Planning for the future: Understanding special needs trusts and other benefits

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As part of ManchesterInkLink’s collaboration with The New Hampshire Challenge, we’re pleased to provide the feature on special needs trusts


When it comes to planning for one’s future, particularly when setting up wills and trusts, attorney Ann N. Butenhof stresses that preparation and the process of truly understanding one’s assets and benefits is critical.

“If there’s a first step, or the first part of advice we offer, it’s knowing what your family has,” said Butenhof.  “That includes financial assets, income and any sort public assistance you are receiving.” Butenhof, who specializes in elder and special needs law, added that often people want to set up a plan but don’t fully know what they own or what type of benefits they currently receive.

Ann Butenhof

And when it comes to a family member who has a disability and is on some form of government assistance -supplemental security income (SSI) for example-getting the estate planning process done the right way is crucial.  “Unless a family has made specific provisions in estate planning for the person on disability, their benefits could be disrupted if they access an inheritance, for instance,” Butenhof added. If a family has not made proper provisions, the loss of public benefits such as Medicaid or SSI could cause the family unnecessary harm.

The good news is that with proper planning and some foresight, families can both protect their assets and preserve government benefits through the development of what is known as Third-Party Special Needs Trust (SNT).  By setting up the Trust and assigning a trustee to manage the portion of an inheritance due a person getting needs-based disability benefits, benefits will not be terminated.

“This truly represents the best of both worlds,” said Rick Blais, a financial advisor and Vice President with Primerica, Inc. “It is also recommended that beyond the trustee, families also identify a successor trustee.” Butenhof added that when developing a trust, roles and responsibilities are identified for the Trustee or possible “trust protector” – almost like a job description – so that the there is no ambiguity.

While many families understand what a 529 college savings plan is, many are unaware of ABLE accounts, says Butenhoff.  Created with the passage of the Stephen Beck Jr. Achieving a Better Life Experience Act of 2014, a.k.a. the ABLE Act, ABLE accounts are tax-advantaged savings plans specifically designed for individuals with disabilities and their families.  After-tax contributions to the account- up to $15,000 a year per account from all sources-can be made by anyone and interest or investment income is tax free to the individual with disabilities.

Rick Blais

The state-specific ABLE plan has been available to NH families since 2017 and can be used to support children up to age 26.  Known as the STABLE NH plan in the Granite State, plan resources can be used for a broad range of areas including housing and living expenses, education, healthcare, assistive technology, transportation, employment training and financial management. The use of ABLE funds is not countable “income” for public benefits eligibility, whereas if a parent helped by paying a child’s rent directly, that assistance would be counted as income to the child and potentially decrease benefits.  Butenhof added that among the criteria for enrollment, the dependent child needs to be certified as disabled prior to their 26th birthday.  She calls this benefit a “game changer” for families in need, providing them with a way to preserve benefits and plan for the future.

Both Butenhof and Blais are active as volunteers in the NH’s non-profit community and as such, are keenly aware of the value of the local social services safety net.  Beyond the legal and financial planning families need, they point to the many benefits of support groups, resources and other services available to families in need. “The more you learn and know, the better you can advocate for your loved one,” said Butenhof.

Blais noted that by involving an attorney and financial planning in the process, families can cover all the bases when developing estate plans.  As in the case with any household, Blais also recommends developing a budget to ensure the needs of a family member with a disability are met. This includes viewing assistance as income, deducting expenses for health care, living expenses or other related issues.  This level of planning also supports the “big picture” process when a SNT is developed, he said.

Families wanting to engage in financial and special needs trusts planning are often asked to fill out a questionnaire as a starting point and from there, meet with professionals to discuss their specific plan needs.  Generally, the process can be completed in four to six weeks. “This type of planning does take some time, which is why some people put it off,” said Blais. “But it’s well worth the effort.”


Resources:

NH Governor’s Commission on Disability: https://www.nh.gov/disability/,

Ann Butenhof: https://www.butenhofbomster.com/;

Rick Blais: http://www.primerica.com/rickblais