Page Reviewed / Updated - September 26, 2019
Prior to a discussion of how Irrevocable Funeral Trusts (I.F. Trusts), also called Irrevocable Funeral Expense Trusts (IFET), can be used to help one qualify for Medicaid, it is helpful to understand exactly what defines an irrevocable funeral trust. A trust is a legal agreement in which an individual (called the Trustmaker or Grantor) sets aside a certain amount of money for a specific purpose or person. In this case, the purpose of the trust is for funeral and burial costs. In creating this type of trust, the money set aside is no longer considered to belong to the Trustmaker, provided the trust is “irrevocable”. Irrevocable means the trust cannot be changed, reversed, or dissolved for any reason.
There is considerable confusion about irrevocable funeral trusts because there are identical products with different names, and there are similarly named products with a similar purpose, which are critically different with regards to Medicaid eligibility. IFTs, Irrevocable Burial Trusts, and IF Trusts are identical products. Pre-paid funeral plans, pre-need funeral plans, life insurance for funeral expenses, and final expense insurance are the names of similar products, which may or may not be legally different.
Aside from care needs, Medicaid considers three areas related to the applicant's finances: their monthly income, their countable assets, and their asset transfers as far back as 60 months preceding their application date (this is called the Medicaid look-back period). Generally speaking, in 2019, the applicant's monthly income cannot exceed $2,313. The value of their countable assets cannot exceed $2,000. (One’s home, given the applicant or his/her spouse lives in it, and a vehicle, is not counted towards the asset limit). Applicants must not have made any asset transfers (to their children, for example) within the previous 60 months. (One exception is California, which has a 30-month look-back period for asset transfers). Applicants with income and / or assets over the limit(s) mentioned above, or who have violated the look-back period, are typically denied Medicaid coverage, and families are left to pay the significant cost of nursing home or other care expenses out-of-pocket.
Purchasing an irrevocable funeral trust allows an applicant to pay in advance for an expensive item for which they or their family will have to pay for eventually, and by doing so, they reduce their countable assets and can qualify for Medicaid. An irrevocable funeral trust, because it is a trust and irrevocable, is not counted as an asset by Medicaid. Nor does its purchase violate the 60-month asset transfer rule (the look-back rule), or in California, the 30-month asset transfer rule.
Almost all states impose a limit on the amount of money that can be placed in a funeral trust. These limits are approximately equal to the average cost of a funeral and range from $5,000 - $15,000 per spouse. This means single persons with approximately $7,000 - $17,000 in countable assets, or married couples with approximately $14,000 - $34,000, who would otherwise not qualify for Medicaid, can do so by purchasing an irrevocable funeral trust(s). As a side note, for married couples with just one spouse applying for long-term care Medicaid, the non-applicant spouse is able to retain a much higher level of assets. This is called a community spouse resource allowance, and as of 2019, allows a non-applicant spouse to retain as much as $123,600 of the couple’s assets. For more information, click here.
For persons whose countable assets exceed the abovementioned amounts, a funeral trust can still be used. However, they may need to combine this purchase with other techniques to lower their countable assets to a Medicaid-compliant level. For other ways to “spend down” excess assets without violating Medicaid’s look-back period, click here.
Note that a different trust exists to help individuals whose income exceeds the Medicaid limit. Read about Qualifying Income Trusts here. Some states also allow applicants to qualify through a medically needy pathway.
Other than helping individuals become Medicaid compliant, there are additional benefits to irrevocable funeral trusts. One of which is that they enable families to pre-pay for the costs of a funeral without having to commit to any particular funeral home. It is not uncommon for funeral homes to go out of business and families who have pre-paid directly to that funeral home to lose their money.
A funeral trust also allows a family to plan for a funeral without having to plan the details of the funeral, which is an activity that many find distasteful. However, should a family think differently regarding funeral planning, there is nothing in a funeral trust that would prevent them from planning the details.
An expense of funerals, which is not considered by many, but is often substantial, is the travel cost for family members to attend the funeral. An additional benefit of funeral trusts is that they can be used to cover this expense.
Irrevocable funeral trusts are relatively simple to set up and are not time consuming to do so. However, if not set up correctly, one may violate Medicaid’s look-back period, resulting in a period of Medicaid ineligibility. For this reason, it is highly suggested one contact a professional Medicaid planner for assistance prior to setting up an irrevocable funeral trust.
Though beneficial for many families, there are legitimate reasons and situations when the purchase of an irrevocable funeral trust does not make economic sense.
First and foremost, it is important to remember that the creation of an irrevocable funeral trust is irrevocable. It cannot be reversed, dissolved, or used for any purposes other than for the individual's funeral. This must be considered prior to making the decision.
Finally, it is not necessary to purchase a pre-built trust from an insurance company. Should the individual have a friend or family member who is an attorney with expertise in establishing irrevocable trusts that are Medicaid compliant, one might choose that route instead. Particularly, if they can provide free or inexpensive assistance and can create the trust without violating the look-back penalty.
Irrevocable funeral trusts can typically be purchased for any value set by the buyer. When making a purchase decision, it is important to not only to consider Medicaid eligibility and state limits, but also to consider the approximate cost of a funeral. In doing so, it is helpful to recognize the wide range of funeral related services that can be paid for by an irrevocable funeral trust.
-Caskets / Vaults
-Car and limousine services
-Funeral direction services
-Dressing and cosmetology
-Funeral home services
-Cemetery services and fees
-Travel expenses for family members
-Memorial following the burial
Final expense insurance generally serves the same purpose as irrevocable funeral trusts, that is to set aside money for an individual's funeral. However, there are several key differences. Final expense insurance builds value over time, which is a positive feature. Unfortunately, for Medicaid eligibility purposes, this insurance is considered a countable asset.