Should Each Child Get Equal Inheritance?

Every estate planning attorney has conversations with their clients about how adult children should inherit. While most people assume siblings should all inherit equally, in many situations, equal is not always appropriate. There are many situations where an equal inheritance might be unfair, says a recent article, “How Should Your Children Inherit? 4 Scenarios Where ‘Equal’ Is Not Appropriate,” from Kiplinger.

The Caretaker Child Lives With the Parent. When one of the children lives with the parent and has taken on most, if not all, of the responsibilities, it may be fair to treat the child differently than siblings who are not involved with the parent’s care. Taking care of paying bills, coordinating health care appointments, driving the parent to appointments and being involved with end-of-life care is a lot of responsibility. It may be fair to leave this child the family home or leave the home to a trust for the child for their lifetime. The parent may wish to leave the caretaking child a larger portion of the inheritance to recognize the additional help they provided.

A Special Needs Child. If the parent has been the primary caregiver for a special needs child, the estate plan must take this into consideration to ensure the child will be properly cared for after the parents die or are unable to care for the child. Depending on what government benefits the child receives, this usually means the parents need to have a Special Needs Trust or Supplemental Needs Trust created. Most government benefits are means-tested. To remain eligible, recipients may not have more than a certain amount of personal assets. The Special Needs or Supplemental Needs trust could receive more or less than an equal amount of the estate the child would have inherited.

In this scenario, siblings are generally understanding. The siblings often know they will be the ones caring for the family member with special needs when the parents can no longer provide care and welcome the help of an elder law estate planning attorney to plan for their sibling’s future.

An Adult Child With Problems. It’s usually not a good idea to leave an equal portion of an inheritance to an adult child who suffers from mental illness, substance abuse, is going through a divorce or has a life-long history of making bad choices. Putting the money into a trust with a non-family member serving as a trustee and strict directions for when and how much money may be distributed may be a better option. In some cases, disinheriting a child is the unpleasant but only realistic alternative.

Wealth Disparities Among the Siblings. When one child has been financially successful and another struggles, it’s fair to bequeath different amounts. However, wealth can change over a lifetime, so review the estate plan and the wealth distribution on a regular basis.

How To Decide What Will Work For Your Family? Every family is different, and every family has different dynamics. Have open and honest discussions with your estate planning attorney, so they can help you plan for your family’s situation. If possible, the same frank discussion should take place with adult children, so no one is taken by surprise at a time when they will be grieving a loss.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 18, 2022) “How Should Your Children Inherit? 4 Scenarios Where ‘Equal’ Is Not Appropriate”

How Do Special Needs Trusts Work?

Parents with children who have special needs know they play a pivotal role in their child’s medical, social, emotional and mental health. They also face the challenges of figuring out government assistance programs like Medicaid and how these and other programs provide much-needed help throughout a child’s life. Another important way that parents of children with special needs help is with the creation of a special needs trust, as explained in the article “Special Needs Trust (SNT): What It Is and How It Works” from Forbes.

A special needs trust is used to hold assets in an account to be used to support an individual with special needs. The funds belong to the trust and not the individual, so they are not factored into their eligibility for government benefits.

SNTs are typically set up by a parent, grandparent, or guardian. The person who sets up the account, called the “grantor,” funds the account, as may any other individuals who wish to provide for the child.

The grantor names a trustee, or a third party, who administers the trust. The trustee is a fiduciary and must act in the best interest of the beneficiary. Funds are to be distributed in accordance with the directions in the trust. The trustee will be responsible for distributing funds, following government benefit rules and requirements, and managing tax obligations, among other things.

Parents are often the trustees, although others, like siblings or close relatives, may also be trustees. Parents who are both grantor and trustee generally name a successor trustee to take over after they die, become incapacitated or resign from their role.

A person who may not be able to support themselves due to a medical condition or a disability can gain financial security from an SNT.

Someone with special needs is likely to rely on means-tested government benefits, like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Medicaid. These benefits are only available to people with limited income or assets. Anyone receiving SSI, for example, may not have more than $2,000 of countable resources.

A parent who wishes to provide support after they die must plan in advance, so their bequest does not result in the person losing their benefits. This could happen if money is left through anything except a special needs trust. An estate planning attorney will know how to structure the parent’s estate plan to protect the individual with special needs and their government benefits.

Assets in an SNT can be used for a wide variety of expenses, including out-of-pocket medical or dental expenses, personal care givers, rehab services, education, vacations, and other permissible uses.

There is a lot of complexity involved with creating a special needs trust. For one, there are several different kinds of SNTs. You’ll want to select the one best suited for your family. Laws about means-tested benefits vary across states, so you’ll need to work with an estate planning attorney familiar with the laws of your state.

A well-drafted estate plan, incorporating a special needs trust, will provide your loved one with the resources to maintain as much normalcy as possible as they adjust to life without their parents.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 22, 2022) “Special Needs Trust (SNT): What It Is and How It Works”

Why Do I Need a Will?

Perhaps getting hit by a cement truck is too blunt for some, but unexpected things happen all the time. An estate plan, including a will and other important documents, is good preparation, especially for caregivers of people with special needs. A recent article from Forbes titled “Where There is a Will, There is a Way” explains the steps everyone, especially caregivers, need to follow.

Creating a last will and testament

This is the foundation of an estate plan. Without a will, the court will distribute assets to children equally. If a disabled person receiving government benefits receives an inheritance, they will become ineligible and lose access to services. The court will also assign guardianship to minors or disabled individuals, if there is no will. A will, in tandem with proper estate planning, ensures protection for an individual with special needs, including naming a guardian of your choice.

Having a General Durable Power of Attorney for Finances

A POA allows you to name a person you trust to manage finances, real estate property, investments, or any aspect of your life, if you become incapacitated. A POA should be created for your needs, so you may decide in advance what you do and do not want your agent to be able to do for you.

Creating a Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare

This important legal document, paired with a HIPAA release form, allows someone of your choice to take charge of your healthcare, talk with healthcare providers and make decisions based on your expressed wishes. You may name more than one person for this role but doing so could make it harder if the two people don’t agree on your care.

Naming a Guardian

This is a critical step if you are a caretaker for a person who will likely be unable to manage their own affairs, even after attaining legal age. By naming a guardian in your will, you can select the people who will be in charge of your special needs family member or minor children. Without a guardian named in your will, the courts will make this decision.

Drafting a “Letter of Intent”

A letter of intent is a guide with important information only you know. It is especially important for caretakers. Explaining in detail your disabled individual’s preferences can make a huge difference in the quality of their lives when you are no longer available. What are their likes and likes, what people do they enjoy spending time with and what foods do they prefer, etc. If your children are minors, this letter is an opportunity to describe your preferences for how they should be raised, including religious preferences, vocational choices and even nighttime rituals.

Providing Financial Security

If your family includes a loved one with Special Needs, you can protect their ability to have funds for things not covered by government benefits through a Special Needs Trust. Your estate planning attorney will create an SNT with a trustee and a secondary trustee to oversee the funds and ensure that they are used for qualified expenses.

Reference: Forbes (July 6, 2022) “Where There is a Will, There is a Way,”

How Do Special Needs Trusts Work?

A trust of any kind is a document that expresses your wishes while you are alive and after you have passed. The need for a dedicated trust for loved ones differs with the situations or issues of the family. Getting this wrong can lead to financial devastation, explains the article “Take special care with Special Needs trusts” from the Herald Bulletin.

A Special Needs Trust or supplemental trust provides protection and management for assets for specific beneficiaries. The trustee is in charge of the assets in the trust during the grantor’s life or at his death and distributes to the beneficiary as directed by the trust.

The purpose of a Special Needs or supplemental trust is to help people who receive government benefits because they are physically or mentally challenged or are chronically ill. Most of these benefits are means-tested. The rules about outside income are very strict. An inheritance would disqualify a Special Needs person from receiving these benefits, possibly putting them in dire circumstances.

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 when needed, or at the direction of the trust. Selecting a trustee is extremely important, since the duties of a Special Needs trust could span decades. The person in charge must be familiar with the government programs and benefits and stay up to date with any changes that might impact the decisions of when to release funds.

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. Well-meaning family members who wish to take care of their relative must be made aware of the risk of leaving assets to a Special Needs individual. These conversations should take place, no matter how awkward.

An experienced elder law estate planning attorney will be able to create a Special Needs trust that will work for the individual and for the family.

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

Long Term Care Varies, State by State

What if your parents live in Oklahoma, you live in Nebraska and your brothers and sisters live in New York and California? Having the important conversation with your aging parents about what the future might hold if one of them should need long-term care is going to be a challenge, to say the least.

It’s not just about whether they want to leave their home, reports the article “What is the best state for long term care” from The Mercury. There are many more complications. Every state has different availability, levels of care and taxes. If the family is considering a continuing care retirement community, or if the parents already live in one, what are the terms of the contract?

The differences between states vary, and even within a state, there can be dramatic differences, depending upon whether the facility being considered is in a metropolitan, suburban or rural area. There’s also the question of whether the facility will accept Medicaid patients, if the parents have long-term care insurance or any other resources.

Here’s what often happens: you open up a glossy brochure of a senior community in a warm climate, like Florida or Arizona. There are golf courses, swimming pools and a great looking main house where clubs and other activities take place. However, what happens when the active phase of your life ends, slowly or suddenly? The questions to ask concern levels of care and quality of care. Where is the nearest hospital, and is it a good one? What kind of care can you receive in your own apartment? Are you locked into to your purchase, regardless of your wishes to sell and move to be closer to or live with your adult children?

And what happens if you or a “well” spouse runs out of money? That’s the question no one wants to think about, but it does have to be considered.

For people who move to Florida, which has a very generous homestead exemption for property taxes and no state tax, the incentives are strong. However, what if you become sick and need to return north?

For seniors who live in Pennsylvania and receive long-term care and other services, the well spouse’s retirement funds are exempt for Medicaid regardless of the amount. However, if you move over the state’s border to New Jersey, and those accounts will need to be spent down to qualify for Medicaid. The difference to the well spouse could be life changing.

Delaware and New Jersey have Medicaid available for assisted living/personal care. Pennsylvania does not. The Keystone State has strict income limitations regarding “at home” services through Medicaid, whereas California is very open in how it interprets rules about Medicaid gifting.

The answer of where to live when long-term care is in play depends on many different factors. Your best bet is to meet with an estate planning elder care attorney who understands the pros and cons of your state, your family’s  situation and what will work best for you and your spouse, or you as an individual.

Reference: The Mercury (March 4, 2020) “What is the best state for long term care”