February 15, 2011

Special Needs Trust

Since writing a post about special needs trusts a few months ago, I noticed that it has been a common reading item. In response, here are some additional issues that arise in the special needs trust context. 

1. How does a disabled-beneficiary qualify for public assistance?

A disabled-beneficiary may qualify for public assistance through two methods: needs-based or entitlement. For needs-based, a disabled-beneficiary will qualify out of necessity so to speak. For example, food stamps are an example of a needs-based public benefit because only those with very modest incomes are eligible to receive food-stamps. Conversely, an entitlement public benefit is where the recipient qualifies just for the sheer fact that they are a member of a certain class of individuals. For instance, Medicare is an example of an entitlement benefit because anybody 65 or older will qualify.

Needs-based public benefits include Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medi-Cal, while entitlement benefits include Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Medicare. Since SSI and Medi-Cal are needs-based public benefits, a recipient of those public benefits will require a special needs trust in order to maintain eligibility should they be the beneficiary of some other person’s estate plan. 

2. What are some important on-going requirements for a special needs trust?

Two important on-going requirements of a special needs trust are tax returns and accounting.

Generally speaking, a special needs trust must file a California tax return if the net taxable income is over $100 or the gross income exceeds $10,000, regardless of the net taxable income. Rev & T C §18505(e)-(f). A federal tax return must be filed if the trust has any taxable income or has gross income of $600 or more, regardless of the amount of taxable income. IRC §6012(a)(4). Since this involves a microscopic threshold, it is almost certain that any trust with require the filing of a federal and state tax return.

As for the accounting, a special needs trust needs to periodically provide an accounting to each disabled-beneficiary. The frequency of the accounting is dependent upon whether or not the trust is court-supervised. If the trust is not court-supervised, then the trustee must annually account to the disabled-beneficiary unless the trust instrument provides otherwise or the disabled-beneficiary waives such right in writing. Prob C §16062; Prob C §16064(a); Prob C §16064(c). If the trust is court-supervised, then the trustee must account no less frequently than biennially, unless otherwise ordered by the court. Prob C §2620(a). In most cases, an annual accounting will be required.

3. What happens to the trust assets after the passing of the disabled-beneficiary?

The main consequence is that the State may entitled to reimbursement for the Medi-Cal coverage it provided the disabled-beneficiary. The answer depends upon whether the trust is first-party or third-party.

A first-party trust is one personally created by the disabled-beneficiary. An example of this would be where a disabled-beneficiary was the recipient of a large court settlement which would otherwise jeopardize their eligibility for public benefits if not for the creation of the special needs trust. A third-party trust is one created by a person other than the disabled-beneficiary. An example of this would be where parents create a trust for their disabled child.

If the trust is a first-party special needs trust, federal law requires that "the State will receive all amounts remaining in the trust upon the death of such individual up to an amount equal to the total medical assistance paid." 42 USC §1396p(d)(4)(A). This is known as Medi-Cal reimbursement. Basically, the State will recoup all the money it has provided the disabled-beneficiary over the years through Medi-Cal.

However, if the trust is a third-party special needs trust, then there is no Medi-Cal reimbursement.

4. Can a special needs trust be terminated?

Yes, a special needs trust could be terminated for a number of reasons. For instance, the disabled-beneficiary could pass away, the trust assets could run out or the disabled-beneficiary could lose their eligibility for public benefits despite the creation of the special needs trust.

5. Can a special needs trust purchase a home with maintaining the disabled-beneficiary’s eligibility for public benefits?

Yes, a special needs trust can purchase a home while maintaining the disabled-beneficiary’s eligibility for public benefits. Federal and California law says that a personal residence is an exempt asset and will not be counted against the disabled-beneficiary for eligibility purposes. 20 CFR §416.1212 (SSI); 22 Cal Code Regs §50425 (Medi-Cal). However, there are a multitude of issues that would confront a trustee during the process. First, the trust would require liquidity in order to purchase a home. Second, the trustee would most likely need to procure financing for the home purchase. Third, the trustee would need to allocate the responsibilities for improvements and repairs to the home amongst the affected parties.

6. How long does a special needs trust last?

Generally speaking, a special needs trust will last for the lifetime of the disabled-beneficiary.

7. How does a trustee make a distribution to a disabled-beneficiary?

There are a couple of ways in which a trustee could make a distribution to a disabled-beneficiary. For illustrative purposes, assume that the trustee would like to buy the disabled-beneficiary a couch. The trustee could purchase the couch personally and have it delivered to the disabled-beneficiary, or the trustee could purchase a furniture store gift card which they would later provide to the disabled-beneficiary.

8. Can the attorney who writes the special needs trust be the trustee?

Yes, theoretically the drafting attorney could serve as the trustee but given the legal hurdles that must be cleared, it is doubtful that a prudent attorney would serve as trustee. One reason why this situation is problematic is because the attorney is considered a “disqualified donee”, whereby the approval of another attorney is needed to cure the perceived conflict of interest. Another reason why an attorney-trustee is undesirable is because the attorney would typically not be entitled to compensation as both trustee and attorney, double-dipping. Prob C §15687. Hence, even though the attorney would serve two roles, they would only be compensated for one role.

9. Is court supervision of a special needs trust mandatory?

No, there is no requirement that a special needs trust be subject to the continuing supervision of a local superior court. Consequently, this means that parents could establish a special needs trust for their child and the trust’s administration would never require the approval of court order.