Medicare covers preventative care services, including an annual wellness visit. But confusing a wellness visit with a physical could be very costly.
As part of the Affordable Care Act, Medicare beneficiaries receive a free annual wellness visit. At this visit, your doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant will generally do the following:
- Ask you to fill out a health risk assessment questionnaire
- Update your medical history and current prescriptions
- Measure your height, weight, blood pressure and body mass index
- Provide personalized health advice
- Create a screening schedule for the next 5 to 10 years
- Screen for cognitive issues
You do not have to pay a deductible for this visit. You may also receive other free preventative services, such as a flu shot.
The confusion arises when a Medicare beneficiary requests an “annual physical” instead of an “annual wellness visit.” During a physical, a doctor may do other tests that are outside of an annual wellness visit, such as check vital signs, perform lung or abdominal exams, test your reflexes, or order urine and blood samples. These services are not offered for free and Medicare beneficiaries will have to pay co-pays and deductibles when they receive a physical. Kaiser Health News recently related the story of a Medicare recipient who had what she assumed was a free physical only to get a $400 bill from her doctor’s office.
Adding to the confusion is that when you first enroll, Medicare covers a “welcome to Medicare” visit with your doctor. To avoid co-pays and deductibles, you need to schedule it within the first 12 months of enrolling in Medicare Part B. The visit covers the same things as the annual wellness visit, but it also covers screenings and flu shots, a vision test, review of risk for depression, the option of creating advance directives, and a written plan, letting you know which screenings, shots, and other preventative services you should get.
To avoid receiving a bill for an annual visit, when you contact your doctor's office to schedule the appointment, be sure to request an “annual wellness visit” instead of asking for a “physical.” The difference in wording can save you hundreds of dollars. In addition, some Medicare Advantage plans offer a free annual physical, so check with your plan if you are enrolled in one before scheduling.
For more information about Medicare, click here.
Social Security survivor's benefits provide a safety net to widows and widowers. But to get the most out of the benefit, you need to know the right time to claim.
While you can claim survivor's benefits as early as age 60, if you claim benefits before your full retirement age, your benefits will be permanently reduced. If you claim benefits at your full retirement age, you will receive 100 percent of your spouse's benefit or, if your spouse died before collecting benefits, 100 percent of what your spouse's benefit would have been at full retirement age. Unlike with retirement benefits, delaying survivor's benefits longer than your full retirement age will not increase the benefit. If you delay taking retirement benefits past your full retirement age, depending on when you were born your benefit will increase by 6 to 8 percent for every year that you delay up to age 70, in addition to any cost of living increases.
You cannot take both retirement benefits and survivor's benefits at the same time. When deciding which one to take, you need to compare the two benefits to see which is higher. In some cases, the decision is easy—one benefit is clearly much higher than the other. In other situations, the decision can be a little more complicated and you may want to take your survivor's benefit before switching to your retirement benefit.
To determine the best strategy, you will need to look at your retirement benefit at your full retirement age as well as at age 70 and compare that to your survivor's benefit. If your retirement benefit at age 70 will be larger than your survivor's benefit, it may make sense to claim your survivor's benefit at your full retirement age. You can then let your retirement benefit continue to grow and switch to the retirement benefit at age 70.
Example: A widow has the option of taking full retirement benefits of $2,000/month or survivor's benefits of $2,100/month. She can take the survivor's benefits and let her retirement benefits continue to grow. When she reaches age 70, her retirement benefit will be approximately $2,480/month, and she can switch to retirement benefits. Depending on the widow's life expectancy, this strategy may make sense even if the survivor's benefit is smaller than the retirement benefit to begin with.
Keep in mind that divorced spouses are also entitled to survivor's benefits if they were married for at least 10 years. If you remarry before age 60, you are not entitled to survivor's benefits, but remarriage after age 60 does not affect benefits. In the case of remarriage, you may need to factor in the new spouse's spousal benefit when figuring out the best way to maximize benefits.
For more information about when to take Social Security benefits, click here.
For more information about Social Security benefits for spouses, click here.
The number of older Americans with student loan debt – either theirs or someone else’s — is growing. Sadly, learning how to deal with this debt is now a fact of life for many seniors heading into retirement.
According to a study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the number of older borrowers increased by at least 20 percent between 2012 and 2017. Some of these borrowers were borrowing for themselves, but the majority were borrowing for others. The study found that 73 percent of student loan borrowers age 60 and older borrowed for a child’s or grandchild’s education.
Before you co-sign a student loan for a child or grandchild, you need to understand your obligations. The co-signer not only vouches for the loan recipient's ability to pay back the loan, but is also personally responsible for repaying the loan if the recipient cannot pay. Because of this, you need to carefully consider the risk before taking on this responsibility. In some circumstances, it is possible to obtain a co-signer release from a loan after the loan recipient has made a few on-time payments. If you are a co-signer on a loan that has not defaulted, check with the lender about getting a release. You can also ask the lender for payment information to make sure the borrower is keeping up with the payments.
If the borrower defaulted and you are obliged to pay the loan back or you are the borrower yourself, you will need to manage your finances. Having to pay back student loan debt can lead to working longer, fewer retirement savings, delayed health care, and credit issues, among other things. If you are struggling to make payments, you can request a new repayment plan that has lower monthly payments. With a federal student loan, you have the option to make payments based on your income. To request an “income-driven repayment plan,” go to: https://studentloans.gov/myDirectLoan/index.action.
Defaulting on a student loan may affect your Social Security benefits. If you have a private student loan, a debt collector cannot garnish your Social Security benefits to pay back the loan. In the case of federal student loans, the government can take 15 percent of your Social Security check as long as the remaining balance doesn't drop below $750. There is no statute of limitations on student loan debt, so it doesn't matter how long ago the debt occurred. If you do default on a federal loan, contact the U.S. Department of Education right away to see if you can arrange a new repayment plan.
If you die still owing debt on a federal student loan, the debt will be discharged and your spouse or other heirs will not have to repay the loan. If you have a private student loan, whether your spouse or estate will be liable to pay back the debt will depend on the individual loan. You should check with your lender to find out the discharge policies. Depending on the loan, the lender may try to collect from the estate or any co-signers. In a community property state (where all assets acquired during a marriage are considered owned by both spouses equally), the spouse may be liable for the debt (some community property states have exceptions for student loan debt).
For tips from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to help navigate problems with student loans, click here.
Donor-advised funds are a growing trend in giving that may get more popular due to the new tax law. These funds allow you to donate money, receive a charitable tax deduction, and continue to grow the money until you are ready to distribute it to a charity or charities of your choice.
A donor-advised fund is established through a charity or nonprofit. The way the fund works is that you donate assets (it can be cash, stocks, or real estate) to the fund. The gift is irrevocable – the nonprofit controls the assets and you cannot get the assets back. You may then take an immediate tax deduction for the gift to the fund. Once the fund is established, you can tell the fund where to donate the money, and when.
These funds are becoming more popular in part because the new tax law enacted in 2017 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 and they will get no deduction for their charitable contributions.
A donor-advised fund allows you to contribute several years' worth of charitable donations to the fund at once and receive the tax benefit immediately, making it more likely that itemizing would be more advantageous than taking the standard deduction.
There are different types of donor-advised funds. Some are spinoffs of large financial investment firms like Fidelity and Schwab. Others may be smaller community funds. Some universities and faith-based organizations also have funds. Each fund has its own rules on how the money is distributed. There may be limits on how much you can donate each year or a requirement that you donate a certain amount. Some funds are single-issue funds that may require that at least some of the donations go to a particular charity or cause. Each fund also has its own rules on whether the fund can be passed down to heirs.
Before deciding to give to a donor-advised fund, you should investigate the fund's rules, fees, and how established the fund is. It is best to consult with your financial advisor before making any major donations.
For more information about donor-advised funds from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, click here.
Paying for day care is one of the biggest expenses faced by working adults with young children, a dependent parent, or a child with a disability, but there is a tax credit available to help working caregivers defray the costs of day care (called “adult day care” in the case of the elderly).
In order to qualify for the tax credit, you must have a dependent who cannot be left alone and who has lived with you for more than half the year. Qualifying dependents may be the following:
- A child who is under age 13 when the care is provided
- A spouse who is physically or mentally incapable of self-care
- An individual who is physically or mentally incapable of self-care and either is your dependent or could have been your dependent except that his or her income is too high ($4,150 or more) or he or she files a joint return.
Even though you can no longer receive a deduction for claiming a parent (or child) as a dependent, you can still receive this tax credit if your parent (or other relative) qualifies as a dependent. This means you must provide more than half of their support for the year. Support includes amounts spent to provide food, lodging, clothing, education, medical and dental care, recreation, transportation, and similar necessities. Even if you do not pay more than half your parent's total support for the year, you may still be able to claim your parent as a dependent if you pay more than 10 percent of your parent's support for the year, and, with others, collectively contribute to more than half of your parent's support.
The total expenses you can use to calculate the credit is $3,000 for one child or dependent or up to $6,000 for two or more children or dependents. So if you spent $10,000 on care, you can only use $3,000 of it toward the credit. Once you know your work-related day care expenses, to calculate the credit, you need to multiply the expenses by a percentage of between 20 and 35, depending on your income. (A chart giving the percentage rates is in IRS Publication 503.) For example, if you earn $15,000 or less and have the maximum $3,000 eligible for the credit, to figure out your credit you multiply $3,000 by 35 percent. If you earn $43,000 or more, you multiply $3,000 by 20 percent. (A tax credit is directly subtracted from the tax you owe, in contrast to a tax deduction, which decreases your taxable income.)
The care can be provided in or out of the home, by an individual or by a licensed care center, but the care provider cannot be a spouse, dependent, or the child's parent. The main purpose of the care must be the dependent's well-being and protection, and expenses for care should not include amounts you pay for food, lodging, clothing, education, and entertainment.
To get the credit, you must report the name, address, and either the care provider's Social Security number or employer identification number on the tax return. To find out if you are eligible to claim the credit, click here.
Caring for an ailing family member is difficult work, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be unpaid work. There are programs available that allow Medicaid recipients to hire family members as caregivers.
All 50 states have programs that provide pay to family caregivers. The programs vary by state, but are generally available to Medicaid recipients, although there are also some non-Medicaid-related programs.
Medicaid's program began as “cash and counseling,” but is now often called “self-directed,” “consumer-directed,” or “participant-directed” care. The first step is to apply for Medicaid through a home-based Medicaid program. Medicaid is available only to low-income seniors, and each state has different eligibility requirements. Medicaid application approval can take months, and there also may be a waiting list to receive benefits under the program.
The state Medicaid agency usually conducts an assessment to determine the recipient's care needs—e.g., how much help the Medicaid recipient needs with activities of daily living such as bathing, dressing, eating, and moving. Once the assessment is complete, the state draws up a budget, and the recipient can use the allotted funds to pay for goods or services related to care, including paying a caregiver. Each state offers different benefits coverage.
Recipients can choose to pay a family member as a caregiver, but states vary on which family members are allowed. For example, most states prevent caregivers from hiring a spouse, and some states do not allow recipients to hire a caregiver who lives with them. Most programs allow ex-spouses, in-laws, children, and grandchildren to serve as paid caregivers, but states typically require that family caregivers be paid less than the market rate in order to prevent fraud.
In addition to Medicaid programs, some states have non-Medicaid programs that also allow for self-directed care. These programs may have different eligibility requirements than Medicaid and are different in each state. Family caregivers can also be paid using a “caregiver contract,” increasingly used as part of Medicaid planning.
In some states, veterans who need long-term care also have the option to pay family caregivers. In 37 states, veterans who receive the standard medical benefits package from the Veterans Administration and require nursing home-level care may apply for Veteran-Directed Care. The program provides veterans with a flexible budget for at-home services that can be managed by the veteran or the family caregiver. In addition, if a veteran or surviving spouse of a veteran qualifies for Aid & Attendance benefits, they can receive a supplement to their pension to help pay for a caregiver, who can be a family member.
All of these programs vary by state. Contact your elder law attorney to find out what is available in your state. To find an attorney near you, go here: https://www.elderlawanswers.com/elder-law-attorneys.
A new report that combines nursing home quality data with a survey of family members ranks the best and worst states for care and paints a picture of how Americans view nursing homes.
The website Care.com analyzed Medicare's nursing home ratings to identify the states with the best and worst overall nursing home quality ratings. Using Medicare's five-star nursing home rating system, Care.com found that Hawaii nursing homes had the highest overall average ratings (3.93), followed by the District of Columbia (3.89), Florida (3.75), and New Jersey (3.75). The state with the lowest average rating was Texas (2.68), followed by Oklahoma (2.76), Louisiana (2.80), and Kentucky (2.98).
Care.com also surveyed 978 people who have family members in a nursing home to determine their impressions about nursing homes. The surveyors found that the family members visited their loved ones in a nursing home an average six times a month, and more than half of those surveyed felt that they did not visit enough. Those who thought they visited enough visited an average of nine times a month. In addition, a little over half felt somewhat to extremely guilty about their loved one being in a nursing home, while slightly less than one-quarter (23 percent) did not feel guilty at all. If the tables were turned, nearly half of the respondents said they would not want their families to send them to a nursing home.
While the survey indicates that the decision to admit a loved one to a nursing home was difficult, a majority (71.3 percent) of respondents felt satisfied with the care their loved ones were receiving. Only 18.1 percent said they were dissatisfied and about 10 percent were neutral. A little over half said that they would like to provide care at home if they could. The most common special request made on behalf of a loved one in a nursing home is for special food. Other common requests include extra attention and environmental accommodations (e.g., room temperature).
To read the full results of the survey, click here.
Traditionally, Medicaid has paid for long-term care in a nursing home, but because most individuals would rather be cared for at home and home care is cheaper, all 50 states now have Medicaid programs that offer at least some home care. In some states, even family members can get paid for providing care at home.
Medicaid is a joint federal-state program that provides health insurance coverage to low-income children, seniors, and people with disabilities. In addition, it covers care in a nursing home for those who qualify. Medicaid home care services are typically provided through home- and community-based services “waiver” programs to individuals who need a high level of care, but who would like to remain at home.
Medicaid's home care programs are state-run, and each state has different rules about how to qualify. Because Medicaid is available only to low-income individuals, each state sets its own asset and income limits. For example, in 2019, in New York an applicant must have income that is lower than $845 a month and fewer than $15,150 in assets to qualify. But Minnesota's income limit is $2,250 and its asset limit is $3,000, while Connecticut's income limit is also $2,250 but its asset limit is just $1,600.
States also vary widely in what services they provide. Some services that Medicaid may pay for include the following:
- In-home health care
- Personal care services, such as help bathing, eating, and moving
- Home care services, including help with household chores like shopping or laundry
- Caregiver support
- Minor modifications to the home to make it accessible
- Medical equipment
In most states it is possible for family members to get paid for providing care to a Medicaid recipient. The Medicaid applicant must apply for Medicaid and select a program that allows the recipient to choose his or her own caregiver, often called “consumer directed care.” Most states that allow paid family caregivers do not allow legal guardians and spouses to be paid by Medicaid, but a few states do. Some states will pay caregivers only if they do not live in the same house as the Medicaid recipient.
To find out your Medicaid home care options, you should check with your elder law attorney. To find an elder law attorney near you, click here.