Many senior citizens are worried about probate and death taxes.  For most people, the fear of probate and estate taxes is misplaced.  The greatest threat to our hard earned money is not probate or taxes, but nursing home costs.

This year and next year, a person can die with $5,000,000 of assets without any estate tax.  Under current law, beginning 2013, $1,000,000 will be tax free at death.  Estate taxes will not be a problem for most of us.

Probate (a court proceeding) is required when a person dies with assets in his or her sole name.  Although going through probate is inconvenient, it usually is not very expensive.  If a person dies owning a home and bank accounts, the probate might cost $5,000 to $10,000.

Nursing home costs, on the other hand, run $8,000 to $14,000 a month!  If staying in a nursing home costs $9,000 a month, that totals $108,000 a year.  Three years in a nursing home will cost $324,000.  This could wipe out everything a person has saved over a lifetime.

Medicare, which most of us have after age 65, pays only for a maximum of 100 days of nursing home costs.  Even though the rules say that they can pay for up to 100 days, on the average, Medicare only pays for about 25 days of nursing home costs.  As soon as the patient’s condition stabilizes, Medicare stops paying.  The patient then has to use his or her own money to pay $8,000 to $14,000 a month.  To get Medicaid (which is different from Medicare) to pay for nursing home expenses, the patient’s assets have to be below a certain amount.  If you are married, you and your spouse together can have $111,560 in assets and still qualify for Medicaid.  If you are single, you can have only $2,000 in assets.

Some senior citizens, because they don’t want to lose their assets to nursing home costs, will give their assets away to children.  You need to be careful, because when you give away assets, there will be a penalty period during which Medicaid will not help you.  Many people think the penalty period is 5 years.  The penalty period can be shorter or longer than 5 years.  These rules are complicated, and you should not give away assets without expert advice.

If you do get your assets below $2,000 and qualify for Medicaid, the government will help pay your nursing home expenses.  But watch out, because there is a trap.  Even though the home is an “exempt asset” and is not counted when adding up your assets, if you are single, the government can usually put a lien on your home.  Even if you are married, if you are in a nursing home and your spouse dies first, a lien will go on your home.  A lien is like a mortgage.  It guarantees that the government will someday get back all the money it pays for your nursing home expenses.  Your children are forced to sell the home or mortgage it to pay back the government.

Another trap is having your home in a revocable living trust.  A trust is good for protecting your assets from probate.  However, a revocable living trust cannot protect your assets from nursing home costs.  In fact, since May 10, 2003, you cannot qualify for Medicaid if your home is in a trust, even if you have less than $2,000 in assets.  To qualify for Medicaid, the Medicaid office will force you to take your home out of your revocable living trust.  When you take your home out of your trust, the government will be able to put a Medicaid lien on it!

Estate planning is now a lot trickier than it used to be.  Many senior citizens who have trusts think they are safe.  They actually face the risk of nursing home costs, which for the ordinary person, is a far greater threat than probate or taxes.

You may also be interested in our article on how to avoid probate.