Sometimes unexpected situations arise that require families to consider moving a loved one into a long-term residential care facility. A sudden stroke, injury, accident, or illness can create an unexpected need for long-term residential care. The process of finding a place for a loved one and figuring out how to pay for it can be overwhelming. While nursing home workers can provide some assistance to families who are working to figure out how to pay for long-term care, speaking to an attorney with experience in Medicaid crisis planning will ensure that you have an advocate who is working for your best interests rather than those of the facility.
Medicaid can help many families pay for long-term care. In many cases, Medicaid will cover all or most of the expenses of long-term care once a person qualifies. Planning way ahead of the need is always preferable (and far less expensive), but Medicaid crisis planning can help protect a loved one's assets even when the application must be done due to an unforeseen circumstance. There are strict rules for applying and qualifying for Medicaid due to limits placed on the amount of income and assets a person is allowed to have to qualify for Medicaid. Trying to navigate the process yourself can be risky because denial can mean a delay in coverage or a loss of assets which could have been avoided.
When to Apply
It is best to consult with an elder law attorney before applying for Medicaid if you have any doubts about whether the applicant will qualify. Steps can often be taken prior to application to ensure qualification and prevent or minimize a lengthy period of disqualification.
Medicaid Spend Down
To qualify for Medicaid, an applicant may only have a certain amount of liquid assets such as cash or money in a checking or savings account, usually around $2,000 depending on state rules. Medicaid applicants who have more than this amount will need to spend down their assets on medical care or exempt assets before they can be eligible for Medicaid.
Some of an applicant's liquid assets may be spent down on certain items that are exempt from counting toward the amount of assets an applicant is allowed to have. A Medicaid applicant will be allowed to keep certain possessions, e.g., a home or vehicle. The money spent down for purposes of qualifying for Medicaid can be spent on
- home improvements;
- personal items, like clothing and wedding rings; and
- a pre-paid funeral or burial plot.
Transfer Penalty Rules
When transferring assets to others to qualify for Medicaid, simply giving assets away can cause the applicant to incur penalties. There is a 5-year look-back period in most states, including Tennessee (2.5 years in California), for asset transfers for Medicaid applicants. The value of the assets that have been transferred can delay the amount of time that Medicaid will begin paying for residential care.
For example, if the Medicaid applicant gifted $10,944 to a relative over the last 5 years and the "divestment penalty divisor" (as determined by the state Medicaid authority) at the time is $5,472, there will be a two-month delay from the time that an applicant would have been otherwise eligible for Medicaid and when payments begin. In some states, this penalty can be avoided if the assets that were transferred are paid back to the applicant.
Community Spouse Exception
If a Medicaid applicant has a spouse who still lives in the community, the application process is more complicated. In 2020, the maximum amount of total countable resources a spouse who remains in the community can have (called the Community Spouse Resource Allowance or CSRA) is $128,640. Even if the couple's assets total less than that amount, the applicant spouse's share will need to be spent down for the applicant spouse to qualify for Medicaid.
For example, if the couple has $100,000 in a joint bank account, half of which is considered to belong to the applicant spouse, then $50,000 of that amount will need to be spent down until the applicant's total assets meet the Medicaid asset requirements.
When a spouse will remain in the community, it is especially important to make sure that any liquid assets are spent carefully on items that are exempt from the Medicaid transfer penalty. A significant portion of a couple's life savings may need to be spent down for the Medicaid applicant to qualify. However, it may be possible to save many liquid assets that would have otherwise been paid to the long-term care facility when liquid assets are spent on items that are exempt from counting toward the total amount of assets the applicant is allowed to keep.
It may be possible to transmute the applicant spouse's share of the couple's assets to be the non-applicant spouse in order to make full use of the CSRA, but only if either (a) the applicant spouse has the mental capacity to make such a gift (which is most often not the case), or (b) the applicant spouse has done the right type of advance planning, usually with the assistance of legal counsel, to permit this kind of last-minute gifting.
Contact a Knowledgeable Medicaid Crisis Planning Attorney
If you have questions about trust administration or need assistance with estate planning, contact attorney Nina Whitehurst at Cumberland Legacy Law, located in Crossville, Tennessee, and also serving Fairfield Glade, Sparta, Cookeville and surrounding areas. You can use our online form to schedule a consultation or call us at (931) 250-8585.