Special Needs Planning
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Special Needs Planning

When a family includes a disabled individual, sometimes referred to as a “person with special needs,” estate planning needs to address the complexities, as described in a recent article titled “Customize estate plan to account for disabled beneficiaries” from The News-Enterprise. Failing to do so can have life-long repercussions for the individual.

This often occurs because the testator, the person creating the estate plan, does not know the implications of failing to take the disabled person’s situation into consideration, or when there is no will.

The most common error is leaving the disabled beneficiary receiving an outright inheritance. With a simple will, or no will, the beneficiary receives the inheritance and becomes ineligible for public benefits they may be receiving. The disruption can impact their medical care, housing, work and social programs. It may also lead to the loss of their inheritance.

If the disabled beneficiary does not currently receive benefits, it does not mean they will never need them. After the death of a parent, for instance, they may become completely reliant on public benefits. An inheritance will put them in jeopardy.

A second common error is naming the caregiver as the beneficiary, rather than the disabled individual. This causes numerous problems. The caregiver has the right to do whatever they want with the assets. If they no longer wish to care for the beneficiary, they are under no legal obligation to do so.

If the caregiver has any liabilities of their own, or when the caregiver becomes incapacitated or dies, the assets intended for the disabled individual will be subject to any estate taxes or creditors of the caregiver. If the caregiver has any children of their own, they will inherit the assets and not the disabled person.

The caregiver does not enjoy any kind of estate tax protection, so the estate may end up paying taxes on assets intended for the beneficiary.

The third major planning mistake is using a will instead of a trust as the primary planning method. A Special Needs Trust is designed to benefit a disabled individual to protect the assets and protect the individual’s public benefits. The trust assets can be used for continuity of care, while maintaining privacy for the individual and the family.

Planning for individuals with special needs requires great care, specifically for the testator and their beneficiaries. Families who appear to be similar on the outside may have very different needs, making a personalized estate plan vital to ensure that beneficiaries have the protection they deserve and need.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (March 15, 2022) “Customize estate plan to account for disabled beneficiaries”

Write a Letter of Instruction for Loved Ones

A letter of intent is frequently recommended for parents of disabled children to share information for when the parent dies. However, letters of intent or a letter of instruction can also be a helpful resource for executors, says the article “Planning Head: For detailed instructions consider a letter of instruction” from The Mercury. This is especially valuable, if the executor doesn’t know the decedent or their family members very well.

For disabled children, legal documents address specific issues and aren’t necessarily the right place to include personal information about the child or the parent’s desires for the child’s future. Estate plans need more information, especially for a minor child.

The goal is to create a document to make clear what the parents want for the child after they pass, whether that occurs early or late in the child’s life.

For a disabled child, the first questions to be addressed in the estate plan concern who will care for the child if the parent dies or becomes incapacitated, where will the child live and what funds will be available for their care. Once those matters are resolved, however, there are more questions about the child’s wants and needs.

The letter of intent can answer questions about the special information only a parent knows and is helpful in future decisions about their care and living situation.

The letter of intent concerning an estate should also include information about wishes for a funeral or burial and contain everything from directions for the music list for a ceremony to the writing on the headstone.

Once the letter of intent is created, the next question is, where should you put it so it is secure and can be accessed when it is needed?

Don’t put it in a bank safe deposit box. This is a common error for estate planning documents as well. The executor may only access the contents of the safe deposit box after letters of administration have been issued. This happens after the funeral, and sometimes long after the funeral. By then, it will be too late for any instructions.

Keeping estate planning documents in a safe deposit box presents other problems. If the bank seals the safe deposit box on notification of the owner’s death, the executor won’t be able to proceed. This can sometimes be prevented by having additional owners on the safe deposit box, if permitted by the bank . Any additional owners will also need to know where the key is located and be able get access to it.

The better solution is to keep all important documents including wills, financial power of attorney, health care powers, living wills, or health care directives, insurance forms, cemetery deeds, information for the family’s estate planning attorney, financial advisor, and CPA, etc., in one location known to the trusted person who will need access to the documents. That person will need a set of keys to the house. If they are kept in a fire and waterproof safe in the house; they will also need the keys to the safe.

If the parents move or move the documents, they’ll need to remember to tell the trusted person where these documents have moved., Otherwise, a lot of work will have been for naught.

Reference: The Mercury (Jan. 19, 2022) “Planning Head: For detailed instructions consider a letter of instruction”

What a Will Can and Cannot Do

Having a will doesn’t avoid probate, the court-directed process of validating a will and confirming the executor. To avoid probate, an estate planning attorney can create trusts and other ways for assets to be transferred directly to heirs before or upon death. Estate planning is guided by the laws of each state, according to the article “Before writing your own will know what wills can, can’t and shouldn’t try to do” from Arkansas Online.

In some states, probate is not expensive or lengthy, while in others it is costly and time-consuming. However, one thing is consistent: when a will is probated, it becomes part of the public record and anyone who wishes to read it, like creditors, ex-spouses, or estranged children, may do so.

One way to bypass probate is to create a revocable living trust and then transfer ownership of real estate, financial accounts, and other assets into the trust. You can be the trustee, but upon your death, your successor trustee takes charge and distributes assets according to the directions in the trust.

Another way people avoid probate is to have assets retitled to be owned jointly. However, anything owned jointly is vulnerable, depending upon the good faith of the other owner. And if the other owner has trouble with creditors or is ending a marriage, the assets may be lost to debt or divorce.

Accounts with beneficiaries, like life insurance and retirement funds bypass probate. The person named as the beneficiary receives assets directly. Just be sure the designated beneficiaries are updated every few years to be current.

Assets titled “Payable on Death” (POD), or “Transfer on Death” (TOD) designate beneficiaries and bypass probate, but not all financial institutions allow their use.

In some states, you can have a TOD deed for real estate or vehicles. Your estate planning attorney will know what your state allows.

Some people think they can use their wills to enforce behavior, putting conditions on inheritances, but certain conditions are not legally enforceable. If you required a nephew to marry or divorce before receiving an inheritance, it’s not likely to happen. Someone must also oversee the bequest and decide when the inheritance can be distributed.

However, trusts can be used to set conditions on asset distribution. The trust documents are used to establish your wishes for the assets and the trustee is charged with following your directions on when and how much to distribute assets to beneficiaries.

Leaving money to a disabled person who depends on government benefits puts their eligibility for benefits like Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid at risk. An estate planning attorney can create a Special Needs Trust to allow for an inheritance without jeopardizing their services.

Finally, in certain states you can use a will to disinherit a spouse, but it’s not easy. Every state has a way to protect a spouse from being completely disinherited. In community property states, a spouse has a legal right to half of any property acquired during the marriage, regardless of how the property is titled. In other states, a spouse has a legal right to a third to one half of the estate, regardless of what is in the will. An experienced estate planning attorney can help draft the documents, but depending on your state and circumstances, it may not be possible to completely disinherit a spouse.

Reference: Arkansas Online (Dec. 27, 2021) “Before writing your own will know what wills can, can’t and shouldn’t try to do”

Who Should I Name as Trustee?

When a revocable living trust is created, the grantor (person who creates the trust) names a successor trustee, the person who will take charge of the trust when the grantor dies. One of the biggest sticking points in creating a trust is often selecting a successor trustee. A recent article, “Be careful when choosing your successor trustee,” from Los Altos Town Crier explains what can go wrong and how to protect your estate.

When the grantor dies, the successor trustee is in charge of determining the value of the trust and distributing assets to named beneficiaries. If there are unclear provisions in the trust, the trustee is required by law, as a fiduciary, to use good judgment and put the interest of the beneficiaries ahead of the trustee’s own interests.

When considering who to name as a successor trustee, you have many options. Just because your first born adult child wants to be in charge doesn’t mean they are the best candidate. You’ll want to name a reliable, responsible and organized person, who will be able to manage finances, tax reporting and respects the law.

The decision is not always an easy one. The child who lives closest to you may be excellent at caregiving, but not adept at handling finances. The child who lives furthest away may be skilled at handling money, but will they be able to manage their tasks long distance?

A trustee needs to be able to understand what their role is and know when they need the help of an estate planning attorney. Some trusts are complicated and tax reporting is rarely simple. The trustee may need to create a team of professionals, including an estate planning attorney, a CPA and a financial advisor. Someone who thinks they can manage an estate on their own with zero experience in the law or finance may be headed for trouble.

If there are no family members or trusted friends who can serve in this role, it may be best to consider a professional fiduciary to serve as a successor trustee. An estate planning attorney may also serve as a successor trustee.

The next option is a financial institution or trust company. Some banks have trust departments and take on this role, but they often have steep minimums and will only work with estates with significant value. Fees are also likely to be higher than for a professional fiduciary or other professional. Be sure to inquire how they evaluate your needs and ensure quality of care, if you become incapacitated. What processes are in place to protect grantors?

Another alternative is to identify a nonprofit with a pooled trust that accepts trustee responsibilities for individuals with special needs and for others who would prefer to have a nonprofit in this role.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you identify the best candidate for this role, as you work through the creation of the trust. Don’t be shy about asking for help with this important matter.

Reference: Los Altos Town Crier (Nov. 17, 2021) “Be careful when choosing your successor trustee”

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”

Trusts can Work for ‘Regular’ People

A trust fund is an estate planning tool that can be used by anyone who wishes to pass their property to individuals, family members or nonprofits. They are used by wealthy people because they solve a number of wealth transfer problems and are equally applicable to people who aren’t mega-rich, explains this recent article from Forbes titled “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy.”

A trust is a legal entity in the same way that a corporation is a legal entity. A trust is used in estate planning to own assets, as instructed by the terms of the trust. Terms commonly used in discussing trusts include:

  • Grantor—the person who creates the trust and places assets into the trust.
  • Beneficiary—the person or organization who will receive the assets, as directed by the trust documents.
  • Trustee—the person who ensures that the assets in the trust are properly managed and distributed to beneficiaries.

Trusts may contain a variety of property, from real estate to personal property, stocks, bonds and even entire businesses.

Certain assets should not be placed in a trust, and an estate planning attorney will know how and why to make these decisions. Retirement accounts and other accounts with named beneficiaries don’t need to be placed inside a trust, since the asset will go to the named beneficiaries upon death. They do not pass through probate, which is the process of the court validating the will and how assets are passed as directed by the will. However, there may be reasons to designate such accounts to pass to the trust and your attorney will advise you accordingly.

Assets are transferred into trusts in two main ways: the grantor transfers assets into the trust while living, often by retitling the asset, or by using their estate plan to stipulate that a trust will be created and retain certain assets upon their death.

Trusts are used extensively because they work. Some benefits of using a trust as part of an estate plan include:

Avoiding probate. Assets placed in a trust pass to beneficiaries outside of the probate process.

Protecting beneficiaries from themselves. Young adults may be legally able to inherit but that doesn’t mean they are capable of handling large amounts of money or property. Trusts can be structured to pass along assets at certain ages or when they reach particular milestones in life.

Protecting assets. Trusts can be created to protect inheritances for beneficiaries from creditors and divorces. A trust can be created to ensure a former spouse has no legal claim to the assets in the trust.

Tax liabilities. Transferring assets into an irrevocable trust means they are owned and controlled by the trust. For example, with a non-grantor irrevocable trust, the former owner of the assets does not pay taxes on assets in the trust during his or her life, and they are not part of the taxable estate upon death.

Caring for a Special Needs beneficiary. Disabled individuals who receive government benefits may lose those benefits, if they inherit directly. If you want to provide income to someone with special needs when you have passed, a Special Needs Trust (sometimes known as a Supplemental Needs trust) can be created. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to do this properly.

Reference: Forbes (March 15, 2021) “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy”

SECURE Act has Changed Special Needs Planning

The SECURE Act eliminated the life expectancy payout for inherited IRAs for most people, but it also preserved the life expectancy option for five classes of eligible beneficiaries, referred to as “EDBs” in a recent article from Morningstar.com titled “Providing for Disabled Beneficiaries After the SECURE Act.” Two categories that are considered EDBs are disabled individuals and chronically ill individuals. Estate planning needs to be structured to take advantage of this option.

The first step is to determine if the individual would be considered disabled or chronically ill within the specific definition of the SECURE Act, which uses almost the same definition as that used by the Social Security Administration to determine eligibility for SS disability benefits.

A person is deemed to be “chronically ill” if they are unable to perform at least two activities of daily living or if they require substantial supervision because of cognitive impairment. A licensed healthcare practitioner certifies this status, typically used when a person enters a nursing home and files a long-term health insurance claim.

However, if the disabled or ill person receives any kind of medical care, subsidized housing or benefits under Medicaid or any government programs that are means-tested, an inheritance will disqualify them from receiving these benefits. They will typically need to spend down the inheritance (or have a court authorized trust created to hold the inheritance), which is likely not what the IRA owner had in mind.

Typically, a family member wishing to leave an inheritance to a disabled person leaves the inheritance to a Supplemental Needs Trust or SNT. This allows the individual to continue to receive benefits but can pay for things not covered by the programs, like eyeglasses, dental care, or vacations. However, does the SNT receive the same life expectancy payout treatment as an IRA?

Thanks to a special provision in the SECURE Act that applies only to the disabled and the chronically ill, a SNT that pays nothing to anyone other than the EDB can use the life expectancy payout. The SECURE Act calls this trust an “Applicable Multi-Beneficiary Trust,” or AMBT.

For other types of EDB, like a surviving spouse, the individual must be named either as the sole beneficiary or, if a trust is used, must be the sole beneficiary of a conduit trust to qualify for the life expectancy payout. Under a conduit trust, all distributions from the inherited IRA or other retirement plan must be paid out to the individual more or less as received during their lifetime. However, the SECURE Act removes that requirement for trusts created for the disabled or chronically ill.

However, not all of the SECURE Act’s impact on special needs planning is smooth sailing. The AMBT must provide that nothing may be paid from the trust to anyone but the disabled individual while they are living. What if the required minimum distribution from the inheritance is higher than what the beneficiary needs for any given year? Let’s say the trustee must withdraw an RMD of $60,000, but the disabled person’s needs are only $20,000? The trust is left with $40,000 of gross income, and there is nowhere for the balance of the gross income to go.

In the past, SNTs included a provision that allowed the trustee to pass excess income to other family members and deduct the amount as distributable net income, shifting the tax liability to family members who might be in a lower tax bracket than the trust.

Special Needs Planning under the SECURE Act has raised this and other issues, which can be addressed by an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Morningstar.com (Dec. 9, 2020) “Providing for Disabled Beneficiaries After the SECURE Act”

How Can Estate Planning Address the Troubled Child?

Every family has unique challenges when planning for the future, and every family needs to consider its individual beneficiaries in an honest light, even when the view isn’t pretty. Concerns may range from adults with substance abuse problems, an inability to make good decisions, or siblings with worrisome marriages. These situations can be addressed through estate planning documents, says the article “Estate Planning for ‘Black Sheep’ Beneficiaries” from Kiplinger.

How can you prepare your estate, when a problem child has grown into an adult with problems?

You have the option of not dividing your estate equally to beneficiaries.

Disinheriting a beneficiary occurs for a variety of reasons and is more common than you might think. If you have already given one child a down payment on a home, while another has gone through two divorces, you may want to make plans for one child to receive their share of the inheritance through a trust to protect them.

A family member who is disabled may benefit from a more generous inheritance than a successful sibling—although that inheritance must be structured properly, if the disabled person is to continue receiving support from government programs.

No matter the reason for unequal distributions, discuss the reasons for the difference in your estate plan with your family, or if your estate planning attorney advises it, include a discussion of your reasons in a document. This buttresses your plan against any claims against the estate and may prevent hard feelings between siblings.

You can change your mind about your estate plan if your ‘wild child’ gets his life together.

A regular evaluation of your estate plan—every three or four years, or whenever big life events occur—is always recommended. If your wayward child finds his footing and you want to change how he is treated in your estate plan, you can do that.

Your estate plan can include incentives, even after you are gone.

Specific provisions in a trust can be used to reward behavior. An incentive trust sets certain goals that must be met before funds are distributed, from completing college to maintaining employment or even to going through rehabilitation. Many estate plans stagger the distribution of funds, so heirs receive distributions over time, rather than all at once. An example: 1/3 at age 25, 1/2 at age 30 and the balance at age 40. This prevents the beneficiary from squandering all of his inheritance at once. Ideally, his financial skills grow, so he is better equipped to preserve a large sum at age 40.

Trusts are not that complicated, and their administration is not overly difficult.

People think trusts are for the wealthy only or are complicated and expensive. None of that is true. Trusts are excellent tools, considered the “Swiss Army Knife” of estate planning. Your estate planning attorney can craft trusts that will help you control how money flows to heirs, protect a special needs individual, minimize taxes and create a legacy. For families who have one or more “black sheep,” the trust is a perfect tool to protect your loved ones from themselves and their life choices.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 8, 2020) “Estate Planning for ‘Black Sheep’ Beneficiaries”

Consider Funding a Trust with Life Insurance

How would funding a trust with life insurance work, and could it be a good option for you? A recent article in Forbes “How to Fund a Trust With Life Insurance” explains how this works. Let’s start with the basics: a trust is a legal entity where one party, the trustee, holds legal title to the assets owned by the trust, which is managed for the good of the beneficiary. There can be more than one person who benefits from the trust (beneficiaries) and there can be a co-trustee, but we’ll keep this simple.

Trusts are often funded with a life insurance policy. The proceeds of the policy provide the beneficiary with assets that are used after the death of the insured. This is especially important when the beneficiaries are minor children and the life insurance has been purchased by their parents. Placing the insurance policy within a trust offers more control over how funds are used.

What kind of a trust should you consider? All trusts are either revocable or irrevocable. There are pros and cons to both. Irrevocable trusts are better for tax purposes, as they are not included as part of your estate. However, with an $11.58 million federal exemption in 2020, most people don’t have to worry about federal estate taxes. With a revocable trust, you can make changes to the trust throughout your life, while with an irrevocable trust, only a trustee can make changes.

Note that, in addition to federal taxes, most states have estate taxes of their own, and a few have inheritance taxes. When working with an estate planning attorney, they’ll help you navigate the tax aspect as well as the distribution of assets.

Revocable trusts are the most commonly used trust in estate planning. Here’s why:

  • Revocable trusts avoid probate, which can be a costly and lengthy process. Assets left in the revocable trust pass directly to the heirs, far quicker than those left through the will.
  • Because they are revocable, the creator of the will can make changes to the trust as circumstances change. This flexibility and control make the revocable trust more attractive in estate planning.

If you are using life insurance to fund the trust, be sure the policy permits you to name beneficiaries, and be certain to name beneficiaries. Missing this step is a common and critical mistake. The beneficiary designations must be crystal clear. If there are two cousins who have the same name, there will need to be a clear distinction made as to who is the beneficiary. If someone changes their name, that change must be reflected by the beneficiary designation.

There are many other types of trusts, including testamentary trusts and special needs trusts. Your estate planning attorney will know which trust is best for your situation. Make sure to fund the trust and update beneficiary designations, so the trust will achieve your goals.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 17, 2020) “How to Fund a Trust With Life Insurance”

Different Trusts for Different Estate Planning Purposes

There are a few things all trusts have in common, explains the article “All trusts are not alike,” from the Times Herald-Record. They all have a “grantor,” the person who creates the trust, a “trustee,” the person who is in charge of the trust, and “beneficiaries,” the people who receive trust income or assets. After that, they are all different. Here’s an overview of the different types of trusts and how they are used in estate planning.

“Revocable Living Trust” is a trust created while the grantor is still alive, when assets are transferred into the trust. The trustee transfers assets to beneficiaries, when the grantor dies. The trustee does not have to be appointed by the court, so there’s no need for the assets in the trust to go through probate. Living trusts are used to save time and money, when settling estates and to avoid will contests.

A “Medicaid Asset Protection Trust” (MAPT) is an irrevocable trust created during the lifetime of the grantor. It is used to shield assets from the grantor’s nursing home costs but is only effective five years after assets have been placed in the trust. The assets are also shielded from home care costs after assets are in the trust for two and a half years. Assets in the MAPT trust do not go through probate.

The Supplemental or Special Needs Trust (SNT) is used to hold assets for a disabled person who receives means-tested government benefits, like Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid. The trustee is permitted to use the trust assets to benefit the individual but may not give trust assets directly to the individual. The SNT lets the beneficiary have access to assets, without jeopardizing their government benefits.

An “Inheritance Trust” is created by the grantor for a beneficiary and leaves the inheritance in trust for the beneficiary on the death of the trust’s creator. Assets do not go directly to the beneficiary. If the beneficiary dies, the remaining assets in the trust go to the beneficiary’s children, and not to the spouse. This is a means of keeping assets in the bloodline and protected from the beneficiary’s divorces, creditors and lawsuits.

An “Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust” (ILIT) owns life insurance to pay for the grantor’s estate taxes and keeps the value of the life insurance policy out of the grantor’s estate, minimizing estate taxes. As of this writing, the federal estate tax exemption is $11.58 million per person.

A “Pet Trust” holds assets to be used to care for the grantor’s surviving pets. There is a trustee who is charge of the assets, and usually a caretaker is tasked to care for the pets. There are instances where the same person serves as the trustee and the caretaker. When the pets die, remaining trust assets go to named contingent beneficiaries.

A “Testamentary Trust” is created by a will, and assets held in a Testamentary Trust do not avoid probate and do not help to minimize estate taxes.

An estate planning attorney in your area will know which of these trusts will best benefit your situation.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (August 1,2020) “All trusts are not alike”