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Estate planning presents unique challenges for families with special needs children. Planning your estate to use, enhance, and enrich assets for a special needs child while maintaining their enrollment in public benefits programs requires careful consideration. With the help of an estate planning attorney, you can set up a special needs trust to accomplish these and other goals for your child.
A special needs trust can meet strict financial eligibility rules for means-tested assistance programs because the assets held in the trust are not directly available to the child. A trustee provides benefits to the child via the trust. Parents select this trustee with great care because they will act as the child’s money manager, ensuring proper financial supervision after the parents die. A letter of intent is also a powerful tool to guide the trustee to make decisions that best benefit the child’s unique needs.
In most cases, your special needs child will benefit by selecting a non-family member who is independent to act as your special needs trustee. The range of options includes:
- A parent, sibling, or another relative, which can be risky,
- An estate planning attorney,
- A financial institution or a trust company,
- A non-profit organization, particularly one with special needs experience, or
- Co-trustees, such as a trust company, acting in conjunction with a family member.
Each option has advantages and disadvantages that require close counsel with your estate planning attorney or financial advisor before selecting your trustee.
The creation of your special needs trust can happen while you are living or at the time of your death. A last will and testament can incorporate creating trust, known as a testamentary trust. Parents often set up the trust while alive, known as a living trust (inter vivos trust). The living trust has advantages, including the avoidance of probate, the permission for other family members to make trust contributions (usually grandparents), and the opportunity for a co-trustee to experience what it is like to administer the trust.
Whether or not your trust is revocable or irrevocable affects tax consequences. Generally, you’ll want to choose a revocable trust if the goal is to maintain maximum control over the trust and income tax considerations aren’t a concern. Establish an irrevocable trust when there are concerns regarding income tax consequences, particularly if the trust funds exceed one million dollars. In this instance, both federal estate and gift taxes may apply to the trust.
While there is much to consider and decide, the crucial step to providing for your special needs child is to make it legal. Verbally telling your family how to care for your child is insufficient. In the absence of a will, testamentary trust, or living trust, the state in which you live will determine the outcomes of your estate’s distribution. This situation is not a viable option for a special needs child or any of your children.
Receiving proper legal guidance to implement your estate plan using appropriate trusts is crucial to maintaining a healthy lifestyle for your special needs child. Do not attempt to craft these legal documents on your own, use existing forms, or copy some internet template. Each special needs child requires careful considerations that are unique to them and the challenges they face moving forward. With so much at stake, a qualified estate planning attorney with expertise in special needs planning will best suit your wishes and the child’s needs. Protecting public benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid and establishing a special needs trust through your estate planning can best achieve these goals. Please contact us at our Forty Fort Pennsylvania office or give us a call at 570-288-1800.