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Harry’s Law – Hollywood and Elder Law Collide (Part 2)

So, last week we were talking about Gloria and Abe, the subject of an elder law plot line on the NBC drama, Harry’s Law.  Gloria wants to divorce Abe because she can’t afford the long term care that Abe needs without selling their house and leaving her destitute.  A discussion amongst the lawyers in the firm ensues about the ethics of a plan to qualify for Medicaid, but as is so often the case with television and movies, it’s not that simple and the writers haven’t gotten the law right.

We learn that the assets Gloria is trying to protect include a house and a car.  The writers do get something right.  Medicaid will likely scrutinize a divorce settlement that leaves all the assets to the healthy spouse.  But, if it is true that those are the only assets, any elder law attorney knows that Gloria can keep them under Medicaid spousal protection laws.  A divorce is unnecessary.

Let’s change the facts a bit.  Even if the couple have some money in the bank, Gloria can keep some or possible all of it, or at least spend it in a way that is more beneficial to her.  For example, if they have an additional $25,000 in assets she can keep almost $21,000 of it under Community Spouse Resource Allowance Rules.  The rest can be applied, for example, to a prepaid irrevocable funeral for Abe.

There are other possibilities, although the writers didn’t tell us enough about the couple to be able to say for sure.  Is Abe a war time veteran?  If so, then Gloria may be able to qualify for nearly $2000 a month of tax free income to help pay for his care under the VA’s Aid and Attendance program.

And what about the discussion about the ethics of a divorce?  We learn that Gloria has been unhappy in her marriage for years.   Medicaid isn’t her sole motivation so would she really be committing fraud?  Is it true that, as one of the attorneys in the firm says, her failure to plan is bankrupting the country?  We don’t know enough about how Gloria and Abe got to this point – how much money they had over their marriage and how they spent it – to be able to answer that question.  Maybe this is all they ever had in their lifetime.  Their house is their nest egg so what exactly did they do wrong? 

It is unfair and inaccurate to put the entire blame on the backs of individual Americans.  The problem of long term care is much more complicated than that.  The cost keeps climbing exponentially and we are living longer than ever before.  How were Gloria and Abe – or any of us for that matter – supposed to plan for that?

It’s 9:50 and Harry and her attorneys have only a few minutes to wrap up Gloria’s problem into a nice neat solution.  After all, they’ve got to get through the credits and at least 3 commercials before the next show in NBC’s lineup at 10p.  In typical TV fashion, Harry’s partner Tommy says he will pay for Abe’s care, even 24 hour care.  At an average cost of $120,000 per year that’s mighty generous of Tommy.  I doubt he realizes what he has just offered.

That’s clearly not a realistic solution, but the show’s writers can get off the hook that way.  They can write it anyway they want and in TV land you’ve got to have a nice neat ending.  It’s just that, in the real world, you can’t script it that easily.  It takes much forethought and planning. 

If I was writing the ending I would have sent Gloria to an elder law attorney to help guide her through what will surely be the most challenging time in hers and Abe’s life.  There are solutions.  She just has to get the right advice.  Who knows?  Maybe that can lead to a spin off series for NBC about an elder law firm.