Parents and grandparents do all they can to help their children and grandchildren lead their best lives and that often extends to the child or grandchild’s adult lives. When estate plans are made, people who can afford to leave money and property to continue to support loved ones. However, when there is a family member with special needs, planning is different, explains the article “Planning for loved ones with special needs” from The Sentinel.
The child may have been born with a developmental disability or a motor disability or developed mental illness or an addiction. A person who is not able to work or care for themselves often receives public benefits to pay for food, shelter and medical care. Those public benefits will be jeopardized, if parents or grandparents make the mistake of leaving a gift of money or a bequest. Special needs planning addresses this issue.
Public benefits for people with no assets or income include Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to pay for food and shelter, Medicaid for medical care and the SNAP program for food, among others. Before money is given to a disabled family member or left in an estate plan, a review of the public benefits that are in use or available needs to be done so benefits are not disrupted.
One example is SSI, a federal program that supports disabled persons who cannot earn enough, which in 2020 means $1,260 or more in a month. A disabled person who earns less than that and owns less than $2,000 in assets can receive $783 monthly to pay for food and shelter. If the person owns the home they live in or owns one car, they may still be considered to have under $2,000 in assets. Clothing and personal belongings are also not counted against the $2,000 asset limit. However, to continue receiving the full benefit amount, the person cannot receive money from family or friends, since that money could be used for food and shelter. This also applies to “in kind” gifts, such as making a mortgage payment or helping with utility bills. Any direct gift reduces the SSI benefit.
There are ways for parents and grandparents to help their loved one enjoy a better quality of life. However, gifts must be carefully planned and within the laws and the use of an estate planning attorney is highly recommended. For instance, a family member may purchase certain services for a disabled person that would not disrupt their benefits. A parent or grandparent could pay for auto repairs, cell phone and land line phone services, educational expenses, medical care and social services. One very important note: the payments must be made directly to the merchant or provider and not to the disabled person.
There are two primary tools used to consider, when helping a special needs or disabled person:
Special Needs Trust: The gift is placed in the control of a trustee who manages the money, invests it, makes the appropriate tax filing and makes the decision about when to distribute funds. Most family members don’t understand the web of complex regulations that dictate how public benefits work. Properly created and managed by a responsible trustee, the Special Needs Trust avoids putting the burden of financial care on other family members and lets money be wisely distributed.
Money and property in a Special Needs Trust is not considered to be an asset of the individual, as it is owned by the trust. However, the same restrictions apply to making direct distributions from the trust to the individual beneficiary for food and shelter. Do create one of these trusts, you need the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.
The other account is an ABLE account, created by the Achieving a Better Life Experience law. Anyone can contribute to it and money in the account is not considered income and not counted against the asset limitations. Contributions are currently capped at $15,000 per year, and the account cannot contain more than $100,000.
Distributions from the ABLE account can be used to pay for a wide array of expenses for a disabled person without impacting government benefits. That includes housing, transportation, assistive technology, health, education and other needs. Families need to be aware that the disabled individual owns the assets in the ABLE account. If they are unable to manage money or are susceptible to scams, the family will want to be cautious about putting funds into the account.
Reference: The Sentinel (Nov. 20, 2020) “Planning for loved ones with special needs”