Estate Planning for Special Needs Children

Part of providing comprehensive estate planning for families includes being prepared to address the needs of family members with special needs. Some of the tools used are trusts, guardianship and tax planning, according to the article “How to Help Clients With Special Needs Children” from Accounting Web. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan for the future that addresses both legal and financial protections.

A survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed that 12.8 percent of children in our country have special health care needs, while 20 percent of all American households include a child with special needs. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) estimates that 26% of adults in America have some type of disability. In other words, some 61 million Americans have some kind of disability.

Providing for a child with special needs can be expensive, depending upon the severity of the disability. The first step for families is to have a special needs trust created through an estate planning attorney with experience in this area. The goal is to have money for the support and care of the child available, but for it not to be in the child’s name. While there are benefits available to the child through the federal government, almost all programs are means-tested, that is, the child or adult with special needs may not have assets of their own.

For many parents, a good option is a substantial life insurance policy, with the beneficiary of the policy being the special needs trust. Depending on the family’s situation, a “second to die” policy may make sense. Both parents are listed as the insured, but the policy does not pay until both parents have passed. Premiums may be lower because of this option.

It is imperative for parents of a child with special needs to have their will created to direct their assets to go to the special needs trust and not to the child directly. This is done to protect the child’s eligibility to receive government benefits.

Parents of a child with special needs also need to consider who will care for their child after they have died. A guardian needs to be named as early as possible in the child’s life, in case something should occur to the parents. The guardianship may end at age 18 for most children, but for an individual with special needs, more protection is needed. The guardian and their role need to be spelled out in documents. It is a grave mistake for parents to assume a family member or sibling will care for their child with special needs. The need to prepare for guardianship cannot be overstated.

The special needs trust will also require a trustee and a secondary trustee, if at some point the primary trustee cannot or does not want to serve.

It may seem easier to name the same person as the trustee and the guardian, but this could lead to difficult situations. A better way to go is to have one person paying the bills and keeping an eye on costs and a second person taking care of the individual.

Planning for the child’s long-term care needs to be done as soon as possible. A special needs trust should be established and funded early on, wills need to be created and/or updated, and qualified professionals become part of the family’s care for their loved one.

Having a child with special needs is a different kind of parenting. A commonly used analogy is for a person who expected to be taking a trip to Paris but finds themselves in Holland. The trip is not what they expected, but still a wonderful and rewarding experience.

Reference: Accounting Web (Sep. 13, 2021) “How to Help Clients With Special Needs Children”

Who Pays the Tax on a Special Needs Trust?
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Who Pays the Tax on a Special Needs Trust?

One of the reasons to use a Special Needs Trust (SNT) or open an ABLE account is to prevent federal or state benefits for a disabled person to be put at risk. The SNT is a way to hold property for someone without interfering with their eligibility. However, there are no tax advantages to the trust, according to a recent article titled  “How To Factor In Taxes When Considering Special Needs Trusts, Accounts” from Financial Advisor.

Tax results depend on who creates the trust, the terms of the trust and how it’s administered. The trust pays no taxes on any income it earns, as long as that income is passed on to the beneficiary. Trust tax rates are generally higher than individual tax rates. The income to the beneficiary will be taxable at their income tax rate. In some cases, all of the income of a trust might be taxed to the beneficiary, while in others the parent or person who created the trust might bear a tax burden, or the trust itself may be responsible for the tax liability.

An ABLE account is also a tax-favored vehicle, similar to a 529 college saving account. For a person to qualify for an ABLE account, they must have a disability that began before age 26 or be a recipient of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security disability insurance benefits or meet other disability requirements.

The ABLE account will not reduce the major part of SSI benefits under the dollar-for-dollar SSI direct support rules, and it won’t be counted as an asset. The disabled person may also use their ABLE account to save earned income. The ABLE account can be inherited, and new rules allow funds in a 529 college savings account to be rolled into an ABLE account.

You can only contribute $15,000 a year to most ABLE accounts, and if the account plus other resources exceeds $100,000, SSI benefits will be suspended. These accounts must be managed carefully to protect eligibility.

The ABLE account varies, depending on the requirements and rules of the state where it is established. Some states offer additional tax benefits, if the person uses the ABLE accounts offered by their home state.

Depending on the state where you open the account, there can be deductions for contributions to an ABLE account. Earnings in the account are generally not subject to taxes, but the funds in the ABLE account may only be used tax-free for qualified expenses that result from living with a disability. Those include education, housing, employment training and special assistance.

The ABLE account is a useful financial tool for disabled individuals, but it does not completely replace a Special Needs Trust or trust planning.

When there are substantial funds, such as those from an inheritance, litigation settlement or a major gift, most estate planning attorneys recommend that those funds go into a Special Needs Trust.

Reference: Financial Advisor (July 12, 2021) “How To Factor In Taxes When Considering Special Needs Trusts, Accounts”

Can I Set Up a Trust for an Adult Child?

If you are the parent or guardian of an adult who depends upon you financially, estate planning is critical. When you can’t care for your child, an estate plan which includes funding and guidance protects your dependent and ensures that they will receive the care they need, reports Parents in the article “Wills and Trusts for Adult Dependents.”

First, you need a will. This fundamental estate planning document lets you be very specific about what you want to happen after your death. It also nominates guardians for minor and adult children and pets. Wills can be used to manage decisions that apply to everyone. If there is no will, the laws of your state and a court make all of the decisions, not you.

If you have dependents, the will lets you choose who you want to serve as a guardian for your children. If you are already the legal guardian of a dependent adult, the will can be used to name the person to take over for you. Choose guardians who are up to the responsibilities that come with caring for a dependent adult.

The will is used to manage assets after your death. However, in the case of a dependent adult, you may also need a Special Needs Trust. If you pass assets directly to a dependent adult and they are receiving certain government benefits, the inheritance may make them ineligible for benefits and services.

A Special Needs Trust allows you to earmark a certain amount of money for their care. An estate planning elder lawyer will be familiar with this type of trust and help you create it.

If your dependent adult does not receive any means-tested benefits but is not able to manage an inheritance, then a trust can be used to hold assets to be controlled by a trustee, who might also be a guardian or caretaker.

A will and trusts are central to a well-prepared estate plan. Working with an estate planning attorney will give you the opportunity to consider how you want to distribute assets while you are living and after you have died. It also gives you the opportunity to name a personal representative, or executor, who will manage your estate after your death and be in charge of making sure that your wishes, as expressed in your will, are followed.

Trusts are more complex than wills and allow for a greater degree of control over assets. The trust is a legal entity to benefit others, and a trustee is the person named to be in charge of the trust.

Bear in mind that anything passed through a will has to go through a court process known as probate. The will has to be validated and the executor has to be approved by the court. Any assets in the trust are already outside of your estate and do not go through probate.

Reference: Parents (July 7, 2021) “Wills and Trusts for Adult Dependents.”

How Do You Divide Inheritance among Children?

A father who owns a home and has a healthy $300,000 IRA has two adult children. The youngest, who is disabled, takes care of his father and needs money to live on. The second son is successful and has five children. The younger son has no pension plan and no IRA. The father wants help deciding how to distribute 300 shares of Microsoft, worth about $72,000. The question from a recent article in nj.com is “What’s the best way to split my estate for my kids?” The answer is more complicated than simply how to transfer the stock.

Before the father makes any kind of gift or bequest to his son, he needs to consider whether the son will be eligible for governmental assistance based on his disability and assets. If so, or if the son is already receiving government benefits, any kind of gift or inheritance could make him ineligible. A Third-Party Special Needs Trust may be the best way to maintain the son’s eligibility, while allowing assets to be given to him.

Inherited assets and gifts—but not an IRA or annuities—receive a step-up in basis. The gain on the stock from the time it was purchased and the value at the time of the father’s death will not be taxed. If, however, the stock is gifted to a grandchild, the grandchild will take the grandfather’s basis and upon the sale of the stock, they’ll have to pay the tax on the difference between the sales price and the original price.

You should also consider the impact on Medicaid. If funds are gifted to the son, Medicaid will have a gift-year lookback period and the gifting could make the father ineligible for Medicaid coverage for five years.

An IRA must be initially funded with cash. Once funded, stocks held in one IRA may be transferred to another IRA owned by the same person, and upon death they can go to an inherited IRA for a beneficiary. However, in this case, if the son doesn’t have any earned income and doesn’t have an IRA, the stock can’t be moved into an IRA.

Gifting may be an option. A person may give up to $15,000 per year, per person, without having to file a gift tax return with the IRS. Larger amounts may also be given but a gift tax return must be filed. Each taxpayer has a $11.7 million total over the course of their lifetime to gift with no tax or to leave at death. (Either way, it is a total of $11.7 million, whether given with warm hands or left at death.) When you reach that point, which most don’t, then you’ll need to pay gift taxes.

Medical expenses and educational expenses may be paid for another person, as long as they are paid directly to the educational institution or health care provider. This is not considered a taxable gift.

This person would benefit from sitting down with an estate planning attorney and exploring how to best prepare for his youngest son’s future after the father passes, rather than worrying about the Microsoft stock. There are bigger issues to deal with here.

Reference: nj.com (June 24, 2021) “What’s the best way to split my estate for my kids?”

What is not Covered by a Will?

A last will and testament is one part of a holistic estate plan used to direct the distribution of property after a person has died. A recent article titled “What you can’t do with a will” from Ponte Vedra Recorder explains how wills work, and the types of property not distributed through a will.

Wills are used to inform the probate court regarding your choice of guardians for any minor children and the executor of your estate. Without a will, both of those decisions will be made by the court. It’s better to make those decisions yourself and to make them legally binding with a will.

Lacking a will, an estate will be distributed according to the laws of the state, which creates extra expenses and sometimes, leads to life-long fights between family members.

Property distributed through a will necessarily must be processed through a probate, a formal process involving a court. However, some assets do not pass through probate. Here’s how non-probate assets are distributed:

Jointly Held Property. When one of the “joint tenants” dies, their interest in the property ends and the other joint tenant owns the entire property.

Property in Trust. Assets owned by a trust pass to the beneficiaries under the terms of the trust, with the guidance of the trustee.

Life Insurance. Proceeds from life insurance policies are distributed directly to the named beneficiaries. Whatever a will says about life insurance proceeds does not matter—the beneficiary designation is what controls this distribution, unless there is no beneficiary designated.

Retirement Accounts. IRAs, 401(k) and similar assets pass to named beneficiaries. In most cases, under federal law, the surviving spouse is the automatic beneficiary of a 401(k), although there are always exceptions. The owner of an IRA may name a preferred beneficiary.

Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts. Some investment accounts have the ability to name a designated beneficiary who receives the assets upon the death of the original owner. They transfer outside of probate.

Here are some things that should NOT be included in your will:

Funeral instructions might not be read until days or even weeks after death. Create a separate letter of instructions and make sure family members know where it is.

Provisions for a special needs family member need to be made separately from a will. A special needs trust is used to ensure that the family member can inherit assets but does not become ineligible for government benefits. Talk to an elder law estate planning attorney about how this is best handled.

Conditions on gifts should not be addressed in a will. Certain conditions are not permitted by law. If you want to control how and when assets are distributed, you want to create a trust. The trust can set conditions, like reaching a certain age or being fully employed, etc., for a trustee to release funds.

Reference: Ponte Vedra Recorder (April 15, 2021) “What you can’t do with a will”

What Is a Living Trust Estate Plan?

Living trusts are one of the most popular estate planning tools. However, a living trust accomplishes several goals, explains the article “Living trusts allow estates to avoid probate” from The Record Courier. A living trust allows for the management of a beneficiary’s inheritance and may also reduce estate taxes. A person with many heirs or who owns real estate should consider including a living trust in their estate plan.

A trust is a fiduciary relationship, where the person who creates the trust, known as the “grantor,” “settlor,” “trustor” or “trustmaker,” gives the “trustee” the right to hold title to assets to benefit another person. This third person is usually an heir, a beneficiary, or a charity.

With a living trust, the grantor, trustee and beneficiary may be one and the same person. A living trust may be created by one person for that person’s benefit. When the grantor dies, or becomes incapacitated, another person designated by the trust becomes the successor trustee and manages the trust for the benefit of the beneficiary or heir. All of these roles are defined in the trust documents.

The living trust, which is sometimes referred to as an “inter vivos” trust, is created to benefit the grantor while they are living. A grantor can make any and all changes they wish while they are living to their trust (within the law, of course). A testamentary trust is created through a person’s will, and assets are transferred to the trust only when the grantor dies. A testamentary trust is an “irrevocable” trust, and no changes can be made to an irrevocable trust.

There are numerous other trusts used to manage the distribution of wealth and protect assets from taxes. Any trust agreement must identify the name of the trust, the initial trustee and the beneficiaries, as well as the terms of the trust and the name of a successor trustee.

For the trust to achieve its desired outcome, assets must be transferred from the individual to the trust. This is called “funding the trust.” The trust creator typically holds title to assets, but to fund the trust, titled property, like bank and investment accounts, real property or vehicles, are transferred to the trust by changing the name on the title. Personal property that does not have a title is transferred by an assignment of all tangible property to the trustee. An estate planning attorney will be able to help with this process, which can be cumbersome but is completely necessary for the trust to work.

Some assets, like life insurance or retirement accounts, do not need to be transferred to the trust. They use a beneficiary designation, naming a person who will become the owner upon the death of the original owner. These assets do not belong in a trust, unless there are special circumstances.

Reference: The Record Courier (April 3, 2021) “Living trusts allow estates to avoid probate”

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”

Trusts Make Sense Even When You Aren’t a Billionaire

Trusts are used to solve problems in estate planning, giving great flexibility in how assets are divided after your death, no matter how modest or massive the size of your estate, according to an article titled “3 Reasons a trust may make sense for your family even though your name isn’t Trump, Gates or Rockefeller” from Market Watch. Don’t worry about anyone thinking your children are “trust fund babies.” Using trusts in your estate plan is a smart move, for many reasons.

There are two basic types of trust. A Revocable Trust is flexible and can be changed at any time by the person who creates the trust, known as the “grantor.” These are commonly used because they allow a high degree of control, while you are living. It’s as if you owned the asset, but you don’t—the trust does.

Once the trust is created, homes, bank and investment accounts and any other asset you want to be owned by the trust are retitled in the name of the trust. This is a step that sometimes gets forgotten, with terrible consequences. Once that’s done, then any documents that need to be signed regarding the trust are signed by you as the trustee, not as yourself. You can continue to sell or manage the assets as you did before they were moved into the trust.

There are many kinds of trusts for particular situations. A Special Needs Trust, or “SNT,” is used to help a disabled person, without making them ineligible for government benefits. A Charitable Trust is used to leave money to a favorite charity, while providing income to a family member during their lifetime. A real estate trust can be used for real property.

Assets that are placed in trusts do not go through the probate process and can control how your assets are distributed to heirs, both in timing and conditions.

An Irrevocable Trust is permanent and once created, cannot be changed. This type of trust is often used to save on estate taxes, by taking the asset out of your taxable estate. Funds you want to take out of your estate and bequeath to grandchildren are often placed in an irrevocable trust.

If you have relationships, properties or goals that are not straightforward, talk with your estate planning attorney about how trusts might benefit you and your family. Here’s why this makes sense:

Reducing estate taxes. While the federal exemption is $11.58 million in 2020 and $11.7 million in 2021, state estate tax exemptions are far lower. New York excludes $6 million, but Massachusetts exempts $1 million. An estate planning attorney in your state will know what your state’s estate taxes are, and how trusts can be used to protect your assets.

If you own property in a second or third state, your heirs will face a second or third round of probate and estate taxes. If the properties are placed in a trust, there’s less management, paperwork and costs to settling your estate.

Avoiding family battles. Families are a bit more complicated now than in the past. There are second and third marriages, children born to parents who don’t feel the need to marry and long-term relationships that serve couples without being married. Trusts can be established for estate planning goals in a way that traditional wills do not. For instance, stepchildren do not enjoy any legal protection when it comes to estate law. If you die when your children are young, a trust can be set up so your children will receive income and/or principal at whatever age you determine. Otherwise, with a will, the child will receive their full inheritance when they reach the legal age set by the state. An 18- or 21-year-old is rarely mature enough to manage a sudden influx of money. You can control how the money is distributed.

Protect your assets while you are living. Having a trust in place prepares you and your family for the changes that often accompany aging, like Alzheimer’s disease. A trust also protects aging adults from predators who seek to take advantage of them. Elder financial abuse is an enormous problem, when trusting adults give money to unscrupulous people—even family members.

Talk with an estate planning attorney about your wishes and your worries. They will be able to create an estate plan and trusts that will protect you, your family and your legacy.

Reference: Market Watch (Dec. 4, 2020) “3 Reasons a trust may make sense for your family even though your name isn’t Trump, Gates or Rockefeller”

Special Needs Plans Need Regular Reviews to Protect Loved Ones
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Special Needs Plans Need Regular Reviews to Protect Loved Ones

Special needs planning is far more detailed than estate planning, although both require regular reviews and updates to be effective. For creating a wholly new plan or reviewing an older plan, one way to start is by writing a biography of a loved one with special needs, recommends the article “Special needs plan should be carefully considered” from The News-Enterprise.

Write down the person’s name, birth date and their age at the time of writing. Include information about favorite activities, closest friends and favorite places. Consider all of the things they like and dislike. Make detailed notes about relationships with family members, including any household pets. Think of it as creating a guide to your loved one for someone who has never met them. This guide will be useful in mapping out a plan that will best suit their needs.

Follow this by writing down what you envision for their future, in three distinct scenarios. A good future, where you are able to care for them, a not-so-great future where they are alive and well, but you are not present in their life and a bad future. You should be as specific as possible. This exercise will provide you with a clear sense of what pitfalls may occur, so you and your estate planning attorney can plan better.

Your plan needs to consider who will become the person’s guardian. You’ll need to list more than one person and put their names in order of preference. Consider the possibility that the first person may not wish to or be able to serve as a guardian and have second and third guardians. Talk to each person to be sure they are willing and able to take on this responsibility.

Next, consider living arrangements. Will your loved one be able to live independently, with regular check ins? Could they live in an accessory apartment with a guardian close at hand? Or would they need to live in a group care facility with an on-site social worker?

A special needs plan usually includes a Special Needs Trust (SNT), with comprehensive details for the trustee. Just as you need multiple guardians, you should also name several trustees. The guardian is responsible for a person and the trustee is responsible for the property.

The question is raised whether a family member or a professional should be the trustee. Having a family member manage the finances is not always the best idea. A professional fiduciary will be able to manage the funds without the emotional ties that could cloud their ability to make good decisions. This is especially important, if the beneficiary has a drug dependency problem, does not have a strong family network or if the estate is large.

Consideration should also be given to having the trustee check in on the beneficiary on a regular basis to ensure that the beneficiary’s needs are being met. The trustee should have permission to make decisions about the use of the trust funds in special circumstances. The trustee will need to be someone who is skilled with managing money and is well-organized and responsible.

Special needs planning is complex, but careful planning will give you the peace of mind of knowing that your loved one will be cared for by people you choose and trust.

Reference: The News Enterprise (Oct. 13, 2020) “Special needs plan should be carefully considered”