Special Needs Trusts and Supplemental Needs Trusts
In Part IV of this Series, I want to discuss the role of Special Needs Trusts and Supplemental Needs Trusts in estate planning.
“Special Needs Trusts” and “Supplemental Needs Trusts” are terms to describe trusts designed to provide benefits to a person in a way that will preserve the public benefits that he or she is entitled to receive. The person who benefits from the trust is called the beneficiary.
Each special needs trust can be intended to protect different public benefits.
Most commonly, special needs trusts are intended to permit Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid recipients to receive some additional services or goods. Other common benefits include vocational rehabilitation, subsidized housing and food stamps. The trusts are always created as discretionary trusts, which means that money can only be paid out in the discretion of the trustee. The trustee can NEVER be the special needs person.
There are actually few rules governing Supplemental Needs Trusts (also commonly known as third-party special needs trusts). Since government benefits are available only to those with financial need, the most important rule is that the beneficiary should never be entitled to the money in the trust. If the trustee has complete discretion whether to make distributions for the beneficiary, the trust principal and income will usually not be counted as available to the beneficiary for purposes of obtaining government benefits.
The most important rule for special needs trusts is that the trust may not provide food, shelter, any asset which could be converted into food or shelter (including cash), or any items or services that are available from public benefit programs, to the beneficiary. In other words, the trust can provide for physical therapy, medical treatment, education, entertainment, travel, companionship, clothing, furniture and furnishings (such as a television or computer), and some utilities (like cable television and a telephone, but not electricity, gas or water). Distributions of cash to the special needs person outright are almost never permitted.
There are dozens of different ways to draft a Supplemental Needs Trust. In addition, the administration of a special needs trust can be extremely difficult. A seasoned lawyer, familiar with public benefits programs and special needs trust provisions, should always be involved in preparation of a third-party special needs trust. While many legal matters can be undertaken without a lawyer, or with a lawyer with general background, special needs trusts are complicated enough to require the services of a specialized practitioner.
Sometimes a person may be entitled to public benefits, but he or she has too many assets to qualify for those benefits. This is common for people like accident victims or disabled children who inherit money. In such cases, it is often possible and advisable to place assets into a special needs trust to gain, regain or continue eligibility for government benefits. Because the person is using their own money to fund the trust, there are numerous restrictions regarding how the money can be used.
Self-settled special needs trusts are much more complicated than their third-party equivalents. Usually (but not always), a self-settled special needs trust must comply with a federal law first enacted in 1993. That law requires that most self-settled special needs trusts actually be established by a judge, a court-appointed guardian or the parents or grandparents of the beneficiary (Social Security regulations may limit creation of trusts to the first two categories in most circumstances). In addition most self-settled special needs trusts will have to include a provision repaying state Medicaid agencies for any benefits, payable upon the death of the beneficiary.
In summary, Special Needs Trusts and Supplemental Needs Trusts are both Discretionary Trusts. A Special Needs Trust is established using funds of Special Needs Person. A Supplemental is established using funds of someone other than Special Needs Person. A Special Needs Trust requires that the government be paid back for Medicaid liens upon death of the Special Needs Person There is no government payback upon the death of Special Needs Person in a Supplemental Needs Trust.
Special Needs Trusts and/or Supplemental Needs Trusts are all part of a larger strategy to make sure a special needs person’s financial and personal needs are met. For individuals who cannot afford these types of trusts, many charities, like Plan NJ, do have pooled funds to which you can contribute. These pooled funds offer you less control, but it does provide for a means of taking care of your loved one.