Although Medicaid limits the assets that the spouse of a Medicaid applicant can retain, the income of the “community spouse” is not counted in determining the Medicaid applicant’s eligibility. Only income in the applicant’s name is counted. Thus, even if the community spouse is still working and earning, say, $5,000 a month, she will not have to contribute to the cost of caring for her spouse in a nursing home if he is covered by Medicaid. In some states, however, if the community spouse’s income exceeds certain levels, he or she does have to make a monetary contribution towards the cost of the institutionalized spouse’s care. The community spouse’s income is not considered in determining eligibility, but there is a subsequent contribution requirement.
But what if most of the couple's income is in the name of the institutionalized spouse and the community spouse's income is not enough to live on? In such cases, the community spouse is entitled to some or all of the monthly income of the institutionalized spouse. How much the community spouse is entitled to depends on what the local Medicaid agency determines to be a minimum income level for the community spouse. This figure, known as the minimum monthly maintenance needs allowance or MMMNA, is calculated for each community spouse according to a complicated formula based on his or her housing costs. The MMMNA may range from a low of $2,057.50 to a high of $3,160.50 a month (in 2019). If the community spouse's own income falls below his or her MMMNA, the shortfall is made up from the nursing home spouse's income.
Example: Joe and Sally Smith have a joint income of $2,400 a month, $1,700 of which is in Mr. Smith's name and $700 is in Ms. Smith's name. Mr. Smith enters a nursing home and applies for Medicaid. The Medicaid agency determines that Ms. Smith's MMMNA is $2,000 (based on her housing costs). Since Ms. Smith's own income is only $700 a month, the Medicaid agency allocates $1,300 of Mr. Smith's income to her support. Since Mr. Smith also may keep a $60-a-month personal needs allowance, his obligation to pay the nursing home is only $340 a month ($1,700 - $1,300 - $60 = $340).
In exceptional circumstances, community spouses may seek an increase in their MMMNAs either by appealing to the state Medicaid agency or by obtaining a court order of spousal support. Your elder law attorney can explain these options to you.
See also "Medicaid's Attempt to Ensure the Healthy Spouse Is Not Impoverished: The CSRA."