Category: Autism

Special Needs Trusts can Protect disabled Child

Special Needs Trusts can Protect disabled Child

Parents with disabled children worry about how their offspring will manage when parents are no longer able to care for them. Leaving money directly to a child receiving means-tested government benefits, like Social Security Supplemental Income or Medicaid, could make them ineligible for these programs, explains an article from Kiplinger titled “Estate Planning: A Special Trust for a Special Need.” In most states, beneficiaries of either program are only allowed to have a few thousand dollars in assets, with the specific amount varying by state. However, the financial support from government programs only goes so far. Many families opt to have their own family member with special needs live at home, since the benefit amount is rarely enough. A Special Needs Trust can protect your disabled child.

The solution is a Special Needs Trust, which provides financial support for a disabled individual. The SNT owns the assets, not the individual. Therefore, the assets are excluded from asset limit tests. The funds in the trust can be used to enhance quality of life, such as a cell phone, a vacation or a private room in a group living facility. The SNT is a means of making sure that a vulnerable family member receives the money and other relatives, such as a sibling, don’t have a financial burden.

SNTs can only be created for those who are younger than age 65 and are meant for individuals with a mental or physical disability so severe they cannot work and require ongoing support from government agencies. A disabled person who can and does work isn’t eligible to receive government support and isn’t eligible for an SNT, although an estate planning attorney will be able to create a trust for this scenario also.

Each state has its own guidelines for SNTs, with some requiring a verification from a medical professional. There are challenges along the way. A child with autism may grow up to be an adult who can work and hold a job, for instance. However, estate planning attorneys recommend setting up the SNT just in case. If your family member qualifies, it will be there for their benefit. If they do not, it will operate as an ordinary trust and give the person the income according to your instructions.

SNTs require a trustee and successor trustee to be responsible for managing the trust and distributing assets. The beneficiary may not have the ability to direct distributions from the trust. The language of the trust must state explicitly the trustee has sole discretion in making distributions.

Because every state has its own system for administering disability benefits, the estate planning attorney will tailor the trust to meet the state’s requirements. The SNT also must be reported to the state. If the beneficiary moves to another state, the SNT may be subjected to two different sets of laws and the trustee will need to confirm the trust meets both state’s requirements.

SNTs operate as pass-through entities. Tax treatment favors ongoing distributions to beneficiaries. Any earned investment income goes to the beneficiary in the same year, with distributions taxed at the beneficiaries’ income tax rate. Trust assets may be used to pay for the tax bill.

As long as all annual income from the trust is distributed in a given year, the trust will not owe any tax. However, a return must be filed to report income. For any undistributed annual investment income, the trust is taxed at one of four levels of tax rates. These range from 10% and can go as high as 37%, depending on the trust income.

An SNT can be named as the beneficiary of a traditional IRA on the death of the parent. Investments grow tax deferred, as long as they remain in the retirement account and the SNT collects the required minimum distributions for the retirement account each year, with the money passing as income. However, any undistributed amount of the required distribution will be taxed at the trust’s highest tax rate. Using a Special Needs Trust can protect your disabled child and ensure they have a quality of life for years to come. If you would like to learn more about SNTs, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Kiplinger (June 8, 2022) “Estate Planning: A Special Trust for a Special Need”

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Adult Guardianship and Autistic Children

For parents of autistic children, the coming of an 18th birthday is the time when hard decisions need to be made regarding adult guardianship. It allows parents to continue to make important decisions for their child, but it does severely limit the child’s rights and freedoms. State laws often require that less restrictive alternatives be considered before a guardianship is ordered, says the article “Adulthood And Autism: A Crossroads In Life” from Autism Key.com.

An adult guardianship is a court proceeding that appoints another person to make decisions about a person’s health, safety, support, care and residence. The procedure varies from state to state.  However, the process generally starts with an interested party filing a petition, with the court stating why guardianship for the person, known as the “ward,” is necessary. The person who has filed for guardianship and others, including parents, spouses, or relatives, all receive a copy of the petition. An independent evaluator assesses the ward and reports on their capacity. There is a hearing and the court determines whether guardianship is needed. The ward has the right to hire counsel, or the court can provide counsel.

Once the guardian is appointed, the court may limit or completely terminate the ward’s ability to make decisions regarding medical treatment, where they live and other important decisions. The guardian is required to make decisions that are always in the best interest of their ward and to encourage the ward to participate in decisions. A report must be filed with the court every year to advise of the ward’s status.

Most states have a law known as the Uniform Adult Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Jurisdiction Act, which makes it easier for states to transfer guardianship from one state to another, if the person moves. Florida, Kansas, Texas and Michigan do not have this law.

Adult Guardianship is an emotional decision for parents to make. They want their autistic child to be protected, at the same time they hope their child can reach a certain level of independence, within the limits of their capacity.

An individual facing a guardianship petition has the right to an attorney and in some states, that attorney must advocate for the best interest of the person, which may be to have more independence.

A case involving a young woman with Down’s Syndrome named Jenny Hatch in 2013 led to changes in guardianship proceedings. Jenny was a high school graduate, worked at a thrift shop and volunteered in local political campaigns. At her parent’s request, a court put her into temporary guardianship and placed her in a group home, where her cell phone and laptop were taken away. She was not permitted to socialize with friends or go to work. After a year of litigation, she won the right to make her own decisions through Supported Decision-Making, a process in which a team of allies help the disabled to make key decisions about their life. Jenny became a national hero for the rights of the disabled and speaks publicly about her experience. A number of states now have Supported Decision-Making laws to give the disabled freedom, while providing them with a network of support.

There is a lot of information to consider as a parent facing the prospect of an ASD child becoming a legal adult. Each person has his or her own strengths and challenges. Review the laws of your state to consider what options there may be, in addition to guardianship.

If you would like to learn more about adult guardianship and other issues related to autism, please read our previous posts. 

Reference: Autism Key.com (July 28, 2020) “Guardianship And Autism: A Crossroads In Life”

 

Information in our blogs is very general in nature and should not be acted upon without first consulting with an attorney. Please feel free to contact Texas Trust Law to schedule a complimentary consultation.
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