Young father holding on to the hand of his special needs daughter

A special needs trust (SNT) is a powerful legal tool designed to benefit individuals who have physical or mental disabilities. These trusts hold and manage assets for the benefit of these individuals, providing supplementary support while preserving their eligibility for important government programs. Establishing an SNT can be especially beneficial for parents, grandparents, or guardians of children with disabilities, as well as adults who become disabled later in life, ensuring their needs are met without disrupting access to critical resources. Whether you’re planning for the future care of a loved one or managing a personal injury settlement, an SNT can offer essential financial protection and peace of mind.

Types of Special Needs Trusts

There are two common types of special needs trusts:

  • First-Party Special Needs Trusts: Also known as a Self-Settled Trust, a First-Party SNT  is created using the assets of the disabled individual. These assets often come from a legal settlement, inheritance, or accumulated wealth. The trust allows the beneficiary to maintain access to public assistance programs because the trust assets are not considered as directly owned by them. However, a crucial aspect to note is the “payback” provision. Upon the death of the beneficiary, any remaining trust assets must be used to repay the government for Medicaid benefits received during their lifetime.
  • Third-Party Special Needs Trusts: Third-Party SNTs are established and funded by someone other than the beneficiary, such as a parent, grandparent, or other loved one. These trusts are often set up as part of an estate planning strategy to provide for a disabled individual without interfering with their eligibility for government benefits. Unlike First-Party SNTs, Third-Party Trusts do not contain a Medicaid payback provision. This means that upon the death of the beneficiary, any remaining assets in the trust can be distributed to other family members or charities as stipulated by the original trust grantor, without any obligation to repay the state.

Benefits of a Special Needs Trust

A special needs trust is a vital tool for safeguarding the financial well-being and quality of life of individuals with disabilities. These trusts can provide supplemental funds for necessities that go beyond the basics covered by governmental assistance, including expenses related to education, therapy, personal care attendants, recreation, and more. By not directly owning these assets, the disabled individual can retain their eligibility for essential public benefits like Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which have strict asset and income limits.

Moreover, establishing an SNT can offer comfort to families or caregivers of individuals with disabilities. Parents or guardians of children with special needs, for instance, often worry about their child’s future financial security, especially after the parents or guardians are no longer around. An SNT ensures that their loved one will continue to receive the financial support necessary for a comfortable life, without the risk of disrupting government benefits. 

Setting Up a Special Needs Trust

Setting up an SNT is a legal process that necessitates the expertise of an attorney well-versed in disability and estate planning laws. The attorney can guide you through the legalities, including drafting the trust document that clearly outlines the purpose of the trust, details about the trustee, and the conditions under which the trust assets can be used for the beneficiary. It’s crucial that the trust document is carefully structured to ensure it complies with federal and state laws to maintain the beneficiary’s eligibility for public benefits.

Choosing a trustee is a critical aspect of setting up an SNT. The trustee, who can be a family member, friend, or professional trust manager, is responsible for managing the trust assets and making distributions on behalf of the beneficiary. This person must have the knowledge and integrity to handle financial matters, as well as a deep understanding of the beneficiary’s needs and public benefit rules. 

Funding and Distributing Assets from a Special Needs Trust

Funding an SNT can be achieved through various sources, making it a flexible estate planning tool. Parents or relatives may contribute assets like money, real estate, or investments to the trust. Alternatively, the trust could be funded with the beneficiary’s own assets, particularly in the case of a first-party SNT, often from sources such as a legal settlement or an inheritance. It’s important to note, however, that funding methods could have tax implications, so it’s crucial to consult with a tax professional or an attorney during the process.

The distribution of assets from an SNT is regulated carefully to prevent disqualification of the beneficiary from their government assistance programs. The trustee is tasked with making distributions in a way that supplements, not supplants, public benefits. This can include paying for out-of-pocket medical expenses, education, therapies, personal care attendants, recreational activities, and other needs enhancing the beneficiary’s quality of life. Because direct cash distributions to the beneficiary could be counted as income, and thus potentially affect benefit eligibility, the trustee typically pays vendors directly for goods and services used by the beneficiary. Understanding these restrictions is key to effectively managing and distributing assets from an SNT.

Florida Estate Planning Attorney

If you believe your loved one might benefit from a special needs trust, talk to the estate planning team at Verras Law. The peace of mind provided by having a trusted legal professional navigate this complex process is invaluable and can allow families to feel confident that their loved ones will be cared for, both now and in the future. Contact Verras Law today.