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NEW “Savvy Senior” Columns for February

Savvy Senior – February 2021 Columns

  1. How Much Do You Have to Make to File Income Taxes?
  2. How to Choose a Medical Alert System
  3. Do I Need to Sign-Up for Medicare If I’m Still Working?
  4. How to Choose a Hospice Care Program

How Much Do You Have to Make to File Income Taxes?

Dear Savvy Senior,
What are the IRS income tax filing requirements for retirees in 2020? My income dropped way down when I was forced into retirement last March due to COVID, so I’m wondering if I need to file a tax return this year.
Unexpected Retiree

Dear Unexpected,
Whether or not you are required to file a federal income tax return this year actually depends on several factors: How much you earned last year (in 2020), the source of that income, your age and your filing status.

Here’s a rundown of this tax season’s IRS tax filing requirement thresholds. For most people, this is pretty straightforward. If your 2020 gross income – which includes all taxable income, not counting your Social Security benefits, unless you are married and filing separately – was below the threshold for your filing status and age, you may not have to file. But if it’s over, you will.

  • Single: $12,400 ($14,050 if you’re 65 or older by Jan. 1, 2021).
  • Married filing jointly: $24,800 ($26,100 if you or your spouse is 65 or older; or $27,400 if you’re both over 65).
  • Married filing separately: $5 at any age.
  • Head of household: $18,650 ($20,300 if age 65 or older).
  • Qualifying widow(er) with dependent child: $24,800 ($26,100 if age 65 or older).

To get a detailed breakdown on federal filing requirements, along with information on taxable and nontaxable income, call the IRS at 800-829-3676 and ask them to mail you a free copy of the “1040 and 1040-SR Instructions for Tax Year 2020,” or you can get it online at IRS.gov.

Check Here Too
There are, however, some other financial situations that can require you to file a tax return, even if your gross income falls below the IRS filing requirements. For example, if you earned more than $400 from self-employment in 2020, owe any special taxes like an alternative minimum tax, or get premium tax credits because you, your spouse or a dependent is enrolled in a Health Insurance Marketplace (aka Obamacare) plan, you’ll need to file.

You’ll also need to file if you’re receiving Social Security benefits, and one-half of your benefits plus your other gross income and any tax-exempt interest exceeds $25,000, or $32,000 if you’re married and filing jointly.

To figure all this out, the IRS offers an interactive tax assistant tool on their website that asks a series of questions that will help you determine if you’re required to file, or if you should file because you’re due a refund. It takes less than 15 minutes to complete.

You can access this tool at IRS.gov/Help/ITA – click on “Do I Need to File a Tax Return?”  Or, you can get assistance over the phone by calling the IRS helpline at 800-829-1040.

Check Your State
Even if you’re not required to file a federal tax return this year, don’t assume that you’re also excused from filing state income taxes. The rules for your state might be very different. Check with your state tax agency before concluding that you’re entirely in the clear. For links to state tax agencies see Taxadmin.org/state-tax-agencies.

Tax Prep Assistance
If you find that you do need to file a tax return this year, you can free file through the IRS at IRS.gov/FreeFile if your 2020 adjusted gross income was below $72,000.

Or, if you need some help, contact the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (or TCE) program. Sponsored by the IRS, TCE provides free tax preparation and counseling to middle and low-income taxpayers, age 60 and older. Call 800-906-9887 or visit IRS.treasury.gov/freetaxprep to find out about services near you.

You can also get help through the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide service, a participant in the TCE program that provides free tax preparation in-person, online and by phone. To find out about service options in your area, call 888-227-7669 or visit AARP.org/findtaxhelp. You don’t have to be an AARP member to use this service.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior”book.
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How to Choose a Medical Alert System

Dear Savvy Senior,
I am interested in getting my mom, who lives alone, a medical alert system with a wearable pendant button that will let her call for help if she falls or has a medical emergency. What can you tell me to help me choose one?
Too Many Choices

Dear Too Many,
A good medical alert system is an effective and affordable tool that can help keep your mom safe and living in her own home longer. But with all the different products and features available today, choosing one can be challenging. Here are some tips that can help.

Three Key Questions
Medical alert systems, which have been around since the 1980s, provide a wearable help button – usually in the form of a neck pendant or wristband – that would put your mom in touch with a dispatcher who could summon emergency help or contact a friend or family member as needed.

To help you narrow down your options and choose a system that best fits your mom’s needs, here are three key questions you’ll need to ask, along with some top-rated companies that offer these products.

Does your mom want a home-based or mobile system?
Medical alert systems were originally designed to work inside the home with a landline telephone, which is still an option. But since fewer and fewer households have landlines these days, most companies today also offer home-based systems that work over a cellular network. With these systems, pressing the wearable help button allows you to speak to a dispatcher through a base unit located in your home.

In addition, many companies offer mobile medical alert options, too. You can use these systems at home, but they’ll also allow you to call for help while you’re out and about.

Mobile alerts operate over cellular networks and incorporate GPS technology. They allow you to talk and listen to the operator directly through the pendant button, and because of the GPS, your location would be known in order for help to be sent.

If your mom doesn’t leave the house very often, she may not need a mobile system, but if she is still active, she may want added protection outside the home.

Should her system be monitored or not?
The best medical alert systems are monitored, meaning that the help button connects you with a trained operator at a 24/7 dispatching center.

But you also have the option to choose a system that isn’t monitored. With these, when you press the help button, the device automatically dials a friend or family member on your programmed emergency call list.

These products can often be set up to call multiple people and to contact emergency services if you don’t get an answer from someone on your list.

Should you add a fall-detection feature?
Most medical alert companies today now offer the option of an automatic fall detection pendant for an additional fee of $10 to $15 per month. These pendants sense falls when they occur and automatically contact the dispatch center, just as they would if you had pressed the call button.

But be aware that this technology isn’t full proof. In some cases, this feature may register something as a fall that isn’t. The alarm might go off if you drop it or momentarily lose your balance but don’t actually land on the ground.

Top Rated Systems
Here are four top companies, rated by Consumer Reports, that offer home and mobile monitored medical alert systems:

  • Bay Alarm Medical: Fees range between $20 and $40 per month; BayAlarmMedical.com; 877-522-9633.
  • GreatCall’s Lively Mobile Plus: The device costs $50 plus a $25 to $40 monthly service fee; GreatCall.com; 800-650-5921.
  • MobileHelp: Monthly fees run $20 to $45; MobileHelp.com; 800-809-9664.
  • Phillips Lifeline: $30 to $50/month, plus a onetime device/activation fee of $50 to $100; Lifeline.Philips.com; 855-681-5351.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior”book.
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Do I Need to Sign Up for Medicare If I’m Still Working?

Dear Savvy Senior,
I will turn 65 in a few months and plan to keep working for several more years. I have good health insurance from my employer now. Do I have to sign up for Medicare when I reach 65?
Looking Ahead

Dear Looking,
Whether you need to enroll in Medicare at 65 if you continue to work and have health insurance through your job depends on how large your employer is. The same rules apply if your health insurance comes from your spouse’s job.

But first, let’s review the basics. Remember that original Medicare has two parts: Part A, which provides hospital coverage and is free for most people. And Part B, which covers doctor’s bills, lab tests and outpatient care. Part B also has a monthly premium, which is $148.50 for most beneficiaries in 2021, but is higher for individuals earning above $88,000.

If you’re already receiving Social Security, you’ll automatically be enrolled in parts A and B when you turn 65, and you’ll receive your Medicare card in the mail. It will include instructions to return it if you have work coverage that qualifies you for late enrollment. If you aren’t yet receiving Social Security, you will have to apply, which you can do online at SSA.gov/medicare.

If you plan to continue working past the age of 65 and have health insurance from your job, your first step is to ask your benefits manager or human resources department how your employer insurance works with Medicare. In most cases, you should at least take Medicare Part A because it’s free. (Note: If you’re funding a health savings account you may not want to take Part A because you can’t make contributions after you enroll). But to decide whether to take Part B or not will depend on the size of your employer.

Small Employer
If your current employer has fewer than 20 employees, Medicare will be your primary insurer and you should enroll in Medicare Part B during your initial enrollment period. This is a seven-month period that includes the three months before, the month of, and the three months after your 65th birthday.

If you miss the seven-month sign-up window, you’ll have to wait until the next general enrollment period, which runs from Jan. 1 to March 31 with benefits beginning the following July 1. You’ll also incur a 10 percent penalty for each year you wait beyond your initial enrollment period, which will be tacked on to your monthly Part B premium.

Large Employer
If your employer has 20 or more employees, your employer’s group health plan will be your primary insurer as long as you remain an active employee. If this is the case, you don’t need to enroll in Part B when you turn 65 if you’re satisfied with the coverage you are getting through your job. But if you do decide to enroll in Medicare, it will supplement your employer insurance by paying secondary on all of your claims.

Once your employment or group health coverage ends, you will then have eight months to sign up for Part B without a penalty. This is known as the Special Enrollment Period.

Check Drug Coverage
You also need to verify your prescription drug coverage. Call your benefits manager or insurance company to find out if your employer’s prescription drug coverage is considered “creditable.” If it is, you don’t need to enroll in a Medicare Part D prescription drug plan. If it isn’t, you should purchase a plan (see Medicare.gov/plan-compare) during your initial enrollment period or you’ll incur a premium penalty (1 percent of the average national premium for every month you don’t have coverage) if you enroll later.

If you have more questions or need help, contact your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (see ShiptaCenter.org), which offers free Medicare counseling. Or call the Medicare Rights Center helpline at 800-333-4114.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.
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How to Choose a Hospice Care Program

Dear Savvy Senior,
Where can I turn to find a good Medicare covered hospice provider? My husband’s mother has a terminal condition and wants to die at home, if possible, so I’m helping out where I can.
Sad Sandy

Dear Sandy,
Hospice is a wonderful option in the last months of life because it offers a variety of services, not only to those who are dying, but also to those left behind. Here’s what you should know about hospice care, along with some tips to help you choose one.

Understanding Hospice
Hospice care is a unique service that provides medical care, pain management, and emotional and spiritual support to people who are in the last stages of a terminal illness – it does not speed up or slow down the process of dying. Hospice’s goal is to simply keep the patient as comfortable and pain-free as possible, with loved ones nearby until death.

The various services provided by a hospice program comes from a team of professionals that works together to accommodate all the patients’ end-of-life needs.

The team typically includes hospice doctors that will work with the primary physician and family members to draft up a care plan; nurses who dispense medication for pain control; home care aids that attend to personal needs like eating and bathing; social workers who help the patient and the family prepare for end of life; clergy members who provide spiritual counseling, if desired; and volunteers that fill a variety of niches, from sitting with the patient to helping clean and maintain their property.

Some hospices even offer massage or music therapy, and nearly all provide bereavement services for relatives and short-term inpatient respite care to give family caregivers a break.

Most hospice patients receive care in their own home. However, hospice will go wherever the patient is – hospital, nursing home or assisted living residence. Some even have their own facility to use as an option.

To receive hospice, your mother-in-law must get a referral from her physician stating that her life expectancy is six months or less.

It’s also important to know that home-based hospice care does not mean that a hospice nurse or volunteer is in the home 24 hours a day. Services are based on need and/or what you request. Hospice care can also be stopped at any time if your mother-in-law’s health improves or if she decides to re-enter cure-oriented treatments.

How to Choose
The best time to prepare for hospice and consider your options is before it’s necessary, so you’re not making decisions during a stressful time. There are more than 4,300 hospice care agencies in the U.S., so depending on where you live, you may have several options from which to choose.

To locate a good hospice in your area, ask your mother-in-law’s doctor or the discharge planner at your local hospital for a referral, or you can search online at Medicare.gov/care-compare, which provides lists and ratings of hospice providers in your area.

When choosing, look for an established hospice that has been operating for a few years and one that is certified by Medicare. To help you select one, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization offers a worksheet of questions to ask CaringInfo.org.

Medicare Coverage
Medicare covers all aspects of hospice care and services for its beneficiaries. There is no deductible for hospice services although there may be a very small co-payment – such as $5 for each prescription drug for pain and symptom control, or a 5 percent share for inpatient respite care. Medicaid also covers hospice in most states, as do most private health insurance plans.

For more information, see the “Medicare Hospice Benefits” online booklet at Medicare.gov/pubs/pdf/02154-medicare-hospice-benefits.pdf.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.

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