This article examines the unique planning requirements of families with children, grandchildren or other family members (such as parents) with special needs. There are numerous misconceptions in this area that can result in costly mistakes when planning for special needs beneficiaries. Understanding the pitfalls associated with special needs planning is a must for all of us who assist families who have loved ones with special needs.
Tip #1: Avoid disinheriting the special needs beneficiary. Many disabled persons receive Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), Medicaid or other government benefits to provide food, shelter and/or medical care. The loved ones of the special needs beneficiaries may have been advised to disinherit them - beneficiaries who need their help most - to protect those beneficiaries' public benefits. But these benefits rarely provide more than basic needs. And this solution (which normally involves leaving the inheritance to another sibling) does not allow loved ones to help their special needs beneficiaries after they themselves become incapacitated or die. The best solution is for loved ones to create a special needs trust to hold the inheritance of a special needs beneficiary.
Planning Note:It is unnecessary and in fact poor planning to disinherit special needs beneficiaries. Loved ones with special needs beneficiaries should consider a special needs trust to protect public benefits and care for those beneficiaries during their own incapacity or after their death.
Tip #2: Procrastinating can be costly for a special needs beneficiary. None of us know when we may die or become incapacitated. It is important for loved ones with a special needs beneficiary to plan early, just as they should for other dependents such as minor children. However, unlike most other beneficiaries, special needs beneficiaries may never be able to compensate for a failure to plan. Minor beneficiaries without special needs can obtain more resources as they reach adulthood and can work to meet essential needs, but special needs beneficiaries may never have that ability.
Planning Note:Parents, grandparents, or any other loved ones of a special needs beneficiary face unique planning challenges when it comes to that child. This is one area where families simply cannot afford to wait to plan.
Tip #3: Don’t ignore the special needs of the beneficiary when planning. Planning that is not designed with the beneficiary's special needs in mind will probably render the beneficiary ineligible for essential government benefits. A properly designed special needs trust promotes the comfort and happiness of the special needs beneficiary without sacrificing eligibility.
Special needs can include medical and dental expenses, annual independent check-ups, necessary or desirable equipment (for example, a specially equipped van), training and education, insurance, transportation and essential dietary needs. If the trust is sufficiently funded, the disabled person can also receive spending money, electronic equipment & appliances, computers, vacations, movies, payments for a companion, and other self-esteem and quality-of-life enhancing expenses: the sorts of things families now provide to their child or other special needs beneficiary.
Planning Note: When planning for a beneficiary with special needs, it is critical that families utilize a properly drafted special needs trust as the vehicle to pass assets to that beneficiary. Otherwise, those assets may disqualify the beneficiary from public benefits and may be available to repay the state for the assistance provided.
Tip #4: A special needs trust does not have to be inflexible. Some special needs trusts are unnecessarily inflexible and generic. Although an attorney with some knowledge of the area can protect almost any trust from invalidating the beneficiary's public benefits, many trusts are not customized to the particular beneficiary's needs. Thus the beneficiary fails to receive the benefits that the parents or others provided when they were alive.
Another frequent mistake occurs when the special needs trust includes a pay-back provision rather than allowing the remainder of the trust to go to others upon the death of the special needs beneficiary. While these pay-back provisions are necessary in certain types of special needs trusts, an attorney who knows the difference can save family members and loved ones hundreds of thousand of dollars, or more.
Planning Note: A special needs trust should be customized to meet the unique circumstances of the special needs beneficiary and should be drafted by a lawyer familiar with this area of the law.
Tip #5: Use great caution in choosing a trustee. Loved ones or family members can manage the special needs trust while alive and well if they are willing to serve and have proper training and guidance. Once the family member or loved one is no longer able to serve as trustee, they can choose who will serve according to the instructions provided in the trust. Families or loved ones who create a special needs trust may choose a team of advisors and/or a professional trustee to serve. Whomever they choose, it is crucial that the trustee is financially savvy, well-organized and of course, ethical.
Planning Note: The trustee of a special needs trust should understand the trustmaker’s objectives and be qualified to invest the assets in a manner most likely to meet those objectives.
Tip #6: Invite others to contribute to the special needs trust. A key benefit of creating a special needs trust now is that the beneficiary's extended family and friends can make gifts to the trust or remember the trust as they plan their own estates. For example, these family members and friends can name the special needs trust as the beneficiary of their own assets in their revocable trust or will, and they can also name the special needs trust as a beneficiary of life insurance or retirement benefits. Unfortunately, many extended family members may not be aware that a trust exists, or that they could contribute money to the special needs trust now or as an inheritance later.
Planning Note: Creating a special needs trust now allows others, such as grandparents and other family members, to name the trust as the beneficiary of their own estate planning.
Tip #7: Relying on siblings to use their money for the benefit of a special needs child can have serious adverse effects. Many family members rely on their other children to provide, from their own inheritances, for a child with special needs. This can be a temporary solution for a brief time, such as during a brief incapacity if their other children are financially secure and have money to spare. However, it is not a solution that will protect a child with special needs after the death of the parents or when siblings have their own expenses and financial priorities.
What if an inheriting sibling divorces or loses a lawsuit? His or her spouse (or a judgment creditor) may be entitled to half of it and will likely not care for the child with special needs. What if the sibling dies or becomes incapacitated while the child with special needs is still living? Will his or her heirs care for the child with special needs as thoughtfully and completely as the sibling did?
Siblings of a child with special needs often feel a great responsibility for that child and have felt so all of their lives. When parents provide clear instructions and a helpful structure, they lessen the burden on all their children and support a loving and involved relationship among them.
Planning Note: Relying on siblings to care for a special needs beneficiary is a short-term solution at best. A special needs trust ensures that the assets are available for the special needs beneficiary (and not the former spouse or judgment creditor of a sibling) in a manner intended by the parents.
Bonus Tip: Stay up to date on changes in the law. The rules applicable to special needs trusts are constantly changing. Most recently, the Social Security Administration changed the rules on special needs trusts that are created using assets of the special needs beneficiary (called a “self-settled special needs trust”). The new Social Security regulations require certain provisions to be present in any self-settled trust drafted after January 1, 2000 that allows for early termination of the trust (termination prior to the death of the special needs beneficiary).
If these required provisions are not in the trust, the special needs beneficiary could lose SSI or Medicaid eligibility. The new regulations go into effect October 1, 2010. Please contact us if you have questions about the new regulations or if you would like more information on the changes.
Planning Note: A recent change in the Social Security Administration regulations governing self-settled special needs trusts could render some existing trusts invalid for SSI or Medicaid purposes. It is imperative to stay up to date on changes in the rules that apply to special needs trusts to ensure the benefits received by a special needs beneficiary are not jeopardized as a result of changes in the law.
Conclusion. Planning for a special needs beneficiary requires particular care and knowledge on the part of the planning team. A properly drafted and funded special needs trust can ensure that special needs beneficiary has sufficient assets to care for him or her, in a manner intended by loved ones, throughout the beneficiary's lifetime. Please contact us if you have any questions or would like to discuss any information in this newsletter further.
The benefits of a highly detailed, comprehensive power of attorney are numerous. Unfortunately, many powers of attorney are more general in nature and can actually cause more problems than they solve, especially for our senior population. This issue of theElderCounselore-newsletter is intended to highlight the benefits of a comprehensive, detailed power of attorney. A proper starting point is to emphasize that the proper use of a power of attorney as an estate planning and elder law document depends on the reliability and honesty of the appointed agent.
The agent under a power of attorney has traditionally been called an "attorney-in-fact" or sometimes just "attorney." However, confusion over these terms has encouraged the terminology to change so more recent state statutes tend to use the label "agent" for the person receiving power by the document.
The "law of agency" governs the agent under a power of attorney. The law of agency is the body of statutes and common law court decisions built up over centuries that dictate how and to what degree an agent is authorized to act on behalf of the "principal"--the individual who has appointed the agent to represent him or her. Powers of attorney are a species of agency-creating document. In most states, powers of attorney can be and most often are unilateral contracts--that is, signed only by the principal, but accepted by the agent by the act of performance.
Much has been written about financial exploitation of individuals, particularly seniors and other vulnerable people, by people who take advantage of them through undue influence, hidden transactions, identity theft, and the like. A prior issue of the ElderCounselor addressed guardianships and conservatorships and discussed the benefits of court supervision of care of vulnerable people in such contexts. Even though exploitation risks exist, there are great benefits to one individual (the principal) privately empowering another person (the agent) to act on the principal's behalf to perform certain financial functions.
A comprehensive power of attorney may include a grant of power for the agent to represent and advocate for the principal in regard to health care decisions. Such health care powers are more commonly addressed in a separate "health care power of attorney," which may be a distinct document or combined with other health topics in an "advance health care directive."
Another important preliminary consideration about powers of attorney is "durability." Powers of attorney are voluntary delegations of authority by the principal to the agent. The principal has not given up his or her own power to do these same functions but has granted legal authority to the agent to perform various tasks on the principal's behalf. All states have adopted a "durability" statute that allows principals to include in their powers of attorney a simple declaration that no power granted by the principal in this document will become invalid upon the subsequent mental incapacity of the principal. The result is a "durable power of attorney"--a document that continues to be valid until a stated termination date or event occurs, or the principal dies.
Having covered the explanation of what a durable power of attorney is, let's look at the top 10 benefits of having a comprehensive durable power of attorney.
1. Provides the ability to choose who will make decisions for you (rather than a court).
If someone has signed a power of attorney and later becomes incapacitated and unable to make decisions, the agent named can step into the shoes of the incapacitated person and make important financial decisions. Without a power of attorney, a guardianship or conservatorship may need to be established, and can be very expensive.
2. Avoids the necessity of a guardianship or conservatorship.
Someone who does not have a comprehensive power of attorney at the time they become incapacitated would have no alternative than to have someone else petition the court to appoint a guardian or conservator. The court will choose who is appointed to manage the financial and/or health affairs of the incapacitated person, and the court will continue to monitor the situation as long as the incapacitated person is alive. While not only a costly process, another detriment is the fact that the incapacitated person has no input on who will be appointed to serve.
3. Provides family members a good opportunity to discuss wishes and desires.
There is much thought and consideration that goes into the creation of a comprehensive power of attorney. One of the most important decisions is who will serve as the agent. When a parent or loved one makes the decision to sign a power of attorney, it is a good opportunity for the parent to discuss wishes and expectations with the family and, in particular, the person named as agent in the power of attorney.
4. The more comprehensive the power of attorney, the better.
As people age, their needs change and their power of attorney should reflect that. Seniors have concerns about long term care, applying for government benefits to pay for care, as well as choosing the proper care providers. Without allowing the agent to perform these tasks and more, precious time and money may be wasted.
5. Prevents questions about principal's intent.
Many of us have read about court battles over a person's intent once that person has become incapacitated. A well-drafted power of attorney, along with other health care directives, can eliminate the need for family members to argue or disagree over a loved one's wishes. Once written down, this document is excellent evidence of their intent and is difficult to dispute.
6. Prevents delays in asset protection planning.
A comprehensive power of attorney should include all of the powers required to do effective asset protection planning. If the power of attorney does not include a specific power, it can greatly dampen the agent's ability to complete the planning and could result in thousands of dollars lost. While some powers of attorney seem long, it is necessary to include all of the powers necessary to carry out proper planning.
7. Protects the agent from claims of financial abuse.
Comprehensive powers of attorney often allow the agent to make substantial gifts to self or others in order to carry out asset protection planning objectives. Without the power of attorney authorizing this, the agent (often a family member) could be at risk for financial abuse allegations.
8. Allows agents to talk to other agencies.
An agent under a power of attorney is often in the position of trying to reconcile bank charges, make arrangements for health care, engage professionals for services to be provided to the principal, and much more. Without a comprehensive power of attorney giving authority to the agent, many companies will refuse to disclose any information or provide services to the incapacitated person. This can result in a great deal of frustration on the part of the family, as well as lost time and money.
9. Allows an agent to perform planning and transactions to make the principal eligible for public benefits.
One could argue that transferring assets from the principal to others in order to make the principal eligible for public benefits--Medicaid and/or non-service-connected Veterans Administration benefits--is not in the best interests of the principal, but rather in the best interests of the transferees. In fact, one reason that a comprehensive durable power of attorney is essential in elder law is that a Judge may not be willing to authorize a conservator to protect assets for others while enhancing the ward/protected person's eligibility for public benefits. However, that may have been the wish of the incapacitated person and one that would remain unfulfilled if a power of attorney were not in place.
10. Provides peace of mind for everyone involved.
Taking the time to sign a power of attorney lessens the burden on family members who would otherwise have to go to court to get authority for performing basic tasks, like writing a check or arranging for home health services. Knowing this has been taken care of in advance is of great comfort to families.
This discussion of the Top 10 Benefits of a Comprehensive Power of Attorney could be expanded by many more. Which benefits are most important depends on the situation of the principal and their loved ones. This is why a comprehensive power of attorney is so essential: Nobody can predict exactly which powers will be needed in the future. The planning goal is to have a power of attorney in place that empowers a succession of trustworthy agents to do whatever needs to be done in the future. Please call us if we can be of assistance in any way or if you have any questions about durable powers of attorney.
Jeffrey C. Nickerson - Estate Planning Attorney - My Passion is Special Needs Planning!