Jan Neal Law Firm, LLC

Alabama Estate, Elder and Special Needs Law


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Medicaid Estate Recovery Training

I will be providing training on Alabama Medicaid Estate Recovery on Tuesday, 09/20/22, at 10:00 a.m. Central time. If you feel like you could benefit from information on this topic be sure to register with the Middle Alabama Area Agency on Aging. Free CEUs are being offered for social workers, nursing home administrators, occupational therapists and physical therapists.

We will be examining how estate recovery works in Alabama, and who is at risk for losing property to repay benefits Medicaid pays on their behalf.


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Unintended Consequences of Failing to Probate a Will

A will has no legal effect if not filed with the court and accepted as a legitimate document meeting the testamentary requirements (which is known as probate).  Many people do not know this, and they do not know that a will must be probated within five years of death.

If the will is not filed within five years of death, then the law of intestacy determines where property passes, and it may result in very unfortunate consequences for the intended beneficiaries.

The best way to explain this is an example:

Mrs. Smith’s husband died last year, and she decided to update her will.  They owned multiple pieces of property, most of which they owned as joint tenants with right of survivorship (meaning that when the first owner dies, the other will automatically own all of the property).  But the one piece of property on which their home is located was owned by her husband without right of survivorship.  Since most people don’t sit around reading deeds after the death of a spouse, Mrs. Smith did not know this until the deeds were produced to rewrite her will.  Her husband’s will left everything to her, so if his will is probated, no problem.  But if his will is not probated within five years, she will own her home property jointly with his children by a previous marriage.  Not only will she be unable direct all of the property to pass to the children of this marriage at her death, if she wants to downsize she will not be able to sell the property without the agreement of her husband’s children by a previous marriage.  And if those children agree to sell, she will only get half of the proceeds from the sale.  This could have been a serious problem for Mrs. Smith if she had not found this need to probate her husband’s will within five years of his death. 

The best practice is to always check to see if a will needs to be probated rather than assuming it does not.  With that said, not all wills need to be probated.  For instance, there may be nothing in the probate estate to pass because all assets were jointly titled in bank accounts, and the home was owned by the spouses as joint tenants with right of survivorship.  But if there is property that does not automatically pass to others, take action sooner, rather than later, to determine what you need to do.


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Avoid The Ultimate Co-mingling of Assets

It is standard advice to avoid co-mingle property of an older relative with your own money because it may be necessary to prove what belongs to each.  For instance, if your relative needs to apply for Medicaid it may be difficult to provide a clean trail of his or her assets and expenditures for five years prior to application as is required by Medicaid.

But the ultimate co-mingling is when families live on property owned by the older relative who never partitioned the property to deed individual parcels to the children or grandchildren. It is not unusual to see families who live and operate businesses off the property of an aging mother, father, or grandparent.  This can provide a great family support system and work for all parties involved.  Until it doesn’t. 

If the aging parent becomes sick enough to need nursing home placement and there are not enough liquid resources to pay for that, then the property will need to be liquidated to provide income to pay for nursing home care or to spend down assets before qualifying for Medicaid.  This leaves the relatives living on the property in a very precarious position.

If you are in this position, get legal advice now about what you can do to protect yourself and your aging relative before it becomes an emergency.     


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Transfer on Death Deed (TODD) Not Valid in Alabama

You may have read a widely circulated post on Facebook that would make you think you should prepare a Transfer on Death Deed (TODD) to pass your property when you die without the need for probate.  And you can download and prepare such a document at various online locations.  See https://www.templateroller.com/template/2142576/transfer-on-death-deed-form-alabama.html. The only problem is Alabama does not have a TODD statute, so any such deed would have no validity.

As of January 14, 2022, twenty-nine states, along with the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have some form of TODD.  Alabama is not one of them, and neither is Georgia or Florida.  Mississippi, bordering Alabama, does have a TODD statute, and, as of January 14, 2022, a TODD statute was pending in Tennessee.

There are other ways to pass property while avoiding probate, but be aware of the fact that the TODD is not available in Alabama. 


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Selling Life Estate Property

A life estate deed can be a great tool for passing property after death.  A couple might give the property to their children and reserve a life estate for themselves until the last of the two dies.  The couple retains their homestead exemption status for life, and at death the property will automatically belong to the children without the need to probate anyone’s will.  Also the child will have a stepped up tax basis in the property which is the fair market value on the date of death of the last life tenant.  An additional benefit is the fact that Medicaid will not count the life estate as a resource if the life estate deed was executed five years prior to Medicaid application, and the property would not be subject to Medicaid Estate Recovery since it will never be probate property.  That all sounds like a win, win situation, right?

It is, except for one thing.  If the couple decides to sell the property they will need the children to sign off on the sale because the children are now joint owners with the parents.  The parents own use of the property NOW, and the children, as remaindermen, own the FUTURE use of the property.

Often a life estate deed is given with the goal of keeping property in the family, but that is not always the case.  Sometimes the life tenants want to sell the property to obtain funds for any number of purposes. With this in mind, before signing a life estate deed it is important to make sure the remaindermen would be willing to relinquish their interest and sign off on any sale of the property.    


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The Importance of a Will in Second Marriages

If a person dies without a will, or if the will is not probated within five years of death, then property in his or her probate estate will be distributed by rules determined by the legislature, known as the law of intestacy. 

The law of intestacy in Alabama requires that the estate of a person having children by a previous marriage be divided one-half to the current spouse and one-half to the child or children by a previous marriage.  This can create some totally unforeseen consequences for a couple in a second marriage with children by that marriage.  The children of that union will take nothing under the law of intestacy while a child from a previous marriage will take one-half.

It is important to evaluate your individual situation to determine what is at risk if you die without a will and how you can structure your assets to assure your property passes in the manner you prefer.      


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Save Your Money with a Medicaid Spend Down Special Needs Trust

You don’t really have to spend down all your resources to qualify for nursing home Medicaid.  There are multiple ways to preserve funds.  One of those ways is through the use of what I call the Medicaid Spend Down Special Needs Trust.        

Usually persons who need nursing home care end up needing Medicaid to pay for that care.  Why? Because it is so expensive.  Nursing home care can cost between $6000 and $8000 depending on the specific market area in Alabama.  At $7000 per month, the average nursing home resident will spend $84,000 in a year. Under these circumstances, most persons will exhaust their resources at a rapid rate rendering them unable to pay for the care they need without the assistance of Medicaid. 

There are some funds a married couple can preserve for the spouse who remains at home, but there is still an amount that has to be spent down if a couple has countable assets over $25,000.  A single person has to spend all of his or her resources down to $2000 before he or she can qualify for Medicaid.  Using up the assets a person saved over a lifetime is known as the dreaded Medicaid “spend down.” 

But what many people do not know is that there is a way to qualify for Medicaid to pay for nursing home care in Alabama without the resident having to go through a complete “spend down.”  That is through the use of a pooled Special Needs Trust. 

There are many types of Special Needs Trusts (SNTs), including trusts for disabled younger persons, disabled children whose parents and grandparents want to provide for their future needs, persons on public benefits who recover money from personal injury lawsuits or who inherit money when a relative dies.  Each type of SNT has highly specific requirements.  But what they all have in common is the goal of protecting funds for a disabled person without those funds resulting in the loss of public benefits. 

With the Medicaid Spend Down SNT, instead of spending down the money required to be spent by Medicaid on nursing home care before eligibility can be established, the money is paid into a SNT and can then be used to pay for special needs not otherwise paid for by Medicaid for the disabled person once he or she becomes eligible.  Medicaid eligibility can be immediately established while these funds remain available to pay for special needs for the nursing home resident. 

The drawback to this type of trust is the requirement that, on the death of the person for whom the trust was established, Medicaid must be reimbursed from funds remaining in the trust up to the amount Medicaid has paid for the nursing home resident’s care.  Still, creating a pool of money to meet the special needs of the nursing home resident after being awarded Medicaid is far better than simply spending down those funds before qualifying for Medicaid and leaving the resident with no resources to pay for special needs. Since Medicaid allows a nursing home resident to keep only $30 of his or her income each month to pay for personal needs, you can see how that is not enough to have needs met without families pitching in to help pay for necessary items.     

An example of what the SNT funds can pay for is a private room in a nursing home since Medicaid will only cover a semi-private room.  Other special needs might be items and services that can improve the quality of life for the nursing home resident such as hair salon charges, manicures, telephone, newspaper subscriptions,  audiobooks, movies, recreation, medical and dental expenses not otherwise covered, special  equipment like wheelchairs or specially-equipped vans; therapy or rehabilitation services; training and education, travel, electronic equipment including computers and mobile devices.

With a little planning the quality of life for a nursing home resident can be improved, and the burden for a family’s out of pocket expenses decreased.

Do not be confused with an internet search.  The rules are different from state to state.  Most states allow a person 65 and older to create a pooled SNT but still penalize transfers into that trust.  That is not the case in Alabama.

Contact us for more information about establishing a Medicaid Spend Down SNT.

      


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Medicaid Estate Recovery: What Medicaid Can Recoup From Your Estate

Some benefits paid by Medicaid, including expenses for long-term care after age 55, can be recouped from the recipient’s estate upon death. The federal government makes estate recovery mandatory, and each state has enacted its own rules to comply with that requirement. A new publication is available to help you understand how Alabama Medicaid Estate Recovery works and what property is at risk for being lost upon death and repayment to Medicaid. This document can be read online or downloaded and printed. It will remain available in the Publications at this web site.


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Protect Your Spouse When Getting a Reverse Mortgages

Cottage with Picket Fence

A recent case involving basketball star Caldwell Jones demonstrates the danger in having only one spouse’s name on a reverse mortgage. A federal appeals court has ruled that an insurance company may foreclose on a reverse mortgage after the death of the borrower, Mr. Jones, even though Mr. Jones’ widow is still living in the house. While there are protections in place for non-borrowing spouses, many spouses are still facing foreclosure and eviction.

A reverse mortgage allows homeowners to use the equity in their home to take out a loan, but borrowers must be 62 years or older to qualify for this type of mortgage. If one spouse is under age 62, the younger spouse has to be left off the loan in order for the couple to qualify for a reverse mortgage. Some lenders have actually encouraged couples to put only the older spouse on the mortgage because the couple could borrow more money that way. But couples often did this without realizing the potentially catastrophic implications. If only one spouse’s name was on the mortgage and that spouse died, the surviving spouse would be required to either repay the loan in full or face eviction.

In order to protect non-borrowing spouses, the federal government revised its guidelines for reverse mortgages taken out after August 4, 2014 to allow spouses to stay in the house as long as they meet certain criteria, including proving ownership within 90 days of the borrowers death. In 2015, the federal government allowed lenders to defer foreclosure on a widow or widower and assign the mortgage to the federal government. Advocacy groups looking at reverse mortgage foreclosures have found that despite these new regulations, lenders are still foreclosing on non-borrowing spouses. Of the 591 non-borrowing spouses who have sought help to avoid foreclosure, only 317 received assistance.

These regulations did not help Mr. Jones’ wife, Vanessa. Mr. Jones obtained a reverse mortgage in 2014 on the Georgia home he lived in with his wife. The contract defined the “borrower” to be “Caldwell Jones, Jr., a married man.” Ms. Jones did not put his wife’s name on the reverse mortgage because she was under age 62 at the time of the mortgage. Mr. Jones died later that year, and when Ms. Jones did not repay the loan, the insurer began foreclosure proceedings.

Ms. Jones sued the insurer in federal court to prevent the foreclosure, arguing that federal law prohibited the insurer from foreclosing on the house while she lived in it. Under a provision in federal law, the federal government “may not insure” a reverse mortgage unless the “homeowner” does not have to repay the loan until the homeowner either dies or sells the mortgaged property and defines “homeowner” to include the borrower’s spouse.

On appeal, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (Estate of Caldwell Jones, Jr. v. Live Well Financial (U.S. Ct. App., 11th Cir., No. 17-14677, Sept. 5, 2018)) ruled that the federal law in question only covers what the federal government can insure and does not govern the insurer’s right to foreclose. The court agrees with Ms. Jones that the law is intended to safeguard widows and implies that the federal government should not have insured the loan in the first place, but finds that federal law does not cover the insurer’s private right to demand immediate payment and pursue foreclosure.

When purchasing a reverse mortgage, it is always safer to put both spouse’s names on the mortgage. If one spouse is underage when the mortgage is originally taken out, that spouse can be added to the mortgage when he or she reaches age 62.


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Wills and Beneficiary Designations Work Together to Distribute Your Estate

will and gavelWhile a will is an important document to have in any estate plan, the reality is that most property passes to heirs through other, less formal means.  Failure to recognize this fact can result in some unintended consequences in estate distributions.

Many bank and investment accounts, as well as real estate, can be titled to joint owners who take ownership automatically at your death.  Other banks and investment companies offer “payable on death” accounts that permit owners to name the person or people who will receive the account funds when the owner dies. Life insurance, of course, permits the owner to name beneficiaries.  Some real property is titled to joint owners with rights of survivorship so that when one owner dies, the other takes full ownership of the property.  A future interest in property can be transferred during a person’s life, subject to a life estate held by the transferor, so that when the life estate holder dies, the property is owned by the person/s to whom the future interest was given.  No probate would be necessary.

All of these types of ownership and beneficiary designations permit these accounts and types of property to avoid probate, meaning that they will not be governed by the terms of a will. When taking advantage of these simplified procedures, owners need to be sure that the decisions they make are consistent with their overall estate plan.  It is  not unusual for a will to direct that an estate be equally divided among the decedent’s children, only to find that because of joint accounts or beneficiary designations, the estate is distributed unequally, or even to non-family members, such as new or old boyfriends and girlfriends.

It is also important to review beneficiary designations every few years to make sure that they still reflect your wishes. An out-of-date designation may leave property to an ex-spouse, to children who disappeared from you life while other children provided care, to ex-girlfriends or ex-boyfriends, to relatives who are on means tested public benefits who will  lose those benefits by inheriting, and to people who died before the owner. All of these failures to make proper designations can thoroughly undermine an estate plan and leave a legacy of resentment that most people would prefer to avoid.

These concerns are heightened when dealing with retirement plans, whether IRAs, SEPs or 401(k) plans, because the choice of beneficiary can have significant tax implications. These types of retirement plans benefit from deferred taxation in that the income deposited into them, as well as the earnings on the investments, are not taxed until the funds are withdrawn. In addition, owners may withdraw funds based more or less on their life expectancy, so the younger the owner, the smaller the annual required distribution.  Further, in most cases, withdrawals do not have to begin until after the owner reaches age 70 1/2. However, this is not always the case for inherited IRAs.  To further complicate matters, the spouse has a right to funds in a 401(k) that must be disclaimed by waiver after marriage to prevent their having rights to those funds even if you named someone else as your 401(k) beneficiary.

Following are some of the rules and concerns when designating retirement account beneficiaries:

  • Name your spouse, usually. Surviving husbands and wives may roll over retirement plans inherited from their spouses into their own plans. This means that they can defer withdrawals until after they reach age 70 1/2 and take minimum distributions based on their age. Non-spouses of retirement plans must begin taking distributions immediately, but they can base them on their own presumably younger ages.
  • But not always. There are a few reasons you might not want to name your spouse, including the following:
    • He or she is incapacitated and can’t manage the account
    • Doing so would add to his or her taxable estate
    • You are in a second marriage and want the investments to benefit your first family
    • Your children need the money more than your spouse
  • Consider a trust. In some circumstances, a trust would be appropriate, providing for management in the case of an incapacitated spouse, permitting assets to benefit a surviving spouse while being preserved for the next generation. Those in first marriages may want to name their spouse as the primary beneficiary and a trust as the secondary, or contingent, beneficiary. Transferring assets to a trust can also be used to plan for long-term care expenses if planning is done early enough (five years before you or your spouse need nursing home care).
  • But check the trust. Most trusts are not designed to accept retirement fund assets. If they are missing key provisions, they might not be treated as “designated beneficiaries” for retirement plan purposes. In such cases, rather than being able to stretch out distributions during the beneficiary’s lifetime, the IRA or 401(k) will have to be liquidated within five years of the decedent’s death, resulting in accelerated taxation.
  • Be careful with charities. While there are some tax benefits to naming charities as beneficiaries of retirement plans, if a charity is a partial beneficiary of an account or of a trust, the other beneficiaries may not be able to stretch the distributions during their life expectancies and will have to withdraw the funds and pay the taxes within five years of the owner’s death. One solution is to dedicate some retirement plans exclusively to charities and others to family members.
  • Consider special needs planning. It can be unfortunate if retirement plans pass to individuals with special needs who cannot manage the accounts or who may lose vital public benefits as a result of receiving the funds. This can be resolved by naming a special needs trust as the beneficiary of the funds, although this gets a bit more complicated than most trusts designed to receive retirement funds. Another alternative is not to name the individual with special needs or his trust as beneficiary, but to make up the difference with other assets of the estate or through life insurance.
  • If probate will be necessary, leave an account jointly titled with your personal representative to provide expenses during probate.  If your home needs to be sold, funds will need to be available to pay property tax, insurance, utilities, etc.
  • Keep copies of your beneficiary designation forms. Don’t count on your retirement plan administrator to maintain records of your beneficiary designations, especially if the plan is connected with a company you worked for in the past, which may or may not still exist upon your death. Keep copies of all of your forms and provide your estate planning attorney with a copy to keep with your estate plan.
  • But do name beneficiaries! The biggest mistake many people make is not to name beneficiaries at all, or they end up in this position by not updating their plan after the originally-named beneficiary passes away. This means that the plan will have to go through probate at some expense and delay and that the funds will have to be withdrawn and taxes paid within five years of the owner’s death.

In short, while wills are important, in large part because they name a personal representative to take charge of your estate and they name guardians for minor children and disabled spouses, they are only a small part of the picture. A comprehensive plan needs to include consideration of beneficiary designations, especially those for retirement plans.