Immediate annuities can be a useful tool to protect the spouse of a nursing home resident who applies for Medicaid. These types of annuities allow the nursing home resident to spend down assets and give the spouse a guaranteed income.
Immediate annuities may not work in every state, so be sure to check with an elder law attorney or financial advisor.
What Is Medicaid?
Medicaid is the primary source of payment for long-term care services in the United States. To qualify for Medicaid, a nursing home resident must become impoverished under Medicaid's complicated asset rules. In most states, this means the applicant can have only $2,000 in countable assets. Virtually everything is countable except for the home (with some limitations) and personal belongings.
The spouse of a nursing home resident is known as the community spouse. A community spouse is limited to half of the couple's joint assets up to $148,620 in countable assets in 2023. The least that a state may allow a community spouse to retain is $29,724 (in 2023).
What Is an Annuity?
An annuity is a contract with an insurance company under which an individual pays an insurance company a sum of money in exchange for a stream of income. An immediate annuity will provide you with a stream of income right away.
This income stream may be payable for life or for a specific number of years, or a combination of both – that is, for life with a certain number of years of payment guaranteed. In the Medicaid planning context, most annuities are for a specific number of years.
Medicaid’s Transfer Penalty
The spouse of a nursing home resident may spend down excess assets by purchasing an immediate annuity. However, if Medicaid applicants or their spouses transfer assets within five years of applying for Medicaid, the applicants may be subject to a period of ineligibility. This is also called a transfer penalty.
To avoid a transfer penalty, the annuity must meet the following criteria:
- The annuity must pay back the entire investment.
- The payment period must be shorter than the owner's actuarial life expectancy. For instance, if the spouse's life expectancy is only four years, the purchase of an annuity with a five-year payback period would be deemed a transfer of assets.
- The annuity must be irrevocable and nontransferable. This means that the owner may not have the option of cashing it out and selling it to a third party.
- The annuity has to name the state as the beneficiary if the annuitant dies before all the payments have been made.
How Immediate Annuities Work
Here’s an example of how an immediate annuity might work:
John and Jane live in a state that allows the community spouse to keep $148,620 of the couple’s assets. If John moves to a nursing home and John and Jane have $320,000 in countable assets (savings, investments, and retirement accounts), Jane can take $200,000 in excess assets and purchase an immediate annuity for her own benefit.
After reducing their countable assets to $120,000, John will be eligible for Medicaid. If the annuity pays Jane $3,500 a month for five years, by the end of that time, Jane will have received back her investment plus $10,000 of income. If she accumulates these funds, at the end of five years, she will be right back where she started before John needed nursing home care.
Drawbacks of an Immediate Annuity
Given this planning opportunity, many spouses of nursing home residents use immediate annuities to preserve their own financial security. But it's not a slam dunk for a number of reasons, including:
- Some states either do not allow spousal annuities or put additional restrictions on them.
- Other planning options may be preferable, such as:
- The purchase of an annuity might require the liquidation of IRAs owned by the institutional spouse, causing a large tax liability.
- The healthy spouse at home may soon need nursing home care, in which case the annuity payments would simply go to the nursing home.
- The savings may be small due to the high income or short life expectancy of the institutional spouse. Liquidating assets and applying for Medicaid might not be worth the considerable trouble.
In short, the use of this powerful planning strategy depends on each couple's particular circumstances and should be undertaken only after consultation with a qualified elder law attorney in your area.
In addition, those who do purchase immediate annuities need to shop around to make sure they are purchasing them from reliable companies paying the best return.
Avoid Deferred Annuities
Finally, couples need to be aware of problems with deferred annuities to receive an income stream starting at a certain point in the future.
Some brokers will attempt to sell deferred annuities for Medicaid planning purposes, but they work differently. While a deferred annuity can be turned into an immediate annuity, if the nursing home resident owns the annuity, the income stream will be payable to the nursing home instead of the healthy spouse. Often, the annuity will charge a penalty for early withdrawal, so it is difficult to transfer it to the healthy spouse.
In short, while immediate annuities can be great tools for Medicaid planning, deferred annuities should be avoided by anyone contemplating the need for care in the near future.