If you're the legal guardian of an incapacitated relative, you may spend a great deal of time and effort focusing on how to best protect your relative's financial interests. This is particularly true if your relative depends upon federal disability benefits or Medicaid. However, depending upon the specific type of disability benefits your relative receives, he or she may be in danger of being booted from the eligibility list if an inheritance, legal settlement, or other large windfall comes into his or her possession. Read on to learn more about special needs trusts and when the creation of such a trust may be the best way to protect your relative's financial interests.
What is a special needs trust?
At its core, a special needs trust is a way to help preserve assets for those who are too disabled to hold down employment or care for themselves.
While Social Security Disability (SSD) is available for all disabled individuals who have sufficient work and earnings history to qualify, those who haven't spent much time in the workforce as an adult may not be eligible for this type of disability assistance.
For those who are too disabled to work and have little to no earnings history, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) can provide a lifeline by making monthly subsistence payments to the disabled person to help cover food, rent, and other necessities, as well as Medicaid payments to help cover medical costs and caretaking expenses.
One of the caveats of SSI is that it is available only for those who truly need it. Individuals with substantial assets at their disposal or a spouse who is still working and earning a good living are unlikely to qualify for SSI, as the amount of countable resources permitted for SSI recipients is capped at only $2,000 (or $3,000 if the disabled individual is married). This can have the unfortunate effect of disqualifying a disabled individual from the receipt of benefits when he or she comes into a small amount of money, even if this money is quickly spent on care or necessities and the recipient remains unable to work.
A special needs trust provides one way to get around this asset limit by keeping these funds available for your relative's use while out of his or her legal possession. By setting up a special needs trust for your relative, you'll be able to direct all future windfalls into this trust and avoid any blips in your relative's SSI eligibility while keeping these funds safe and allowing them to grow over time. When your relative has a need or want that's not covered by SSI or Medicaid, the trustee (at his or her discretion) may release funds to be used for this purpose without running afoul of SSI limits.
Are there other options to help maintain eligibility for benefits without creating a trust?
While a special needs trust can provide substantial benefits for individuals set to receive multiple or substantial windfalls, these trusts can be expensive to set up and administer. If you doubt your relative will ever be dealing with a very large amount of money, you may elect to help him or her spend the funds down to maintain eligibility instead.
Engaging in a spend down will help you procure needed items for your relative (that he or she may otherwise have remained unable to afford) while avoiding much of an interruption in SSI benefits. To the extent you can, you'll want to spend most of this money as quickly as possible. For each month in which your relative's assets are in excess of the limit, he or she will be required to repay his or her monthly SSI stipend to the federal government. Spending these funds in one month will limit the amount of time your relative is ineligible for SSI and help maintain a continual stream of income.
To learn more about your options, consider consulting resources like Todd East Attorney at Law.