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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Protecting Inheritance from Child’s Divorce

Parents are often (maybe not always) excited when their children marry.  It’s exciting to see their adult child find a spouse, build a home, settle down and maybe think about grandchildren down the road.  However, even if the parent adores the person their child loves, it’s wise to prepare to protect our children with our plans now, says a recent article titled “Worried about Your Child’s Inheritance If They Divorce? A Trust Can Be Your Answer” from Kiplinger.  After all, things happen and sometimes relationships don’t go the way we expect.  Protecting inheritance through prudent planning will keep the inheritance with your child if they divorce.

With the federal estate tax exemptions so high (although that may change in the very near future), planners were able to focus on other concerns in estate plans, not just taxes.  A more applicable concern for most people was how well your children will do, if and when they receive their inheritance.

Some people recognize that their children are at risk. They worry about potential divorces or a spendthrift spouse. The answer is estate planning, and more specifically, a well-designed trust. By establishing a trust as part of an estate plan, you can better protect inheritance.

If an adult child receives an inheritance and commingles it with assets owned jointly with their spouse—like a joint bank account—depending upon the state where they live, the inheritance may become a marital asset and subject to marital property division, if the couple divorces.  This is the reason these types of trusts are so important. It’s like putting the toothpaste back into the tube, you put these assets back into a protected trust once it’s owned by the child.

If the inheritance remains in a trust account, or if the trust funds are used to pay for assets that are only owned in the child’s name, the inherited wealth can be protected. This permits the child to have assets as a financial cushion, if a divorce should happen.

Placing an inheritance in a trust is often done after a first divorce, when the family learns the hard way how combined assets are treated. Wiser still is to have a trust created when the child marries. In that way, there’s less of a learning curve (not to mention more assets to preserve).

Here are three typical situations for protecting inheritance:

Minor children. Children who are 18 or younger cannot inherit assets. However, when they reach the age of majority, they legally can. A sudden and large inheritance is best placed in the hands of a trustee, who can guide them to make smart decisions and has the ability to deny requests that may seem entirely reasonable to an 18-year-old, but ridiculous to a more mature adult.  You can also set a more reasonable age for the beneficiary to take over their trust, such as 25 or 30.

Newlyweds. Most couples are divinely happy in the early years of a marriage. However, when life becomes more complicated, as it inevitably does, the marriage may be tested and might not work out. Setting up a trust after the couple has been together for five or ten years is an option.

Marriage moves into the middle years. After five or ten years, it’s likely you’ll have a clearer understanding of your child’s spouse and how their marriage is faring. If you have any doubts, talk with an estate planning attorney, and set up a trust for your child.

Estate plans should be reviewed few years, as circumstances, relationships and tax laws change. A periodic review with your estate planning attorney allows you to ensure that your estate plan reflects your wishes and that it is protecting inheritance for your loved ones.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 16, 2021) “Worried about Your Child’s Inheritance If They Divorce? A Trust Can Be Your Answer”

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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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