As you may have heard, Congress enacted the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act of 2014 (the “ABLE Act”) on December 19, 2014. Many have deemed this a monumental step toward the betterment of the lives of individuals faced with mental and/or physical disabilities. While many experts would agree this piece of legislation is several years too late, Congress’ decision to move this legislation forward is a huge victory for those families that must deal with physical and mental disabilities of their loved ones on a daily basis.
Overview of the ABLE Act
The purpose behind this Act is two-fold: (1) assistand provide families and individuals with disabilities certain private savings funds designed to support health, independence, and quality of life; and (2) provide secure funds that are designed to supplement, but not supplant, benefits provided through private insurance, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid, the beneficiary’s employment, and other sources of income.
People that have a disability tend to depend on a multitude of public benefits for assistance with health care, food, housing, education, etc. To maintain eligibility for these public benefits, certain resource and income thresholds must bemet. Generally, an individual cannot have cash savings, retirement funds, etc. in excess of $2,000. This maximum amount is very small when compared to the additional costs of living that are not covered by governmental programs.
Prior to the enactment of the ABLE Act, generally, the only means of assisting disabled individuals was through the use of Special Needs Trusts (Special Needs Trust). For many families, the complexities and costs associated with creating and administering a Special Needs Trust might seem to outweigh the benefit of using a Special Needs Trust. The ABLE Act provides a new tool to allow families to provide a better quality of life for their loved one.
An individual with a disability may now continue to qualify for public benefits while owning assets held in an ABLE account.
These funds held in an ABLE Account do not have any of the restrictions commonly placed on assets held in trusts (i.e. the funds cannot be used to pay for housing or food). Specifically, the ABLE Act allows any funds held in the account to be used for education, housing, transportation, employment training and support, assistive technology and personal support services, health, prevention and wellness, financial management and administrative services, legal fees, and expenses for oversight and monitoring, funeral and burial expenses.
An ABLE account is disregarded for eligibility determination purposes for means-tested federal programs. However, individuals receiving SSI will have their benefits reduced/suspended for distributions attributable to housing expenses. Also, if the account balance exceeds $100,000, the SSI payments will be suspendedfor the period in which the assets exceed the threshold. However, an account with assets in excess of $100,000 does not suspend or affect Medicaid eligibility of such person.
Requirements for Establishing an ABLE Account
To qualify for the ABLE Account program, the individual must have “significant disabilities” that began before the individual’s 26thbirthday. If the person meets this age requirement and is already receiving government benefits (SSI and/or SSDI) he or she is automatically eligible to establishan ABLE Account. (Disability Evaluation). Even if the individualis not receiving SSI or SSDI, he or she may be able to qualify for an ABLE Account through a certification process if the SSI criteria regarding significant functional limitations are met.
The age requirement only applies to the onset date of the disability, so those individuals that are over 26 may still qualify for an ABLE Account so long as the onset date of the disability was prior to the individual’s 26th birthday.
When Can an ABLE Account be Established?
Even though Congress passed the ABLE Act, it will be several months before ABLE Accounts are fully functional. Congress has instructed the Department of the Treasury to create regulations specific to ABLE Accounts to make sure proper procedures and oversight are in place. Once these regulations are provided, the states will then have the ability to establish ABLE Accounts and ensure the accounts are in compliance with the governing regulations.
Limitations on the ABLE Accounts
By statute, ABLE Accounts are a type 529 Plan. The statutorily created 529 College Savings Plans (see http://www.collegesavingsmd.org/ for information on Maryland specific 529 Plans) are established by each state in accordance with federal mandates. Just like the traditional 529 Plans, states most likely will take a similar approach in establishing ABLE Accounts. We can expect that states will place limits on the maximum account balances and will place limits on annual contributions to the accounts. For instance, several states have set maximum 529 Plan account balances at around $300,000 per plan. The state also may limit the Annual contribution limit, generally this limit is set in accordance with the annual Gift Tax exemption (currently$14,000). Thus, an individual could make a maximum contribution to the 529 Plan of $14,000. Any contribution over the $14,000 limit may disqualify the 529 Plan and create potential negative tax consequences.
Specific to ABLE Accounts, this “new” 529 Plan will also include limits discussed in the overview section to maintain the account as a disregarded asset.
Unfortunately, any funds remaining in an ABLE account after the beneficiary dies must first be paid back to Medicaid for all services provided during the individual’s lifetime prior to distribution of the funds to others. After Medicaid expenses are satisfied, any remaining funds would then be distributed by the individual’s established beneficiary designations, Last Will and Testament, or intestacy law.
While traditional models for planning and providing for disabled individuals (i.e. Special Needs Trusts) will remain a key fixture for many families, the ABLE Act has provided a unique mechanism that can supplement and fill-in the gaps where families are concerned with the costs and expenses associated with those traditional planning alternatives.
By Jeffrey K. Gordon