After a Medicaid recipient dies, the state must attempt to recoup from his or her estate whatever benefits it paid for the recipient’s care. This is called “estate recovery.” For most Medicaid recipients, their house is the only asset available.
For many people, setting up a “life estate” is the simplest and most appropriate alternative for protecting the home from estate recovery. A life estate is a form of joint ownership of property between two or more people. They each have an ownership interest in the property, but for different periods of time. The person holding the life estate possesses the property currently and for the rest of his or her life. The other owner has a current ownership interest but cannot take possession until the end of the life estate, which occurs at the death of the life estate holder.
Example: Jane gives a remainder interest in her house to her children, Robert and Mary, while retaining a life interest for herself. She carries this out through a simple deed. Thereafter, Jane, the life estate holder, has the right to live in the property or rent it out, collecting the rents for herself. On the other hand, she is responsible for the costs of maintenance and taxes on the property. In addition, the property cannot be sold to a third party without the cooperation of Robert and Mary, the remainder interest holders.
When Jane dies, the house will not go through probate, since at her death the ownership will pass automatically to the holders of the remainder interest, Robert and Mary. Although the property will not be included in Jane’s probate estate, it will be included in her taxable estate. The downside of this is that depending on the size of the estate and the state’s estate tax threshold, the property may be subject to estate taxation. The upside is that this can mean a significant reduction in the tax on capital gains when Robert and Mary sell the property because they will receive a “step up” in the property’s basis.
As with a transfer to a trust, the deed into a life estate can trigger a Medicaid ineligibility period of up to five years. To avoid a transfer penalty the individual purchasing the life estate must actually reside in the home for at least one year after the purchase.
Life estates are created simply by executing a deed conveying the remainder interest to another while retaining a life interest, as Jane did in this example. In many states, once the house passes to Robert and Mary, the state cannot recover against it for any Medicaid expenses Jane may have incurred.
Another method of protecting the home from estate recovery is to transfer it to an irrevocable trust. Trusts provide more flexibility than life estates but are somewhat more complicated. Once the house is in the irrevocable trust, it cannot be taken out again. Although it can be sold, the proceeds must remain in the trust. This can protect more of the value of the house if it is sold. Further, if properly drafted, the later sale of the home while in this trust might allow the settlor, if he or she had met the residency requirements, to exclude up to $250,000 in taxable gain, an exclusion that would not be available if the owner had transferred the home outside of trust to a non-resident child or other third party before sale.
Contact your attorney to find out what method will work best for you.