Many individuals are forced to consider applying for Medicaid for a host of reasons, all mainly to help alleviate the cost of medical care. Medicaid is a joint federal and state public health insurance program for people with low income. The program covers 1 in 5 Americans, many with intricate and expensive needs for medical care. Medicaid is the principal source of long-term care coverage for many Americans. The majority of Medicaid enrollees lack access to other affordable health insurance. Medicaid covers a broad array of health services and helps limit out-of-pocket costs.
There are many factors to consider when applying for Medicaid, and this is widely due to the eligibility requirements that Medicaid has. If an individual has too many assets, they won’t be able to qualify for Medicaid. However, there are many legal ways to move your assets, which can allow you or a loved one to be eligible for Medicaid.
1) What qualifications do you need to have to become eligible for Medicaid?
To be eligible for New York Medicaid, you have to be a resident of New York State, a U.S. national, citizen, permanent resident, or legal alien, in need of health care/insurance assistance, whose financial situation would be characterized as low income or very low income. You must also be one of the following:
- Pregnant, or
- Be responsible for a child 18 years of age or younger, or
- Blind, or
- Have a disability or a family member in your household with a disability, or
- Be 65 years of age or older.
But the primary concern regarding Medicaid qualifications for many Americans is what is considered low income.
2) How does Medicaid know what assets you have?
When you are determining if you are eligible for Medicaid, the Department of Social Services (“DSS”) will evaluate the Medicaid applicant or recipient’s income and assets that actually or will potentially exist. However, only such income and/or assets that are actually found to be readily available to the applicant may be considered in determining eligibility for Medicaid. In 2021, an individual can have no more than $17,131 in income to be eligible for Medicaid.
Can I Give My Assets Away As A “Gift” To Qualify for Medicaid?
In general, while determining the Medicaid eligibility, any gifting of assets made by the applicant within the look-back period will render the person ineligible for Medicaid for a period of time. Currently, the look-back period is five (5) years prior to the date of application.
Everyday common gifts can be considered by this vague word, “gift.” For example, paying for your grandchildren’s college education or contributing to your local church can all be considered gifts for purposes of determining Medicaid. A common myth is that you are allowed to gift $17,131 each year without incurring a penalty for Medicaid eligibility purposes. But as the word myth suggests, this is incorrect. In 2021, the annual gift tax exclusion for federal gift tax purposes is $15,000. That means that you can open the phone book and give everyone in the phone book $15,000 this year without filing a gift tax return. However, federal tax law has nothing to do with Medicaid eligibility rules. If you are gifting $15,000 each year, those gifts will still be evaluated for Medicaid eligibility purposes.
When is a gift not a gift (or in Medicaid terms a “transfer”) for Medicaid eligibility purposes? New York State law states that a person will not be ineligible for Medicaid if they transferred assets unless it was transferred exclusively for a purpose other than Medicaid eligibility. Ok, that seems easy enough. For example, you obviously didn’t pay for your grandchildren’s college education because you were specifically trying to qualify for Medicaid. However, as a matter of policy, DSS has historically been reluctant to accept this argument from applicants who have made significant gifts of assets like paying thousands of dollars for college. The result is that many individuals are denied Medicaid eligibility despite making regular (and necessary) gifts during the look-back period. However, there have been instances where applicants successfully argued that gifts made during the lookback period were for purposes other than to qualify for Medicaid and therefore, eligible for Medicaid. While determining the applicant’s intention, the DSS will consider things such as the applicant’s physical and mental condition at the time of the gift, the applicant’s use of the gifted funds, and the applicant’s financial security. The DSS may also evaluate whether the applicant gifted their own funds or if they received the funds through inheritance or windfall. To add, the DSS may check to make sure how much time passed between the gifting and the applicant’s institutionalization and whether this applicant lived alone when they made the gifts. Finally, the DSS may review whether the applicant had considered institutionalized care when the gifts were made.
3) Do assets disqualify you from having Medicaid?
No, not necessarily. Having assets won’t automatically disqualify you from having Medicaid. For example, in New York, a single applicant who is blind, disabled, or 65 and older is allowed to retain $15,900 in liquid assets. And for married couples, asset limits vary by the state, the Medicaid program, and if one or both spouses are applying for Medicaid.
However, just because a senior’s assets exceed the general limits listed above it does not mean they are automatically ineligible for Medicaid. States implement different rules and resource limits, and an elder can create a personalized asset spend-down plan to meet their state’s eligibility criteria. States also have varying laws regarding trusts and how they are counted, or not counted, when determining Medicaid eligibility.
There are also many other guidelines for calculating income and figuring out one’s medical need for care and assistance. Also, different financial rules apply to married couples. It is recommended to familiarize yourself with these eligibility requirements early on in case you ever need to help an aging loved one apply for Medicaid (or file an application yourself).
4) How can an Elder Law Attorney help?
Given the economic environment, it is common for lawyers to encounter situations where applicants gift their children or grandchildren during the look-back period which makes the Medicaid application process more complicated. And in most cases, handling the application process without any professional assistance can result in a determination of ineligibility and even a costly Medicaid penalty period. The assistance of competent counsel practicing in the area of elder law is imperative. It is important to work with an experienced elder law attorney with Medicaid planning experience.