Medicaid Beneficiary’s Alimony Payments Allowed to Continue

FEBRUARY 9, 2004 VOLUME 11, NUMBER 32

When someone in a nursing home qualifies for Medicaid, he or she will usually still have to pay a portion of the nursing home bill. In some cases this can mean that the resident must pay more than his or her income—or risk eviction from the nursing home.

Unmarried Medicaid recipients are expected to turn over nearly all their income to the nursing home. They are permitted to hold back a small amount monthly for personal needs (in Arizona the amount is currently $84.60). Premiums for Medicare Part B and other insurance coverage can also be withheld. Everything else usually must be paid to the nursing home.

Take Ervin Mulder, for example. The South Dakota man was receiving $701 per month from Social Security when he entered the nursing home. Medicaid officials ordered him to pay $671 to the nursing home each month (South Dakota only permits Medicaid beneficiaries to retain $30 for personal needs).

Mr. Mulder had gotten divorced a few years earlier, and his ex-wife had a court order directing him to pay $180 per month in alimony. In fact, that amount was being automatically deducted from his checking account each month as soon as the Social Security check arrived. Mr. Mulder simply could not pay $671 to the nursing home each month—he didn’t have it.

Mr. Mulder appealed the Medicaid agency’s determination, but the agency pointed to federal law and regulations. The federal government simply doesn’t provide for deduction of spousal support, for example, from the amount to be turned over. A trial judge ordered Mr. Mulder to pay the higher amount or face eviction from the nursing home.

South Dakota’s Supreme Court disagreed. In a 3-2 vote, the Justices decided that the Medicaid agency’s application of federal regulations was arbitrary and capricious. Mr. Mulder had no choice but to pay his ex-wife’s alimony, and he could not be required to pay the same money to both his wife and the nursing home.

The two dissenting Justices were unmoved. In their view, Mr. Mulder could go back to the state courts to reduce his alimony—though they did not suggest who might pay for those legal proceedings. If that didn’t work, they said, Mr. Mulder’s daughter should be required to come up with the $180 out of her pocket. Mulder v. South Dakota Department of Social Services, January 28, 2004.

Arizona rules are very similar to those in South Dakota. With no court case like Mr. Mulder’s, Arizona Medicaid (ALTCS) recipients are prevented from paying alimony or other debts. Although the result in Mr. Mulder’s case is (and we recognize the pun) appealing, it should not be relied on as precedent in other states.

It must be noted that the rules are different for married couples. A spouse living in the community can usually retain more of the nursing home resident’s income, with the precise amount varying in each case. The rules are also different—and considerably more complicated—for ALTCS recipients who reside in assisted living facilities, adult care homes or their own homes.

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