How Does a Special Needs Trust Work?

Special Needs Trusts hold assets for an individual using government benefits to provide for them without losing the benefits.

Clients uses trusts for a lot of reasons, including probate avoidance, creditor protection, privacy and smooth and efficient estate administration.   Some trusts, such as Special Needs Trusts (aka Supplemental Needs Trusts) are used specifically to maintain government benefits for the beneficiary while still providing for their needs.  Not using the right type of trust can lead to financial devastation explains the article “Take special care with Special Needs trusts” from the Herald Bulletin.

The purpose of a Special Needs Trust is to help people because they have a disability and are or may be supported by government benefits.  Most of these benefits are means-tested, meaning, a beneficiary’s eligibility is dependent upon their income, assets or potentially both.  The rules regarding the benefits are very strict. An inheritance may disqualify a person with a disability from receiving these benefits, possibly putting them in dire circumstances.

However, clients may still want to provide for that loved one, and the Special Needs Trust is the way to do it.  The value of assets placed in a Special Needs Trust does not count against the benefits.  However, this area of the law is complex, and requires the help of an experienced elder law estate planning attorney. Mistakes could have lifelong consequences.

The trustee manages assets and disperses funds on a discretionary basis.  Selecting a trustee is extremely important, since the duties of a Special Needs trust could span decades. The person in charge should be ready to work with competent advisors who are familiar with the government programs and benefits and who can advise the trustee of the consequences of disbursements.

These are just a few of the considerations for a trustee:

  • How should disbursements be made, balancing current needs and future longevity?
  • Does the request align with the rules of the trust and the assistance program requirements?
  • Will anyone else benefit from the expenditure, family members or the trustee? The trustee has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the beneficiary, first and foremost.

Parents who leave life insurance, stocks, bonds, or cash to all children equally may be putting their Special Needs child in jeopardy.  What’s more, children who try to provide for their parents often don’t consider that their parents may require governmental assistance at the end of their lives such as long term Medicaid.  Well-meaning family members who wish to take care of their relative must be made aware of the risk of leaving assets to an individual with disabilities, and in fact, good planning suggests including contingent Special Needs Trusts in your estate planning documents.  After all, a loved one might not have a disability when you create your estate plan, but they might by the time they receive from your estate plan.

An experienced elder law or estate planning attorney will be able to create a Special Needs trust that will work for the individual and for the family and can advise you how to include such planning in your estate documents.

Reference: Herald Bulletin (March 13, 2021) “Take special care with Special Needs trusts”

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Trusts Aren’t Just for Billionaires: Reasons for a Trust

Occasionally clients are hesitant to utilize trusts in their estate plan because they “just have a simple estate” or believe they need substantial assets to warrant a trust.   In fact, trusts are for everyone and solve a variety of purposes in estate planning.  According to an article entitled “3 Reasons a trust may make sense for your family even though your name isn’t Trump, Gates or Rockefeller” from Market Watch, trusts give great flexibility in how assets are divided after your death, no matter how modest or massive the size of your estate. Using trusts in your estate plan is a smart move, for many reasons.

There are two basic types of trust. A Revocable Trust is flexible and can be changed at any time by the person who creates the trust.  This person is known by many different names based upon the convention of where the trust is established, but is often known as the “grantor” or “trustor” or something similar.   These are commonly used because they allow a high degree of control while you are living, especially if your goal is to avoid probate while being able to revise your plan in the future.  The idea is that if your trust is the owner of an asset or properly receives the assets at your death, there will be no need for a Will to be probated through the court system.

Once the trust is created, homes, bank and investment accounts and any other asset you want to be owned by the trust are retitled in the name of the trust or directed to it upon death, depending on the type of asset and what your goals are. This is a step that sometimes gets forgotten, with terrible consequences. Once that’s done, then any documents that need to be signed regarding the trust are signed by you as the trustee, not as yourself. You can continue to sell or manage the assets as you did before they were moved into the trust.

See here for a more robust discussion of how a trust works versus a will.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/will-vs-living-trust-a-quick-and-simple-reference-guide/

There are many kinds of trusts for particular situations. A Special Needs Trust, or “SNT,” is used to help a disabled person, without making them ineligible for government benefits. A Charitable Trust is used to leave money to a favorite charity, while providing income to a family member during their lifetime.

Assets that are placed in trusts do not go through the probate process and can control how your assets are distributed to heirs, both in timing and conditions.

An Irrevocable Trust is permanent and once created, cannot be changed subject to a few caveats. This type of trust is often used to save on estate taxes, by taking the asset out of your taxable estate. Funds you want to take out of your estate and bequeath to grandchildren are often placed in an irrevocable trust.  These types of trust are becoming more and more useful as the estate tax exemption is expected to go down leaving more and more clients exposed to potential estate taxes.

If you have relationships, properties or goals that are not straightforward, talk with your estate planning attorney about how trusts might benefit you and your family. Here’s a few reasons for a trust and why this makes sense:

Reducing estate taxes. While the federal exemption is $11.58 million in 2020 and $11.7 million in 2021, state estate tax exemptions are far lower. New York excludes $6 million, Massachusetts exempts $1 million, Texas has none at all.  Some states are even more complicated in having inheritance tax (taxes are applied against the exact amount transferred).  Further, it is widely accepted that the federal estate tax exemption will be lowered as well.  An estate planning attorney in your state will know what your state’s estate taxes are, and how trusts can be used to protect your assets.  You can also see here for a recent article I wrote on life insurance trusts as a good example of a common trust used to reduce estate tax exposure.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/the-irrevocable-life-insurance-trust-why-should-you-have-one/ 

If you own property in a second or third state, your heirs will face a second or third round of probate and estate taxes. If the properties are placed in a trust, there’s less management, paperwork and costs to settling your estate.

Avoiding family battles. Families are a bit more complicated now than in the past. There are second and third marriages, children born to parents who don’t feel the need to marry and long-term relationships that serve couples without being married. Trusts can be established for estate planning goals in a way that traditional wills do not. For instance, stepchildren do not enjoy any legal protection when it comes to estate law. If you die when your children are young, a trust can be set up so your children will receive income and/or principal at whatever age you determine. Otherwise, with a will, the child will receive their full inheritance when they reach the legal age set by the state. An 18- or 21-year-old is rarely mature enough to manage a sudden influx of money. You can control how the money is distributed.

Protect your assets while you are living. Having a trust in place prepares you and your family for the changes that often accompany aging, like Alzheimer’s disease. A trust also protects aging adults from predators who seek to take advantage of them. Elder financial abuse is an enormous problem, when trusting adults give money to unscrupulous people—even family members.

Talk with an estate planning attorney about your wishes and your worries. They will be able to create an estate plan and trusts that will protect you, your family and your legacy.

Reference: Market Watch (Dec. 4, 2020) “3 Reasons a trust may make sense for your family even though your name isn’t Trump, Gates or Rockefeller”

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