Preserving Assets and Maximum Income for the Healthier Spouse When the Other Spouse Enters a Nursing Home
The Spouse Who Remains At Home or in Assisted Living Often Has Some Important Choices to Make With an Unbiased Legal Advisor
One of the biggest mistakes that many spouses make when the other spouse enters a nursing home is not getting legal advice from an elder law attorney about Medicaid, known in Massachusetts as “MassHealth.” The “free” information that many community spouses (which under MassHealth law means any spouse who is not in a nursing home) often rely on can turn out to be quite costly to them.
There are different layers in MassHealth law, and many persons only seem to know about the bottom layer, so let’s go over that one first. Under 2010 law, just about everything other than the home and car are totaled, and the community spouse supposedly can keep the first $109,560 under 2010 law.
Unfortunately, this lower layer is where the knowledge of many persons ends, and two other upper layers of the law effectively override the lower layer. One upper layer is that the community spouse can enter into certain types of annuity agreements with the spenddown (that is, excess) assets.
Before even thinking about using the annuity layer, however, the community spouse should keep three things in mind: (A) not every annuity will work; (B) the published regulations and unpublished internal procedures and policies which now allow such a move can change with little advance notice, so it is often not advisable that an annuity be purchased until the institutionalized spouse’s nursing home stay has already occurred; and most importantly (C) many community spouses can keep everything without needing an annuity, and are better off without an annuity, due to the other upper layer of MassHealth law that protects income for the community spouse.
At present, the community spouse has the absolute right to an income of at least 1,821.25 per month. (Further, if shelter expenses exceed 30% of this figure, or $514.00, or if a disabled child lives at home, the community spouse is often entitled to keep much more than $1,821.25 per month.) If the Social Security and pension payable in the name of the community spouse is less than the $1821.25 figure, as is often the situation when the husband enters the nursing home, at the end of the MassHealth application process the community spouse is allowed to keep some or all of the institutionalized spouse’s income.
If the needs of the community spouse are greater than $2,739 per month, a higher amount of income can sometimes be preserved for the community spouse via the fair hearing appeal process, where the need to keep the other assets has to be proved to maintain the financial ability to remain in the community. A common situation where need can be fairly easily proved is where the community spouse is living in an assisted living facility and needs to be there due to frailty, medical condition of other special needs. Once the need to be in assisted living is established, the appeal is primarily about numbers and prevailing interest rates, so the community spouse need not go to the hearing, and the elder law attorney can often handle it alone.
Another option to retain greater income for the community spouse is a Probate Court procedure known as separate support. Since both spouses need legal representation in court, it is important that the institutionalized spouse have a durable power of attorney that allows the appointed person to hire a lawyer.
When spenddown and appeal options are determined by an elder law attorney as potentially unsuccessful, the community spouse can often purchase certain types of immediate annuities, which are almost always the last resort due to the manner in which the institutionalized spouse’s income is treated for MassHealth purposes.
Maintaining the maximum retroactivity of the original MassHealth application is vital to preserve assets for the community spouse and to ensure that the nursing home will be paid by MassHealth, so the MassHealth fair hearing appeal process should never be overlooked if any type of notice of denial is ever received along the way.
Why don’t more persons know about the appeal and annuity options? Perhaps because the high-level state bureaucrats who run MassHealth do not want everyone taking advantage of these options, and have seen to it that their legal department keeps the official information about spousal rights and annuities as vague or hidden as is legally possible. Perhaps because many nursing homes offer “free help” with the MassHealth application, yet do not give the family complete information about possible appeals and annuities, so that the community spouse feels relieved at receiving help yet unaware that some important alternatives are not being explored.