Recently, The Coleman Law Firm was privileged to be a sponsor of the 10th Annual Angelwood Fashion Show and Luncheon, a wonderful event that raises funds for programs supporting children and adults with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Down’s syndrome, Spina Bifida and intellectual disabilities.  The event not only served to benefit a very worthy cause, it was a reminder of the fragility of life and the importance of special needs planning.

Special needs planning is an area of law that takes on many shapes and forms.  This is because the number of diseases and tragedies that can, at any given moment, affect us and our loved ones are countless.  Autism affects 1 in 88 children – 1 in 54 boys.  (That’s a 10-fold increase in prevalence in 40 years.)  Autism affects over 2 million individuals in the United States alone.  In 2007, 24.3 million adults age 18 or older experienced serious psychological distress (SPD) in the past year – that’s 10.9 percent of US adults.  SPD is a nonspecific indicator of past-year mental health problems such as anxiety or mood disorders.  Many who suffer from SPD are older individuals, and almost all require medical attention.  Prevalence and growth statistics for other diseases are just as concerning.

Two factors make special needs planning especially critical: (1) many conditions causing a need for special care do not decrease life expectancy and (2) government and non-government programs are being downsized and even eliminated due to budget constraints on local, state and federal levels.  In other words, there is an increasing need for long-term resources being met with a decreasing number of resources and solutions.  To add to the equation, many programs are very difficult to qualify for.  As an example, this article has an overview of income limits and the Medicaid program.  Also, once a program benefit is lost, it is often difficult or even impossible to get back.  For these reasons, families with special members are looking to alternatives to provide those services.  Typical concerns among these families include: (1) Who will care for my loved one when I am gone? (2) Who will advocate for my loved one? (3) Where will my loved one live? (4) What level of independence can my loved one maintain? (5) Will the money I provide be enough for my loved one’s lifetime?

A common and effective answer to providing for loved ones, despite the unpredictable benefits landscape, is the special needs trust (SNT).  One of the main objectives of a SNT is to preserve government benefits for a special needs person.  Despite the uncertain future of governmental assistance, this is an important goal, especially for families with modest or limited means.  The proper focus of special needs planning is how to provide the best quality of life throughout the person’s lifetime.  Careful planning is necessary to design and implement a plan that supplements government benefits, is flexible enough to adjust to changes in future benefits, preserves and expands assets and makes sure the individual receives proper care.

Proper funding, implementation and ongoing review are very important for a special needs trust.  The SNT may need to last a lifetime and may not be replaceable.  Once the plan is put into motion, it needs to be managed.  Not only are there administrative tasks, there is the aspect of asset management.  Careful investment is often important, as the loss of the assets could be catastrophic for the beneficiary.  Tax planning can be accomplished by calculated distribution of trust income without jeopardizing any public benefits.  For a simplified example, this could be accomplished by the trustee making direct payments to providers for care or supplemental benefits.  Retirement plans and life insurance on parents, grandparents or siblings is often used to fund these trusts.  The trust funds may be used to provide for a range of benefits from daily needs to purchasing a home for the beneficiary.

With their knowledge and experience, our attorneys can help you take care of your loved ones with special needs.  Contact us at 904-448-1969 or email us at if we can assist you with special needs planning.

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