Charitable Giving Options Under the New Tax Law

The new tax law makes it harder to claim a tax deduction for charitable contributions. While charitable giving should not be only about getting a tax break, if you want to reap a tax benefit from your contributions, there are a couple of options.

The Tax Cut and Jobs Act, enacted in December 2017, nearly doubled the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for couples. This means that if your charitable contributions along with any other itemized deductions are less than $12,000 a year, the standard deduction will lower your tax bill more than itemizing your deductions. For most people, the standard deduction will be the better option.

If you still want to maximize the tax benefits of charitable giving and you have the financial means, one option is to double your charitable donations in one year and then skip the donation the following year. For example, instead of giving $10,000 a year to charity, you could give $20,000 every other year and itemize your deductions in that year.

Another way to concentrate charitable giving is to establish a donor-advised fund (DAF) through a public charity. A DAF allows you to contribute several years worth of charitable donations to the fund and receive the tax benefit immediately. The money is placed in an account where it can be invested and grow tax-free. You can then make donations to charities from the account at any time, in addition to adding to the account. As with any investment, you need to do research before establishing a DAF. Make sure you understand the fees involved and whether there are any limits on the charitable contributions you can make. You should consult with your financial advisor before taking any steps.

If you are taking required minimum distributions from an IRA, another option is to donate those distributions directly to charity through a qualified charitable donation. The distributions won’t be included in your gross income, which means lower taxes overall. The donation must be made directly from the IRA to the charity and different IRAs have different rules about how to make the distributions.

For more information on how to maximize your charitable giving under the new tax law, click here.

Have Private Insurance and Are Turning 65? You Need Sign Up for Medicare Part B

If you are paying for your own insurance, you may think you do not need to sign up for Medicare when you turn 65. However, not signing up for Medicare Part B right away can cost you down the road.

You can first sign up for Medicare during your Initial Enrollment Period, which is the seven-month period that includes the three months before the month you become eligible (usually age 65), the month you are eligible and three months after the month you become eligible. If you do not sign up for Part B right away, you will be subject to a penalty. Your Medicare Part B premium may go up 10 percent for each 12-month period that you could have had Medicare Part B, but did not take it. In addition, you will have to wait for the general enrollment period to enroll. The general enrollment period usually runs between January 1 and March 31 of each year.

There are exceptions to the penalty if you have insurance through an employer or through your spouse’s employer, but there is no exception for private insurance. The health insurance must be from an employer where you or your spouse actively works, and even then, if the employer has fewer than 20 employees, you will likely have to sign up for Part B.

If you don’t have an employer or union group health insurance plan, or that plan is secondary to Medicare, it is extremely important to sign up for Medicare Part B during your initial enrollment period. Note that COBRA coverage does not count as a health insurance plan for Medicare purposes. Neither does retiree coverage or VA benefits.

For a New York Times column about a man with private insurance who didn’t realize he needed to sign up for Part B, click here.

For more information about Medicare and turning 65, click here.

Can You Put a Surveillance Camera in a Nursing Home Room?

Technological advances have made it easier to stay connected with loved ones all the time. This has included the ability to install cameras in a loved one’s nursing home room. These so-called “granny cams” have legal and privacy implications.

The benefit of putting a surveillance camera in a nursing home is the ability to monitor your family member’s care. Families that suspect abuse or neglect can keep on eye caregivers. Being able to observe care from afar can give family members peace of mind that their loved one is being well taken care of. It can also serve as evidence if abuse is found. Even if there is no abuse, cameras can be helpful to observe if caregivers are using improper techniques that may injure a resident.

On the other hand, cameras raise privacy concerns for both residents (including roommates) and caregivers. Residents may not want to be monitored while they are in a vulnerable state, such as changing or bathing. If the recording device picks up audio, then even the resident’s conversations may no longer be private.

All this aside, do nursing homes have to permit families to install cameras?  This varies depending on the facility. Some nursing homes may have language in their admission contracts banning cameras or imposing specific requirements for their use. However, concerns over elder abuse have led some states to pass laws allowing cameras in nursing homes. At least six states — Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Washington — have passed laws permitting families to install a camera in a nursing home if the resident and the resident’s roommate have agreed. Utah permits cameras in assisted living facilities. New Jersey does not have a law specifically permitting cameras, but it has a program that loans surveillance cameras to families who suspect abuse. In other states, the law surrounding camera use is more vague.

If you are considering installing a camera in a loved one’s nursing home room, you should contact an elder law attorney to discuss the legal and practical implications.

For a fact sheet about nursing home surveillance from The National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, click here.  And keep in mind the Consumer Voice’s advice that cameras are “no substitute for personal involvement and monitoring.”

Medicare’s Different Treatment of the Two Main Post-Hospital Care Options

Hospital patients who need additional care after being discharged from the hospital are usually sent to either an inpatient rehabilitation facility (IRF) or a skilled nursing facility (SNF). Although these facilities may look similar from the outside, Medicare offers very different coverage for each. While you may not have complete say in where you go after a hospital stay, understanding the difference between the two facilities can help you advocate for what you need and know what to expect with regard to Medicare coverage.

An IRF can be either part of a hospital or a stand-alone facility that offers intensive physical and occupational therapy under the supervision of a doctor and nurses. IRFs offer a minimum of three hours a day of rehabilitation therapy. An SNF, on the other hand, provides full-time nursing care. Patients also receive physical and occupational therapy, but the care is generally less intensive and specialized than in an IRF.

IRFs and Medicare

Medicare Part A covers a stay in an IRF in the same way it covers hospital stays. Medicare pays for 90 days of hospital care per “spell of illness,” plus an additional lifetime reserve of 60 days. A single “spell of illness” begins when the patient is admitted to a hospital or other covered facility, and ends when the patient has gone 60 days without being readmitted to a hospital or other facility. There is no limit on the number of spells of illness. However, the patient must satisfy a deductible before Medicare begins paying for treatment. This deductible, which changes annually, is $1,364 in 2019.

After the deductible is satisfied, Medicare will pay for virtually all hospital charges during the first 60 days of a recipient’s hospital stay. If the hospital stay extends beyond 60 days, the Medicare beneficiary begins shouldering more of the cost of his or her care. From day 61 through day 90, the patient pays a coinsurance of $341 a day in 2019. Beyond the 90th day, the patient begins to tap into his or her 60-day lifetime reserve. During hospital stays covered by these reserve days, beneficiaries must pay a coinsurance of $682 per day in 2019.

To qualify for care in an IRF, you must need 24-hour access to a doctor and a nurse with experience in rehabilitation. You must also be able to handle three hours of therapy a day (although there can be exceptions).

SNFs and Medicare

Medicare’s coverage of skilled nursing care is more limited. Medicare Part A covers up to 100 days of “skilled nursing” care per spell of illness. Beginning on day 21 of the nursing home stay, there is a copayment equal to one-eighth of the initial hospital deductible ($170.50 a day in 2019). However, the conditions for obtaining Medicare coverage of a nursing home stay are quite stringent. Here are the main requirements:

  • The Medicare recipient must enter the nursing home no more than 30 days after a hospital stay (meaning admission as an inpatient; “observation status” does not count) that itself lasted for at least three days (not counting the day of discharge).
  • The care provided in the nursing home must be for the same condition that caused the hospitalization (or a condition medically related to it).
  • The patient must receive a “skilled” level of care in the nursing facility that cannot be provided at home or on an outpatient basis. In order to be considered “skilled,” nursing care must be ordered by a physician and delivered by, or under the supervision of, a professional such as a physical therapist, registered nurse or licensed practical nurse. Moreover, such care must be delivered on a daily basis. (Few nursing home residents receive this level of care.)

A new spell of illness can begin if the patient has not received skilled care, either in an SNF or in a hospital, for a period of 60 consecutive days. The patient can remain in the SNF and still qualify as long as he or she does not receive a skilled level of care during that 60 days.

Keep in mind that some or all of Medicare’s deductibles and co-payments for both IRF and SNF care may be covered by Medicare supplemental insurance, also called Medigap coverage.

IRS Issues Long-Term Care Premium Deductibility Limits for 2019

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is increasing the amount taxpayers can deduct from their 2019 income as a result of buying long-term care insurance.

Premiums for “qualified” long-term care insurance policies (see explanation below) are tax deductible to the extent that they, along with other unreimbursed medical expenses (including Medicare premiums), exceed 7.5 percent of the insured’s adjusted gross income.  (The 7.5 percent threshold is for the 2017 and 2018 tax years.  It is scheduled to revert to 10 percent in 2019.)

These premiums — what the policyholder pays the insurance company to keep the policy in force — are deductible for the taxpayer, his or her spouse and other dependents. (If you are self-employed, the tax-deductibility rules are a little different: You can take the amount of the premium as a deduction as long as you made a net profit; your medical expenses do not have to exceed a certain percentage of your income.)

However, there is a limit on how large a premium can be deducted, depending on the age of the taxpayer at the end of the year. Following are the deductibility limits for 2019. Any premium amounts for the year above these limits are not considered to be a medical expense.

Attained age before the close of the taxable year

Maximum deduction for year

40 or less

$420

More than 40 but not more than 50

$790

More than 50 but not more than 60

$1,580

More than 60 but not more than 70

$4,220

More than 70

$5,270

Another change announced by the IRS involves benefits from per diem or indemnity policies, which pay a predetermined amount each day.  These benefits are not included in income except amounts that exceed the beneficiary’s total qualified long-term care expenses or $370 per day, whichever is greater.

For these and other inflation adjustments from the IRS, click here.

What Is a “Qualified” Policy?

To be “qualified,” policies issued on or after January 1, 1997, must adhere to certain requirements, among them that the policy must offer the consumer the options of “inflation” and “nonforfeiture” protection, although the consumer can choose not to purchase these features. Policies purchased before January 1, 1997, will be grandfathered and treated as “qualified” as long as they have been approved by the insurance commissioner of the state in which they are sold. For more on the “qualified” definition, click here.

Learn About Social Security’s Online Tools

With the aging population becoming increasingly tech savvy, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has moved a lot of services online. From applying for Social Security benefits to replacing a card, the SSA has online tools to help.

To access most of the online services, you need to create a my Social Security account. This account allows you to receive personalized estimates of future benefits based on your real earnings, see your latest statement, and review your earnings history. You can also request a replacement Social Security card, check the status of an application, get direct deposit, or change your address. If you are a representative payee, you can use my Social Security to complete representative payee accounting reports. Even if you don’t get benefits, you can use the account to request a benefit verification letter.

In addition to my Social Security, other online services are available, including the following:

For a full run down of the online services available, click here.

For more information about Social Security, click here.

Don’t Make the Mistake of Not Signing up for Medicare Supplemental Coverage

You are turning 65 and enrolling in Medicare, but as a healthy senior do you really need to also sign up for Medicare’s supplemental coverage? Not signing up initially can be very costly down the road.

Medicare pays for only about half of all medical costs. To augment Medicare’s coverage, you can purchase a supplemental or “Medigap” insurance policy from a private insurer. There are 10 Medigap plans that each offers a different combination of benefits, allowing purchasers to choose the combination that is right for them. In addition, Medicare offers a federally subsidized prescription drug program, in which private health insurers provide limited insurance coverage of prescription drugs to elderly and disabled Medicare recipients.

Purchasing the supplemental coverage means paying more premiums. If you don’t go to the doctor very often or have any regular prescriptions, you may not want to sign up for the additional coverage. However, if you get sick, what Medicare doesn’t cover can be a lot more costly than the extra premiums. And buying coverage after you get sick can be difficult and expensive.

You cannot be denied a Medigap policy for pre-existing conditions if you apply within six months of enrolling in Medicare Part B. If you don’t buy a policy right away, the plan can use medical underwriting to decide whether to accept your application. The plan will look at your age, gender, and pre-existing conditions and can charge you higher premiums, restrict coverage, or even reject your application.

Beneficiaries who enroll in Medicare Advantage plans can’t also buy a Medigap policy. But if they chose Medicare Advantage as their first form of insurance and later decide to return to original Medicare, they must select a Medigap policy within the first year of their initial Medicare enrollment or risk being shut out of a policy. (For more on when a Medigap insurer must sell to you, click here.)

Medicare beneficiaries are also subject to significant financial penalties for late enrollment in the Medicare drug benefit (Medicare Part D). For every month you delay enrollment past the Initial Enrollment Period, the Medicare Part D premium will increase at least 1 percent. For example, if the premium is $40 a month, and you delay enrollment for 15 months, your premium penalty would be $6 (1 percent x 15 x $40 = $6), meaning that you would pay $46 a month, not $40, for coverage that year and an extra $6 a month each succeeding year.

There are some exceptions built in to both Medigap and Medicare Part D if you did not enroll right away because you had other coverage. But if you choose not to enroll because you think you won’t need the plan, it is not easy to change your mind later on.

For First Time, Median Cost of Private Nursing Home Room Hits Six Figures in Annual Survey

The median cost of a private nursing home room in the United States increased to $100,375 a year in 2018, up 3 percent from 2017, according to Genworth’s Cost of Care survey, which the insurer conducts annually

At the same time, Genworth reports that the median cost of a semi-private room in a nursing home is $89,297, up 4 percent from 2017. While significant, the rise in prices is not quite as steep as the 5.5 percent and 4.4 percent gains, respectively, in 2017.

But the median cost of assisted living facilities jumped 6.7 percent, to $4,000 a month. The national median rate for the services of a home health aide is $22 an hour, and the cost of adult day care, which provides support services in a protective setting during part of the day, rose from $70 to $72 a day.

Alaska continues to be the costliest state for nursing home care by far, with the median annual cost of a private nursing home room totaling $330,873. Oklahoma again was found to be the most affordable state, with a median annual cost of a private room of $63,510.

The 2018 survey, conducted by CareScout for the fifteenth straight year, was based on responses from more than 15,500 nursing homes, assisted living facilities, adult day health facilities and home care providers.  Survey respondents were contacted by phone during May and June 2018.

As the survey indicates, nursing home care is growing ever more expensive. Contact your elder law attorney to learn how you can protect some or all of your family’s assets.

For more on Genworth’s 2018 Cost of Care Survey, including costs for your state, click here.

Be Careful About Putting Only One Spouse’s Name on a Reverse Mortgage

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, who blocked more than 2,200 shots during his 17-year professional basketball career, 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 her 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 65. If you have a reverse mortgage with only one spouse on it, contact an elder law attorney to find out the best way to protect the non-borrowing spouse.

It’s Open Enrollment Season: Is Your Medicare Plan Still Working For You?

Do you have the right Medicare plan? It is fall, which means it is time to think about whether your current plan is still giving you the best coverage or whether a new plan could save you money or offer better coverage. Medicare’s Open Enrollment Period, during which you can freely enroll in or switch plans, runs from October 15 to December 7.

During this period you may enroll in a Medicare Part D (prescription drug) plan or, if you currently have a plan, you may change plans. In addition, during the seven-week period you can return to traditional Medicare (Parts A and B) from a Medicare Advantage (Part C, managed care) plan, enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan, or change Advantage plans. Beneficiaries can go to www.medicare.gov or call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) to make changes in their Medicare prescription drug and health plan coverage.

Even beneficiaries who have been satisfied with their plans in 2018 should review their choices for 2019, as both premiums and plan coverage can fluctuate from year to year. Are the doctors you use still part of your Medicare Advantage plan’s provider network? Have any of the prescriptions you take been dropped from your prescription plan’s list of covered drugs (the “formulary”)? Could you save money with the same coverage by switching to a different plan?

For answers to questions like these, carefully look over the plan’s “Annual Notice of Change” letter to you. Prescription drug plans can change their premiums, deductibles, the list of drugs they cover, and their plan rules for covered drugs, exceptions, and appeals. Medicare Advantage plans can change their benefit packages, as well as their provider networks. For information about entering and leaving Medicare Advantage plans, click here.

Remember that fraud perpetrators will inevitably use the Open Enrollment Period to try to gain access to individuals’ personal financial information. Medicare beneficiaries should never give their personal information out to anyone making unsolicited phone calls selling Medicare-related products or services or showing up on their doorstep uninvited. If you think you’ve been a victim of fraud or identity theft, contact Medicare. For more information on Medicare fraud, click here.

Here are more resources for navigating the Open Enrollment Period: