Millions of children and adults with special needs depend on government benefits programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI). In fact, more than eight million people with special needs under the age of 65 receive SSI, the Social Security Administration has reported — that’s a big portion of the total U.S. population.
Tragically, poverty and disability are closely intertwined. People with special needs are twice as likely to live in poverty than people without disabilities, NPR noted in 2015, often because people with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed. Only one in seven adults with special needs are employed, and the numbers aren’t improving.
Saving money is also a challenge. If people with government assistance programs save just a few thousand dollars, they could lose eligibility for benefits. That risk can be a strong disincentive to work, when a person with a disability must choose between employment or benefits. As Michael Morris, executive director of the National Disability Institute, notes in NPR’s article, many adults with special needs are consigned to poverty by the very way our nation’s social safety net is structured.
Improvements are happening to the system, however. In 2014, President Obama signed the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act (ABLE) into law, which allows people with special needs and their families to open special savings accounts to help protect them from losing government benefits eligibility. ABLE accounts won’t be taxed and, in general, their assets won’t count toward means-tested assistance programs like SSI.
Opening an ABLE account will allow many families to begin saving money. In turn, the funds in their accounts could be used to purchase things — like accessible vehicles, for example — that can actually reduce their reliance on government assistance in the long-run.
Special Needs Trusts
The special needs trust was designed not to replace government benefits with personal savings, but to find a workable balance between the two.
Special needs trusts are most appropriate when a person is set to receive moderate to substantial sums of money, like a lawsuit settlement or inheritance. If that money goes directly into the person’s bank account, they’ll likely become ineligible for Medicaid and SSI. A special needs trust, on the other hand, keeps their benefits from being threatened by the influx of income.
Assets in the trust, which are managed and disbursed by a trustee, can be used to purchase goods and services that government benefits don’t cover. Beneficiaries can select their own trustees, or they can establish a pooled special needs trust, which allows them to “pool” their financial assets together. The money from multiple families or individuals is placed in a master trust, which is managed by experienced financial professionals at a non-profit. Still, each individual beneficiary holds his or her own account. In some cases, beneficiaries are paired with social workers or advisors to help them create a disbursement plan that matches their lifestyle.
By gathering assets together, pooled trusts can benefit from more innovative investment strategies, but often at a fraction of the cost of an individual trust. Pooled trusts may be particularly appropriate for people who don’t have someone else to establish an individual trust, since beneficiaries are allowed to start their own accounts.
Thankfully, times are changing (albeit slowly), and people with special needs are obtaining more options to help them plan for their futures. Smart planning is the key to long-term success, no matter the challenges you face. To learn more about your individual options, feel free to contact Milestone Consulting for more information.
ABOUT JOHN BAIR
John Bair is an experienced settlement planner and financial consultant. He helps families develop strategies to provide lifelong financial support for children with disabilities, catastrophic injuries, special needs, and congenital abnormalities. Read more about John’s work and his firm, Milestone Consulting, at http://milestoneseventh.com/.
A West Point graduate where he served as captain and military aviator, John Bair continues his commitment to our country through his efforts within the settlement planning industry. He has represented families of victims lost in the Flight 3407 crash, offered pro bono services to the families of 9/11 victims and drafted the first consumer protection bill for plaintiffs (H.R. 3699).