by Michael Ettinger, Esq.
"Elder Law Estate Planning" is a niche area of the law which combines the features of elder law and estate planning that pertain most to the needs of the middle class.
Estate planning was originally for the wealthy few. Middle class families did not consider themselves as having "estates" to plan. During the Reagan years (1980-1988), a great economic expansion occurred, raising the asset level of the middle class into the realm of estate planning. With middle class people suddenly exposed to "estate taxes", the need arose for estate planning, to reduce or eliminate those taxes. A few years later, in 1991, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) published "A Consumer Report on Probate" which concluded that probate was a process to be avoided, in all but the most exceptional cases. This marked the beginning of the end of traditional will planning and started the "living trust revolution". AARP recommended that families start using trusts rather than wills, to avoid probate and save their beneficiaries tens of thousands of dollars in the estate settlement process.
Since then, millions of people have set up trusts to:
• Save time and money in settling the estate
• Avoid legal guardianship if they become disabled
• Avoid having their personal and financial matters made public
• Reduce the chance of a "will contest"
• Keep control in their family and out of the court system
At about the same time as living trust planning became popular, the field of elder law emerged to help people navigate the increased complexity of state Medicaid rules and regulations, the soaring costs of nursing home stays, and the fact that people were living considerably longer.
Historically, estate planning was handled primarily by "white shoe" law firms in the deep canyons of downtown Manhattan, while elder law planning emerged out of the Department of Social Services. State employees began to take their expertise in Medicaid rules and regulations into the private sector.
To this day, these two fields continue to grow independently of each other, sometimes to the detriment of the clients lawyers are meant to serve. Estate planning lawyers mostly see estates averaging from the low hundreds of thousands to about two million dollars. Families with estates under one million dollars often cannot afford long-term care insurance. They may now or later need a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT) to protect their estates from being depleted in the event a nursing home is required. Since the estate planning attorney is often unfamiliar with elder law, the client never gets the MAPT they need, and the estate plan to avoid probate proves useless when a nursing home stay ends up consuming all of the assets.
For the couple with over one million dollars in assets, estate planning is essential to reduce or eliminate estate taxes. In this case, they should split their assets into two trusts, thereby creating two estates, and doubling the exemption from one million to two million dollars. Still, this couple, while they may be able to afford long-term care insurance, may find one or both of them uninsurable due to health reasons. Perhaps what they really need are two MAPT's, not just to save estate taxes but to also protect the assets from nursing home costs, but they never get them because the estate planning lawyer is not experienced or trained in drafting these documents.
What happens when the estate planning client actually becomes disabled and needs long-term care? They, or the family, often consult with the estate planning lawyer who prepared their plan, but who may be unable to help them, due to his or her unfamiliarity with state Medicaid rules. Many families lose assets that might have been saved. Unknown to the estate planning attorney, elder law attorneys have developed numerous techniques to protect hard won assets, even when the nursing home is imminent, such as "spousal refusal" and the "gift and loan" strategy.
On the other side of the coin, what happens when the older single or couple meets with an elder law attorney instead of an estate planning attorney? These clients are usually sixty-five or over, and are looking for asset protection. The elder law attorney knows how to create a MAPT and often recommends them. However, on the estate planning side of matters, the elder law attorney may miss the need to set up two trusts for the couple to avoid the estate tax. He or she may have little knowledge about estate planning for second marriages, a growing segment of the population, or using Inheritance Trusts to keep the assets in the blood and protect the inheritance from children's divorces, lawsuits, and creditors.
While some of the family's needs may be met, such as asset protection, other needs are left unserved, often because the clients are unaware that these two fields of law complement and overlap one another. In other words, they may get what they want but
not necessarily what they need. These oversights are often visited on the heirs.
Your writer made the conscious decision twenty years ago to develop expertise in these two fields of law simultaneously. This has proven to be invaluable to thousands of families. Clients who originally came in for estate planning services later became elder law clients, converting their revocable living trust estate plans into MAPT's as they got older, or through the use of Medicaid planning services to protect assets when the need for nursing home care actually arose.
Looking back on our experiences in over ten thousand cases at Ettinger Law Firm, we conclude that we have assisted in the creation of a new niche, "Elder Law Estate Planning".
We define this area of law as:
• Getting your assets to your heirs, with the least amount of taxes and legal fees possible
• Keeping those assets in the blood for your grandchildren and, in the meantime, protecting those assets from your children's divorces, lawsuits, and creditors
• Protecting your assets from the costs of long-term care and qualifying for government benefits available to pay for care
While estate planning involves tools for well-to-do families, with acronyms like GRITS, GRATS, and GRUTS, and where elder law serves the diverse needs of our growing senior population, including the less fortunate, through Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, "Elder Law Estate Planning" addresses the concerns of the vast majority in the middle.