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Doherty Case Should Cause Some Concern about Irrevocable Medicaid Trusts in Massachusetts

September 25, 2010

In Doherty v. Director of the Office of Medicaid, the Massachusetts Appeals Court rendered a 2009 decision that could be viewed as an assault on irrevocable, income-only trusts in Massachusetts that were designed for MassHealth (i.e., Medicaid) purposes. The decision may simply have been about the facts of a poorly-drafted trust.

A lot of discussion has occurred among Massachusetts elder law attorneys about this case. While the decision appears to be justified based on the details of the trust, what is troubling is that the language in the decision was not as concise as one would expect from an appellate court. It is difficult to read the case and see exactly why the court made its decision, but perhaps the court simply didn’t see sufficient reason to overturn the decisions made below in the Superior Court and at the MassHealth fair hearing level.

The trust in Doherty had some fatal flaws. The person who established it had the authority to make decisions as to what constituted principal and income, and had the right to terminate the trust and make distributions to the “beneficiaries” (which was an undefined term). It appeared that the person who established the trust could be given the assets from the trust, and Medicaid would then be correct in treating the assets of the trust as countable assets, but because the court was not specific about what was wrong with this trust under Medicaid law, any trust under which too much control is reserved could eventually be under attack under Doherty’s poorly-written decision.

Fortunately, in the months since the Doherty decision was handed down, it does not appear that the case is being stretched by MassHealth lawyers to apply to other irrevocable trusts. Still, to be conservative, I have been suggesting to my clients who have established irrevocable trusts that a thorough review is necessary, and, in some cases, we have been releasing some of the powers and rights that were reserved when the trust was originally established. It may also be a good idea for the older person who established the trust to step down as trustee.

New MassHealth developments are reported by elder law attorneys through listservs to each other on a daily basis. We learn about new positions taken by MassHealth lawyers before those problems ever are in reported court cases, and change our strategies. Because of Doherty, irrevocable trusts should often be reevaluated. My suggestion to all persons who have established irrevocable trusts for Medicaid or long-term care planning purposes is that you have your irrevocable trust reviewed every 2 years.

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