real estate

Family trust could save mom's benefits

Steve McLindenQuestionDear Real Estate Adviser,
My elderly mother needs assisted living. She owns a home in which she has lived for 50 years. If she sells the home, valued at about $150,000, she wouldn't be eligible for Veterans Affairs benefits for assisted living.

Is there any way she might be able to place the home in some kind of trust and not realize any monetary benefit from the sale?
-- Steve F.

AnswerDear Steve,
Yes. A family trust might be the solution to the asset-retention challenge your mother -- and ultimately the rest of the family -- will face.

Also known as a living trust or revocable living trust, this type of trust protects a home and other assets such as stock from remaining on the books as part of her net worth. In addition, it covers how those individual assets will be handled prior to and after your mother's passing.

The trust would also leave control of the home in the hands of your mother while she is alive, provided she remains mentally competent.

Once your mother -- who is considered the grantor in this case -- passes away, the appointed family trustee would take over and be required by law to distribute the property precisely as the grantor desired.

In the case of a house, the children typically would receive equal shares after the parent's passing. At that point, the house could be sold, or one or more of the heirs could elect to buy the others out and take ownership. There may be some overhead to maintaining a trust, by the way.

Gifting the house outright to the children, who could then sell it, is another option, particularly if you need to raise money soon for your mother's assisted-living expenses.

The negatives to this are the tax consequences, since federal law only permits an annual exclusion of up to $13,000 per family member without payment of federal gift tax. It would be prudent to have the home appraised by a professional appraiser before doing this to avoid any questions of value by the Internal Revenue Service.

As your family plans out a strategy, take into consideration any Medicaid benefit planning in addition to the VA assisted-living planning as part of a comprehensive long-term elder-planning approach. Realize the gift of a house can result in a period of ineligibility for Medicaid benefits.

For these and many other reasons, you should first consult with an estate-planning attorney or other asset-protection professional who is steeped in knowledge of VA pensions and assisted-living benefits.

You also might take another look at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs "Survivors and Dependents Benefits -- Death After Active Service" section. The VA's toll-free line for income verification and means-testing questions is (800)929-8387.

Good luck in sorting this out and best wishes to your mother, whose needs should remain paramount to others in this matter.

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