November 2, 2010

Special Needs Trust


Over the years, a few clients have asked about a special needs trust (SNT) because they have a child with a disability. Here are some common questions/answers:

1. What is a special needs trust?

A special needs trust is an irrevocable trust in which the disabled beneficiary's assets are sheltered from general use in order to allow the disabled beneficiary to remain eligible for government benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medi-Cal. For example, if Hal and Wendy had a daughter, Diana, who was blind, it would be prudent for Hal and Wendy to create a special needs trust for Diana. Otherwise, Diana would later become ineligible for government benefits should she inherit her parents' estate. The reason for this is because the eligibility requirements for SSI and Med-Cal are needs-based, whereby a person will become ineligible for benefits if they have too many assets.

2. Are their different types of special needs trust?

Yes, there are two kinds of SNTs, first-party SNT and third-party SNT.

In a first-party SNT, the trust is self-funded by the person with a disability. For example, if a disabled person won a large court judgment against someone, they would establish a first-party SNT with the proceeds from that judgment. Conversely, in a third-party SNT, the trust is established with the assets of someone other than the person with a disability. For instance, from the example above, Hal and Wendy would create a third-party SNT for their daughter Diana by leaving their estate to her in trust.

3. What can a special needs trust be used for?

SNT assets can only be used for special items such as a vehicle, a computer, furniture, laundry, audio equipment, electronic devices, medical care not covered by Medi-Cal, etc. The reason for this is because general items such as food, shelter and basic medical care are meant to be paid for by SSI funds and Medi-Cal. 

4. Who can be the trustee of a special needs trust?

Generally speaking, there is no prerequisite for being the trustee of a special needs trust. In most cases, a family member is selected to be the trustee. 

However, the responsibility of a trustee of a special needs trust is significantly greater than that of a trustee of a regular revocable trust. This stems from the fact that the trustee of a special needs trust not only has to follow the duties of being a trustee, (See Prob C §§ 16000-16015), they must also keep attuned to the ever-charging laws of public benefits, namely the Social Security Act law and regulations and the Program Operation Manuel System (POMS). In short, being the trustee of a special needs trust is not something to take on casually. Furthermore, it is common to select a professional trustee to handle such a role.

5. What happens if a special needs trust is not created for my disabled child?

Since SSI and Medi-Cal are needs-based government benefits, the disabled child will most likely lose those benefits because their inheritance will make ineligible for them due to the fact that they will exceed the eligibility threshold. In particular, to maintain eligibility for SSI, the countable resource limit is $2000 for an eligible individual and $3000 for an eligible couple. 20 CFR §416.1205(c).  As for Medi-Cal eligibility, an individual cannot have more than $2000 in countable resources and a couple cannot have more than $3000. 22 Cal Code Regs §§50419-50420. Of note, a bank account constitutes a countable resource for both SSI and Med-Cal. For illustrative purposes, from the above example, if Diana inherited a $10,000 bank account from her parents' estate, this inheritance would make her ineligible for SSI and Medi-Cal.

6. How much does a special needs trust cost to set-up?

Ahhhhhhh, a favorite question of all clients. The fee to set up a trust is dependent upon the trust's size. A special needs trust that has assets of $600,000 might cost anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000. I have quoted lower fees before but that was because the trust estate was smaller.

It is worth mentioning that the cost of operating the trust will almost assuredly exceed the cost of establishing the trust. This is due to the fact that the trustee must be furnish an annual accounting of the trust to the beneficiary, the trustee is entitled to compensation for their services, the trustee is entrusted with prudently investing the trust assets, etc. Thus, even though clients may spend a few thousand dollars to establish a special needs trust for their child, the cost of administering that trust for the lifetime of that child will probably reach 5 figures if they live for an extended period of time.