that partners are not given rights to property the way spouses are. Even if a person has resided with another for decades, without proper estate planning, that partner will not be entitled to assets of the decedent. If the plan is to give property to a partner after death, one should make sure that they designate that partner as a joint owner or as a beneficiary.

Having a will that designates a partner as the beneficiary of the estate can also ensure that property passes to the partner. However, in order for the will to be carried out, it must go through probate.

In New York, the probate process includes notifying and obtaining the consent of the decedent’s heirs. For instance, if a single individual with no children dies, but the parents or siblings of that individual survive, consent must be obtained from those parents, or if deceased, the siblings.

If the family members do not consent, they have the opportunity to present objections to the will that leaves assets to the partner. If their objections are successful, the will is invalidated and the law of intestacy prevails, which assumes the deceased person would have wanted their estate to be distributed to their family members, and not their partner. If a potential conflict may arise between a partner and family members, planning to avoid probate should be a primary goal of the estate plan.

For the unmarried person who is “unattached” and does not have a close relationship with any relatives, avoidance of probate is likely also an important goal particularly if they are charitably inclined since consent of family members is still required even when the beneficiary of a will is a charity. In addition, singles who are living alone should consider planning techniques that will allow them to maximize their assets so that they can get long-term care.

Being cared for in old age is difficult enough when you have a spouse or partner to help you, but if you live alone, you’ll want to preserve assets and income to the fullest extent so that you can get the care you need. This may include looking into long-term care insurance or doing asset protection planning, or both!

What if a single person is living with a partner and is desirous of providing for that partner, but wishes for their estate to ultimately be distributed to other family members? It is very common that a widow or widower has a relationship with someone for whom they wish to provide but wants to ensure that their assets go to their children after both partners are deceased.

The best technique for implementing this kind of plan is to use a trust. Trusts can hold assets for the lifetime of the partner but distribute the assets to other family members after the partner’s death. Trusts also avoid probate so that potential contests are avoided. Depending on the type of trust utilized, trusts can also protect assets in case either partner needs Medicaid to pay for long-term care.

In addition to the foregoing considerations regarding leaving assets at death, it is equally important to remember that partners, friends or indeed family members do not have rights to make decisions without proper planning. An estate plan is not complete without comprehensive advance directives that allow loved ones to make health care and financial decisions for you if you are incapacitated.

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.

Portability refers to the ability of a surviving spouse to make use of a deceased spouse’s unused estate tax exclusion amount.

By Nancy Burner, ESQ.

The estate tax concept known as “portability” is permanent as a result of the enactment of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. Portability allows a surviving spouse to use a deceased spouse’s unused estate tax exclusion (up to $5.49 million in 2017).

For those dying after Dec. 31, 2011, if a first-to-die spouse has not fully used the federal estate tax exclusion, the unused portion called the Deceased Spousal Unused Exclusion Amount, or DSUE amount, can be transferred or “ported” to the surviving spouse.

Thereafter, for both gift and estate tax purposes, the surviving spouse’s exclusion is the sum of (1) his/her own exclusion (as such amount is inflation adjusted) plus (2) the first-to-die’s ported DSUE amount.

For example: Assume H and W are married, and H dies in 2017. H owns $3 million and W owns $9 million in assets. H has the potential of leaving up to $5.49 million free from federal estate tax to a bypass or credit shelter trust. This would avoid federal estate tax in both spouses’ estates.

However, because H only has $3 million in assets, he does not take full advantage of the entire $5.49 million exclusion. Prior to portability, $2.49 million of H’s exclusion would have been wasted. With portability, his remaining $2.49 million exclusion can be saved and passed to W ‘s estate, increasing the amount she can leave her beneficiaries free from federal estate tax. With a 40 percent federal estate tax rate, this would save W’s estate approximately $996,000 in federal estate tax.

With this plan, the estate would also avoid New York State Estate Tax at the husband’s death since the current exclusion is $5.25 million. The assets in this bypass trust would escape federal and New York estate taxation at W’s subsequent death.

In order for the surviving spouse to be able to use the unused exemption, the executor of the first-to-die’s estate must make an election on a timely filed estate tax return. A timely filed return is a return filed within nine months after death or within 15 months after obtaining an automatic extension of time to file from the IRS.

Normally a federal estate tax return is only due if the gross estate plus the amount of any taxable gifts exceeds the applicable exclusion amount (up to $5.49 million in 2017). However, in order to be able to elect portability, a federal estate tax return would have to be filed even if the value of the first-to-die’s estate was below the exclusion amount.

The problem occurs when the first spouse dies and no estate tax return was filed. In that event, the second-to-die spouse could not use the deceased spouse’s unused exemption. In the above example, the second spouse’s estate would have paid an additional $996,000 in federal estate tax if the election was not made. What if the first spouse dies, no estate tax return is filed, and no election was made on a timely basis? Does the surviving spouse lose the exemption?

In June 2017, the IRS issued Revenue Procedure 2017-34. The revenue procedure is a simplified method to be used to make a late portability election. The IRS is making this simplified method available for all eligible estates through Jan. 2, 2018. The IRS is also making the simplified method of this revenue procedure available after Jan. 2, 2018, to estates during the two-year period immediately following the decedent’s date of death.

To be eligible to use the simplified method under the revenue procedure the estate must meet the following criteria:

(1) The decedent: (a) was survived by a spouse; (b) died after Dec. 31, 2010; and (c) was a citizen or resident of the United States on the date of death.

(2) The executor was not required to file an estate tax return based on the value of the gross estate.

(3) The executor did not file an estate tax return within the time required.

(4) The executor either files a complete and properly prepared United States estate (and tax return) on or before the later of Jan. 2, 2018 or the second annual anniversary of the decedent’s date of death.

For those that had spouses pass away after Dec. 31, 2010, portability can be a valuable estate planning tool to save a significant amount of federal estate tax on the death of the second spouse.

If a surviving spouse has assets that are close in value to the current federal exclusion amount, it is important to examine the records of the deceased spouse to make sure that a portability election was made on a timely filed federal estate tax return. If no return was filed, and no estate tax return was required to be filed, based upon this IRS revenue procedure it’s still not too late to elect portability. The surviving spouse must act quickly as the deadline is fast approaching and 2018 will be here before we know it.

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.

Community Medicaid covers care at home, such as a home health aide to assist with daily activities.

By Nancy Burner, ESQ.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

For most of us, if a time ever comes when we need assistance, the preferred option would be to remain at home and receive whatever care services we need in our familiar setting surrounded by family. For many, the Community-Based Long-Term Care Program, commonly referred to as Community Medicaid makes that an affordable and viable option.

Often we meet with families who are under the impression that they will not qualify for these services through the Medicaid program due to their income and assets. In most instances, that is not the case.

Although an applicant for Community Medicaid must meet the necessary income and assets levels, often with planning we are able to assist in making an individual eligible with little wait. An individual who is applying for home care Medicaid may have no more than $14,850 in nonretirement liquid assets. Retirement assets will not be counted as a resource so long as the applicant is receiving monthly distributions from the account. An irrevocable prepaid burial fund is also an exempt resource.

The primary residence is an exempt asset during the lifetime of the Medicaid recipient. However, if the applicant owns a home, it is advisable to consider additional estate planning to ensure that the home will be protected once the Medicaid recipient passes away.

With respect to income, an applicant for Medicaid is permitted to keep $825 per month in income plus a $20 disregard. However, if the applicant has income that exceeds that $845 threshold, a pooled income trust can be established to preserve the applicant’s excess income and direct it to a fund that can be used to pay his or her household bills.

It is important to note that there is no “look-back” for Community Medicaid. These pooled trusts are created by not-for-profit agencies and are a terrific way for persons to take advantage of the many services available through Community Medicaid while still preserving their income for use in meeting their monthly expenses.

Functionally, the way that these trusts work is that the applicant sends a check to the fund monthly for the amount that exceeds the allowable limit. Together with the check, the applicant submits household bills equal to the amount sent to the trust fund. The trust deducts a small monthly fee for servicing these payments and then, on behalf of the applicant, pays those household bills.

This process allows the applicant to continue relying on his or her monthly income to pay his or her bills and, at the same time, reduce the countable income amount to the amount permitted under the Medicaid rules. Once an individual is financially approved by the local Department of Social Services for Community Medicaid, he or she must enroll with a Managed Long-Term Care agency. This is the agency that will coordinate care services for the Medicaid recipient.

The MLTC will send a nurse to the Medicaid recipient in order to evaluate and create a care plan. The evaluation will result in an award of hours to the Medicaid recipient for a home health aide to come to the home and assist the recipient with activities of daily of living.

The amount of hours can vary from a few hours per day where the needs are less all the way to live-in care. This award of hours depends solely on the needs of the Medicaid recipient. If the Medicaid recipient is satisfied with the care plan, he or she may choose to enroll with the MLTC. Otherwise, he or she can request another evaluation with a different MLTC. What this means is that for most people, with minimal planning, both the income and asset requirements can be met with a minimal waiting period, allowing families to mitigate the cost of caring for their loved ones at home.

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.

A common concern is that after paying premiums on a long-term care policy for years, it will never be accessed for care. Stock photo

By Nancy Burner, ESQ.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

With the ever-changing health care landscape both federally and on a state level, and the aging of the baby boomers, it may be time to take a second look at long-term care insurance. Historically, New York State residents have had the opportunity to receive long-term care benefits through the Medicaid program.

New York has been one of the most generous states in providing care for disabled and aged residents. But you do not have to be a health care expert to see that state and federal budgets are threatening to curtail Medicaid benefits, and many current programs cannot be relied upon to provide the same amount of care that they have in the past.

To battle these changes, a proper estate plan should provide an arsenal to protect against catastrophic health care costs. It is often advisable to consider all available resources when putting together a long-term care estate plan.

We do not have a crystal ball that will show the future of Medicaid or what the needs of each individual will be. But we do know that the baby boomers represent a critical mass of individuals moving toward unprecedented longevity.

In addition, we know that a large percentage of these individuals living longer will likely need care. Further, while many baby boomers and their relatives traditionally cared for aging parents, the economics facing future generations shows that third-party caregivers will be the norm, not the exception.

For clients facing these looming questions of who will provide care, where will the care be provided and how will it be paid for, long-term care insurance is one possible solution. Prudent estate planning may require putting together a team of professionals to help make decisions to protect your assets and autonomy, regardless of what the future holds. This team may include an elder law attorney, financial advisor and an insurance professional. Working together, they can provide you with options for protecting assets to avail yourself of public benefits, preserving and growing assets and purchasing insurance products that make sense in your plan.

Long-term care insurance can often pay for home care assistance or the cost of a nursing facility. If you start accessing your long-term care benefit while living at home and then transition into a nursing facility, the proper planning could make a huge difference in the amount paid toward the cost of care.

Also, many individuals do estate/elder law planning by creating irrevocable trusts, which commences the five-year look-back period for Medicaid nursing home care. They purchase long-term care insurance to cover the initial five-syear period.

Some clients find themselves in a position where they have high income and therefore fear that they will never qualify for Medicaid. Some have income that exceeds the lower Medicaid rate charged by the facility. This leaves them in the dubious position of not qualifying for Medicaid and therefore forced to pay the higher private pay rate.

Needless to say, current daily rates for nursing home care can be financially ruinous. Fortunately, there is a federal law that states that if an individual is eligible for Medicaid but for the fact that their monthly income exceeds the Medicaid rate at the nursing facility, the facility must allow that individual to pay privately at the Medicaid rate. This offers a large savings in the cost of nursing care; and, in the final analysis, the individual is never a Medicaid recipient.

The income of the individual can include Social Security payments, pensions, distributions from retirement assets, payouts on a long-term care policy, etc. With proper long-term care planning, the assets could be protected in an irrevocable Medicaid asset protection trust while the income is being used to pay for the facility.

While many will need long-term care in their lifetime, not everyone will require prolonged care. A common concern is that after paying premiums on a long-term care policy for years, it will never be accessed for care. It’s the age-old problem of paying for insurance that they hope they will never use. This creates a mental bias against insurance to pay for that kind of care.

Individuals prefer to believe that they will never need long-term care. For those with this concern, there are new policies commonly referred to as “hybrid policies.” These are life insurance policies with a long-term care rider attached. In this way, you can access the policy to cover the cost of care while living, but heirs can receive a death benefit if it is not used up. Some polices also allow the insured to cancel the policy and receive their investment back at any time.

The bottom line is that the landscape is ever changing, the assumptions we relied upon have changed, and if you plan on living long, you need to live and plan smarter. Maybe it’s time to reconsider long-term care insurance. If you can qualify medically and you can afford it, it may be just another necessary tool in your arsenal of weapons for “aging in place” and with autonomy. It may not be for everyone but it could be right for you. Take a second look.

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.

By Nancy Burner, ESQ.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

Most veterans are not aware of the wide range of benefits they may be entitled to under the United States Department of Veterans Affairs even if they did not directly retire from the military or suffer injuries in the line of duty.

For example, there is a benefit referred to as the improved pension through the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA), more commonly referred to as Aid and Attendance Pension (A&A). Assuming you meet the eligibility requirements, the VA permits payments to caregivers (including family members, but not spouses) for care provided to the veteran and/or the spouse.

This benefit is also commonly used for veterans and/or their surviving spouses who reside in an assisted living facility. This monthly benefit can be used along with income in order to prevent the depletion of assets for care services. There are three main requirements to qualifying for Aid and Attendance.

First, the claimant must have served at least 90 days active duty with one day served during wartime. There are specific wartime periods: World War II (Dec. 7, 1941 – Dec. 31, 1946); Korean conflict (June 27, 1950 – Jan. 31, 1955); Vietnam era (Feb. 28, 1961 – May 7, 1975, for veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam during that period; otherwise Aug. 5, 1964 – May 7, 1975); or Persian Gulf War (Aug. 2, 1990 – through a future date to be set by law or presidential proclamation as well as current Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans). The claimant must have received a military discharge “other than dishonorable.”

Second, the claimant must be declared permanently and totally disabled. The definition for “permanently and total disability” is residing in a nursing home, total blindness, or so nearly blind or significantly disabled as to need or require the regular aid and attendance of another person to complete his or her daily activities. In most circumstances, if the claimant can show he or she requires assistance with at least two activities of daily living (e.g., bathing, dressing, ambulating), the disability requirement is satisfied.

Third and final, the claimant must meet the financial means test. Unfortunately, there is no set financial standard, which can make it very difficult to ascertain if the claimant qualifies for the benefit. As a general rule, the claimant should not have more than $50,000 to $80,000 in net worth excluding the home of the claimant.

Additionally, the claimant must make a showing that his or her monthly unreimbursed medical expenses exceed his or her monthly income. When making this determination, the claimant should add up all of his or her monthly medical costs, including but not limited to the cost of services provided by professional caregivers as well as family members and rent paid to an assisted living facility.

Once all three prongs are satisfied, the veterans and/or spouse can receive this pension. The maximum benefit available for a single veteran in 2017 is $1,794 per month. A widow of a veteran is eligible for a maximum benefit of $1,153 per month in 2017. A married veteran is eligible for $2,127 per month in 2017. A veteran couple is eligible for $2,841 per month in 2017.

It is imperative to understand that currently there is no look-back period for VA planning, which makes asset eligibility and planning possible in most cases. There is planning that can be done in order to qualify the veteran or the surviving spouse for this benefit.

The application process can be lengthy, but the claimant can always seek help from a local accredited VA attorney or through the United States Veteran’s Services Agency, Human Services Division. If the benefits are denied, applicants should be aware that the decision for these claims can be appealed by the veteran and/or the surviving spouse.

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.

Normally, one person is appointed as an agent on a health care proxy.

By Nancy Burner, ESQ.

QUESTION: I recently signed a health care proxy naming my daughter to make health care decisions for me. Is she able to access my medical records and speak to Medicare and my supplemental health insurance company?

ANSWER: It depends on the information your health care agent is attempting to gather. A health care proxy is a document in which you designate an agent to make health care decisions for you in the event you are unable to make these decisions for yourself.

The health care proxy often contains language allowing your health care agent to hire and fire physicians and health care professionals. Federal regulations, specifically HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, make it difficult for anyone, even a spouse, to obtain any medical information on your behalf absent a properly executed health care proxy.

You must read the health care proxy carefully and make sure the document gives your agent the ability to do exactly what you would like them to do, for example, have access to your medical records. It is also important to note that signing a new health care proxy will revoke the previous health care proxy you may have signed in the past. This is important when you take the time to establish a comprehensive health care proxy and then go to the hospital and sign a very basic health care proxy with the staff at the hospital, which will revoke the comprehensive one you signed previously.

In addition to the health care proxy, you can sign a HIPAA release form, which would allow the individuals listed in your health care proxy access to your medical records. The health care proxy itself may give the same authority; however, the HIPAA release form is a very simple form that is easily recognizable by most hospitals and doctors offices. This can simplify the process to get medical records instead of using the health care proxy.

In order for your agent to deal with Medicare or another health insurance company, even a properly drafted health care proxy is typically not enough. In many circumstances, a durable power of attorney is required in order for a third party to speak with these companies on your behalf. A validly executed power of attorney will allow you, the principal, to designate an agent to act on your behalf and virtually step into your shoes with respect to all of your matters. The HIPAA can facilitate the exchange of information between your health care providers and health insurance companies with your agent.

If you want to ensure that your designated agent has the ability to communicate on your behalf, there are a few steps that you can take now in conjunction with getting your estate planning documents in order. If you are enrolled in Medicare, there is a simple way of getting your agent on file. If you visit https://www.medicare.gov/MedicareOnlineForms/AuthorizationForm/OnlineFormStep.asp, you will be able to fill out an electronic form in order to make sure Medicare will speak to your agent in the event of your incapacity. Additionally, if you have other insurance or supplemental insurance, call the individual company and find out how to get your agent on file.

When a loved one is sick or incapacitated, the family is usually under a lot of stress and needs to deal with multiple agencies. If the authority is already established, it may help to alleviate some of the complications loved ones face. If you have any questions regarding your estate planning documents, you should visit your local elder law attorney.

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.

By Nancy Burner, ESQ.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

Being hyperfocused on avoiding probate can be an estate planning disaster. First, what exactly is “probate”? Probate is the legal process whereby a last will and testament is determined by the court to be authentic and valid. The court will then “admit” the will to probate and issue “letters testamentary” to the executor so that the executor can carry out the decedent’s intentions in accordance with the last will and testament.

That usually involves paying all funeral bills, administrative expenses, debts, settling all claims, paying any specific bequests and paying out the balance to the named beneficiary or beneficiaries. Avoiding probate can be accomplished by creating a trust to hold your assets during your lifetime and then distributing the assets at your death in the same manner and sequence as an executor would if your assets passed through probate.

Typically, this would be accomplished by creating a revocable trust and transferring all nonretirement assets to the trust during your lifetime, thereby avoiding probate at your death. Retirement assets like 403Bs, IRAs and nonqualified annuities are not transferred to revocable trusts as they have their own rules and should transfer after death by virtue of a beneficiary designation.

Retirement assets should not be subject to probate. The designation of a beneficiary is vital to avoid costly income taxes if retirement assets name the estate or default to the estate. The takeaway here is that you should make sure that you have named primary and contingent beneficiaries on your retirement assets.

If you name a trust for an individual, you must discuss that with a competent professional that can advise you if the trust can accept retirement assets without causing adverse income tax consequences. Not all trusts are the same.

Avoiding probate can be a disaster if it is not done as part of a comprehensive plan, even for the smallest estate. For example, consider this case: Decedent dies with two bank accounts, each naming her grandchildren on the account. This is called a Totten trust account. Those accounts each have $25,000. She has a small IRA of $50,000 that also names the grandchildren as beneficiaries. She owns no real estate. Sounds simple, right?

The problem is that the grandchildren are not 18 years of age. The parents cannot collect the money for the children because they are not guardians of the property for their minor children. Before the money can be collected, the parents must commence a proceeding in Surrogates Court to be appointed guardians of the property for each child. After time, money and expenses, and assuming the parents are appointed, they can collect the money as guardian and open a bank account for each child, to be turned over to them at age 18. The IRA would have to be liquidated, it could not remain an IRA and the income taxes will have to be paid on the distribution.

I do not know of a worse scenario for most 18-year-old children to inherit $50,000 when they may be applying for college and seeking financial aid, or worse, when deciding not to go to college and are free to squander it however they want.

If the grandparent had created an estate plan that created trusts for the benefit of the grandchild, then the trusts could have been named as the beneficiaries of the accounts and the entire debacle could have been avoided. The point is that while there are cases where naming individuals as beneficiaries is entirely appropriate, there are also times that naming a trust as beneficiary is the less costly option, and neither should be done without a plan in mind.

When clients have a large amount of assets and large retirement plans, the result can be even more disastrous. Consider the case where a $500,000 IRA names a child as a direct beneficiary. If a properly drawn trust for the benefit of the child was named as beneficiary, there would be no guardianship proceeding and the entire IRA could be preserved and payments spread out over the child’s life expectancy, amounting to millions of dollars in benefits to that child over their lifetime. If payable directly to the child, there will be guardianship fees and the $500,000 will likely be cashed in, income taxes paid and the balance put in a bank account accruing little interest and payable on the 18th birthday of the beneficiary.

The concern is that individuals are encouraged to avoid probate by merely naming beneficiaries but with no understanding of the consequences. At a time when the largest growing segment of the population is over 90, it does not take long to figure out that the likely beneficiaries will be in their 60s, 70s or older when they inherit an asset.

Thought must be given to protecting those beneficiaries from creditors, divorcing spouses (one out of two marriages end in divorce) and the catastrophic costs of long-term care. Whether the estate is large or small, most decedents want to protect their heirs. A well-drafted beneficiary trust can accomplish that goal.

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.

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