How Do Special Needs Trusts Work?

Special needs trusts (SNT) are critical tools for protecting a beneficiary with disabilities’ benefits while providing for their needs.

Special needs trusts (or supplemental needs trusts) have been used for many years. However, there are two factors that are changing and clients need to be aware of them, says the article “Special-Needs Trusts: How They Work and What Has Changed” from The Wall Street Journal. For one thing, many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses are leading much longer lives because of medical advances. As a result, they are often outliving their  primary caregivers. This makes planning for the long term more critical, and the use of special needs trusts more critical.

Second, there have been significant changes in tax laws, specifically laws concerning inherited retirement accounts.

Special needs planning has never been easy because of the many unknowns. How much care will be needed? How much will it cost? How long will the person with disabilities need them? Tax rules are complex and coordinating special needs planning with estate planning can be a challenge. A 2018 study from the University of Illinois found that less than 50% of parents of children with disabilities had planned for their children’s future. Parents who had not done any planning told researchers they were just overwhelmed.

Here are some of the basics:

A special needs trust, or SNT, is created to protect the assets of a person with a disability, including mental or physical conditions. The trust may be used to pay for various goods and services, including medical equipment, education, home furnishings, etc.

A trustee is appointed to manage all and any spending. The beneficiary has no control over assets inside the trust. The assets are not owned by the beneficiary, so the beneficiary should continue to be eligible for government programs that limit assets, including Supplemental Security Income or Medicaid.

There are different types of Special Needs Trusts: pooled, first party and third party. They are not simple entities to create, so it’s important to work with an experienced estate elder law attorney who is familiar with these trusts.

To fund the trust after parents have passed, they could name the Special Needs Trust as the beneficiary of their IRA, so withdrawals from the account would be paid to the trust to benefit their child. There will be required minimum distributions (RMDs), because the IRA would become an Inherited IRA and the trust would need to take distributions.

The SECURE Act from 2019 ended the ability to stretch out RMDs for inherited traditional IRAs from lifetime to ten years. However, the SECURE Act created exceptions: individuals who are disabled or chronically ill are still permitted to take distributions over their lifetimes. This has to be done correctly, or it won’t work. However, done correctly, it could provide income over the special needs individual’s lifetime.

The strategy assumes that the SNT beneficiary is disabled or chronically ill, according to the terms of the tax code. The terms are defined very strictly and may not be the same as the requirements for SSI or Medicaid.

The traditional IRA may or may not be the best way to fund an SNT. It may create larger distributions than are permitted by the SNT or create large tax bills. Roth IRAs or life insurance may be the better options.

The goal is to exchange assets, like traditional IRAs, for more tax-efficient assets to reach post-death planning solutions for the special needs individual, long after their parents and caregivers have passed.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (June 3, 2021) “Special-Needs Trusts: How They Work and What Has Changed”

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How Does Planning for a Special Needs Child Work?

Planning for a special needs child requires considering long term needs and expenses while considering the care providers’ own needs.

Funding a Special Needs Trust (aka Supplemental Needs Trust) is just the start of the planning process for families with a family member who has special needs. Strategically planning how to fund the trust, so the parents and child’s needs are met, is as important as the creation of the SNT, says the article “Funding Strategies for Special Needs Trusts” from Advisor Perspectives. Parents need to be mindful of the stability and security of their own financial planning, which is usually challenging.

Before going to far, I’m going to assume you’ll have a basic understanding of a SNT.  In short, it is a trust that holds assets so that the disabled beneficiary may qualify for governmental assistance.  See here for more information.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/what-should-i-know-about-a-special-needs-trust/

To start planning for a special needs child’s financial needs, parents should keep careful records of their expenses for their child now and project those expenses into the future. Consider what expenses may not be covered by government programs. You should also evaluate the child’s overall health, medical conditions that may require special treatment and the possibility that government resources may not be available. This will provide a clear picture of the child’s needs and how much money will be needed for the SNT.

Ultimately, how much money can be put into the SNT, depends upon the parent’s ability to fund it.

In some cases, it may not be realistic to count on a remaining portion of the parent’s estate to fund the SNT. The parents may need the funds for their own retirement or long term care. It is possible to fund the trust during the parent’s lifetime, but many SNTs are funded after the parents pass away. Most families care for their child with special needs while they are living. The trust is for when they are gone.

The asset mix to fund the SNT for most families is a combination of retirement assets, non-retirement assets and the family home. The parents need to understand the tax implications of the assets at the time of distribution. An estate planning attorney with experience in SNTs can help with this. The SECURE Act tax law changes no longer allow inherited IRAs to be stretched based on the child’s life expectancy, but a person with a disability may be able to stretch an inherited retirement asset, depending on their needs.

Whole or permanent life insurance that insures the parents, allows the creation of an asset on a leveraged basis that provides tax-free death proceeds.  Life insurance is often utilized for special needs planing because it may be low cost during life but provide a sizable fund for the beneficiary when his or her parents can no long provide for them.

Since the person with a disability will typically have their assets in an SNT, a trust with the correct language—“see-through”—will be able to stretch the assets, which may be more tax efficient, depending on the individual’s income needs.

Revocable SNTs become irrevocable upon the death of both parents. Irrevocable trusts are tax-paying entities and are taxed at a higher rate. Investing assets must be managed very carefully in an irrevocable trust to achieve the maximum tax efficiency.

It takes a village to plan for the secure future of a person with a disability and that is certainly true with planning for a special needs child. An experienced elder law attorney will work closely with the parents, their financial advisor and their accountant to ensure proper planning for your disabled loved one.

Reference: Advisor Perspectives (April 29, 2020) “Funding Strategies for Special Needs Trusts”

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