According to the latest 2021 Genworth Cost of Care study, a private room in a nursing home costs almost $300/day, or nearly $9,000 per month. Fortunately, individuals in need of such institutional health care, who don’t have the means to pay for such care themselves, can generally rely on Medicaid to cover at least most of those long-term institutional care costs. However, as a means-tested program operated as a Federal-state partnership, Medicaid places extremely low limits not just on an individual’s income, but also on their “Countable Assets” that they are entitled to keep before they can qualify for coverage. Accordingly, those who will eventually rely on Medicaid to cover their cost of care must ‘spend down’ their own income and assets first… which can have a significant impact on the individual’s (and their families’) standard of living. Which raises the question of what planning can be done to help protect at least the other members of the family in situations where a Medicaid spend-down must occur.
While the limits on Countable Assets (including most of an individual’s assets such as cash, investments, bank accounts, and real estate) vary by state, the most commonly observed is a mere $2,000 in 2021. However, to allow a healthy spouse (with an ill partner applying for Medicaid) to maintain at least a minimal level of the couple’s assets and income to live on, the Medicaid rules include standards that set the amount of income and assets that can be maintained from the couple’s assets (and the institutionalized individual’s income) to maintain the healthy spouse’s standard of living without an obligation to spend them down for the ill spouse’s care.
To prevent couples from simply trying to ‘impoverish’ themselves to qualify for Medicaid, though, Medicaid rules include a five-year “Look-Back Period” (2½ years for California), which prevents recipients from simply giving away assets to (non-spouse) family members to meet Medicaid’s asset limits. Notably, though, when it comes to spousal income, the treatment is different, with the healthy spouse’s income generally being left out of the eligibility calculation altogether.
As a result, one strategy for married couples to preserve assets in light of the Look-Back Period for asset transfers, but the exclusion of the healthy spouse’s income, is to purchase a “Medicaid Annuity”. Essentially, assets in excess of the Countable Asset limit are used to purchase a Medicaid Annuity (such that the couple’s assets are within their allowed Countable Asset limit); then, annuity payments are made payable only to the healthy spouse. In doing so, the Countable Assets that would have otherwise been required to have been spent down to pay for the care of the institutionalized spouse are removed – but not as a gift, avoiding a look-back penalty period – and instead become income of the healthy spouse (which are effectively ignored for purposes of Medicaid eligibility).
Notably, though, not all states currently permit the use of Medicaid Annuities. And in states that do, to be Medicaid-compliant, the Medicaid Annuity must name the State (in those states that permit their use) as the remainder beneficiary for no less than the amount of Medicaid benefits it paid on behalf of the institutionalized individual. Which doesn’t limit the healthy spouse’s ability to leverage the Medicaid annuity for their own standard of living… but does mean that at least if both spouses do not survive the Medicaid annuity payout period, the State can recover Medicaid benefits it paid before those assets are bequeathed to subsequent heirs.
Ultimately, the key point is that for seniors or chronically disabled individuals who may need Medicaid benefits for their long-term care but fear the impact that spending down assets will have on their healthy spouse’s own standard of living, the Medicaid Annuity is a useful tool (at least in the states that permit them) to help the couple preserve assets by converting them into an annuity income stream. Which can be a valuable option to consider, especially in light of the last-minute ‘crisis’ nature that is often characteristic of Medicaid planning, when it’s too late to simply gift assets to family members by the time it’s necessary!