Families are facing a care funding lottery as new figures reveal wide variations in the lengths to which councils will go to stop people giving away assets in an attempt to make the state pay instead.
Local authorities means-test residents of care homes to check if they should pay towards their costs.
The cut off point is £23,250 – if you have assets above this figure you are expected to fund your own care. If your assets are worth less than £23,250 the council will help to meet the costs. Average nursing home costs reached £1,000 for “self-funders” earlier this year.
The spiralling cost of care has created an incentive for families to give away property, investments and savings to bring their assets below the £23,250 limit.
Councils have powers to claw back money from people it can prove to have “deliberately deprived” themselves of assets to claim state aid. Yet it has long been suspected that they find it nearly impossible to prove that someone has given assets away deliberately to dodge care costs.
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Giving to children and grandchildren as a way to limit inheritance tax bills has become increasingly common. High house prices and buoyant stock markets have increased families’ wealth, while the headline amount you can pass on tax free has not been increased for nearly a decade.
A series of Freedom of Information requests submitted by Telegraph Money has uncovered how often councils use their powers and the amounts they have managed to claw back.
Of the eight local authorities approached, North Somerset council, whose jurisdiction includes Weston-super-Mare and the outskirts of Bristol, had used its powers the most. Since 2012 it recorded 64 “deprivation” cases in relation to care funding. The total value of assets involved in the cases was £1.3m.
By contrast, the London borough of Westminster had no recorded cases. This is despite the area having a similar population to North Somerset, at around 200,000, and a similar proportion of elderly residents.
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Likewise Southwark, which covers a large part of south-east London, had not used its powers at all. The north London borough of Camden had the second-highest number of cases, at 14, with a total value of £158,000 over five years. Liverpool and Hertfordshire councils refused to provide figures on the grounds of cost, while Nottingham City Council said it did not keep relevant records.
Steven Cameron, a care expert at Aegon, the insurer, warned that greater scrutiny of the sector meant individuals who attempted to dodge care fees were increasingly likely to be caught by councils.
“A few years ago it was highly unlikely that a council would have paid much attention to people who gave away assets to avoid paying,” he said. “But with the care crisis getting worse daily and with more public interest in getting out of paying for care by giving away assets, the attention councils will pay is certain to increase considerably.”
Councils also take action that may not be reflected by official statistics, said Tracy Ashby a specialist legacy planner at Thursfields, the law firm.
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She has seen cases in the West Midlands where instead of trying to claw back funds from families, councils simply cut off funding for care. Care homes are then left to pursue families themselves and in some cases have sought to evict patients, Ms Ashby said.
The "dementia tax" Telegraph Money has reported extensively on the anomalies of the care funding system.
Self-funding patients effectively subsidise those funded by councils, which set strict limits on the fees they are prepared to pay. This leaves homes in areas with few private customers battling to stay open.
The Conservatives’ radical plans for reforming the care system have been blamed for the party’s disastrous showing in the general election. Under the plan, councils would have started to pick up the tab for care costs once a person’s assets fell below £100,000, as opposed to the current level of £23,250 in England.
But, crucially, family homes would also have been included in the means-testing formula for “at home” care for the first time.
At the same time, the plan for a lifetime cap – which would have helped those who needed long periods of care – was dropped. The Tories quickly backtracked over the latter, which Labour called the “dementia tax”.
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