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Are You Ready for ABLE?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

As you may have heard, Congress enacted the Candy Machine 100 Dollar Bills 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) assist and 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 be met. 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 suspended for 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 26th birthday. If the person meets this age requirement and is already receiving government benefits (SSI and/or SSDI) he or she is automatically eligible to establish an ABLE Account. (Disability Evaluation) Even if the individual is 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 is 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.

Final Thoughts

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.

What is so “Special” about a Special Needs Trust?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Problem. You have a disabled child who is currently receiving need-based public assistance such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid. Your child is receiving those benefits because he or she is disabled and because he or she does not have sufficient income and resources. As a parent, you want to make sure that your child is provided for after your death. This is especially true in the case of a disabled child. Your plan to provide for your disabled child probably includes a life insurance policy in addition to assets you have accumulated over your life time. But what happens to your child’s eligibility for SSI and Medicaid if they suddenly receive a significant amount of money in the form of inheritance and life insurance proceeds. The answer is that your child will lose the monthly SSI check and, more importantly, health insurance coverage through Medicaid. Is there a way to provide for your disabled child after your death without endangering their public disability benefits?

The Solution. The Special Needs Trust (SNT) is the answer. If your Will and beneficiary designations direct the assets into a properly drafted SNT, your disabled child will continue to receive their SSI and Medicaid coverage.

To understand how this works, first we need to discuss trusts in general. A trust is just an agreement between a grantor (the one with the money or property) and a trustee in which the trustee agrees to accept and hold money (or other property) for the benefit of someone else. Commonly parents, instead of giving assets to a minor, will give assets to a trustee who will hold the property or money for the minor until the minor reaches an appropriate age. Until the child reaches that age, the trustee will be tasked with using the money for the minor’s benefit. (See Avoid Naming Your Minor Children As Beneficiaries)

A SNT is a special type of trust created by statute. 42 U.S.C. §1396p(d)(4). If the requirements of the statute are followed, any money (or other property) put into the SNT will not be considered an available resource to a disabled beneficiary. Thus, the trust property will not cause the disabled beneficiary to lose their SSI and Medicaid.

Key Features of a Special Needs Trust

1. Beneficiary has no right to demand assets

The disabled beneficiary can have no right to demand any income or principal from the trust. This is the key feature. If the disabled beneficiary could demand payment, then the money in the trust would be available to the disabled beneficiary and thus the entire amount of the trust would be used to disqualify the person for SSI and Medicaid.

Thus in a SNT, the trustee must have complete discretion to use the money as they see fit. The disabled beneficiary can ask for whatever they want but the trustee has the ultimate authority whether not to expend the trust income or principal.

2. Trust funds cannot be used for basic necessities

The second key feature of a SNT is that the trustee cannot use the trust assets to pay for services being provided for by public assistance. The monthly SSI check is for the basic necessities of clothing, food and shelter. Thus the trust cannot be used for clothing, food or shelter. Then what can we do with the trust? The answer is everything else. The trust could be used to pay for a car, a computer, a vacation, etc. Think of the trust as a tool to enhance the quality of the disabled beneficiary’s life. It is not a mechanism to pay for their basic needs which are, theoretically, being taken care of by SSI and Medicaid.

Different Types of Special Needs Trusts

1. Self settled

A self settled SNT is one in which the disabled person’s own money (or money to which the disabled person is entitled) is being used to fund the trust. Examples of self settled SNTs are where the trust is funded with:

a recovery in a personal injury lawsuit,
a settlement of a workers’ compensation claim, or
an inheritance.

In each of these examples, the disabled person is entitled to the funds being used to create the trust.

There are two disadvantages to this type of SNT. First, it typically will require approval. In Maryland, the trust has to be approved by the State Attorney General and, most likely, a circuit court. This is expensive and time consuming. The second disadvantage occurs at the death of the disabled beneficiary. If the disabled beneficiary had used Medicaid at any point during their life, Medicaid will have to be paid back out of the remaining trust assets before any money can be distributed to heirs. This is referred to as a payback provision.

Unfortunately, the self settled SNT is the only real option for personal injury recoveries and workers’ compensation settlements. This is not the case with inheritances. If the parent (or any other person) plans ahead, they can create a third party SNT prior to death and avoid both the approval process and payback.

2. Third party

In contrast with a self settled trust, a third party trust is funded with money coming from somebody else – not the disabled person. The most common third party SNT is when a parent creates a SNT for their disabled child. They money is the parent’s money, not the child’s money. The third party SNT is preferred over a self settled SNT for two reasons. First, approval is not required. So, for instance, a parent could draft a SNT into their Will and it never has to be approved by anyone. Second, there is no payback required. The terms of the SNT will determine who gets the remaining trust assets at the disabled beneficiary’s death.

3. Pooled

In a pooled SNT, a non profit organization (NPO) has already drafted a SNT and had it approved by the appropriate state officials. Disabled persons can then join the SNT. The NPO keeps a separate account for each beneficiary but pools the money together for investment purposes. The NPO serves as the trustee. The pooled SNT has some distinct advantages. First, there is no need to get the trust approved. This can save significant time and expense. Second, the NPO handles all of the investment and generally earns a better rate of return because the assets are pooled. Third, the NPO’s trustees are well versed in SNT law and understand what types of expenses can and cannot be paid to ensure that the disabled person remains on SSI and Medicaid.

In conclusion, any parent of a disabled child should seriously consider creating an SNT to protect your child’s right to future public assistance. Once the SNT is established you would then just make sure that all assets go to the SNT at your death instead of to your disabled child directly. So in your Will, you need to direct your assets to the SNT, not the disabled child. For all the non probate assets (life insurance, 401ks, etc), you need to remove your disabled child as the beneficiary and instead designate the SNT. 

Power of Attorney: Why Should I Give My Agent the Power to Make Gifts?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The idea behind a Durable General Power of Attorney (POA) is to appoint someone (your agent) who can manage your financial affairs if you (the principal) are unable to do so. The overwhelming majority of the language in the document describes the various things that your agent can do. Most POAs (including mine) contain language to allow the agent to make gifts on the principal’s behalf. After receiving their draft POAs, my clients will often call asking why we are allowing their agent to give their stuff away! This post explains the purpose of the gifting power.

Exhaustive List of Powers

If you have ever read a POA, you know that it should be prescribed as a cure for insomnia. The POA is basically an exhaustive list of all the various things that your agent can do on your behalf. For example, your agent can:

  • sell any interest I own in any kind of property, real or personal, tangible or intangible,
  • buy any kind of property,
  • invest and reinvest all or any part of my property, and
  • may enter into contracts of any type and for any purpose.

And the list goes on . . . and on, and on. Our standard POA is 28 pages long, single spaced!

The goal of the POA is to give your agent the power to do anything that they might need to do. As we cannot predict the future, we are uncertain as to what they may need to do. So we attempt to give them the power to do everything. Unfortunately the law does not allow us to have a simple document that just reads “I give my agent the power to do everything that I could do.” If a power is not specifically given to an agent, they don’t have that power. As a result, we get 28 page POAs that list every conceivable power that your agent may need to have.

Gifting Power

The power to make gifts will likely be one of a long list of enumerated powers. The purpose of giving your agent this power is in case you need to be qualified for Medicaid. Medicaid is a state and federal program that can be used to pay for nursing home care. In order to be eligible for Medicaid in the state of Maryland, your resources (stuff you own) must be less than $2,500. In order to become eligible, your property may need to be given away – hence the gifting power.

Here’s a typical scenario. Your mother has dementia and needs to go into a nursing home. When your mother was younger, she named you as her agent in her POA. Your mother has saved $200,000 over her lifetime with the hope of leaving a substantial inheritance to her children. At $10,000 a month for nursing home care, if your mother stays in the nursing home for 2 years there will be no inheritance for the children. All of the money she had saved during her life will go to the nursing home with none going to her children.

This is where the gifting power in the POA comes into play. A competent Elder Law attorney may be able to assist you in gifting away a portion of the assets to the children in order to qualify your mother for Medicaid. (Note: this is not as simple as simply giving the assets away. You must have qualified legal help to navigate the Medicaid gifting and penalty period rules.) Once qualified, Medicaid will pay for the ongoing nursing home care and your mother will be able to leave an inheritance to her children. Without the gifting power in the POA, this option would not have been available.

Some of my clients are concerned that the gifting power could be used to, in effect, steal from them. My responses to that concern are threefold. First, it is important to understand that the powers that you give to your agents are only to be used for your benefit. Second, bad people certainly exist who would use the powers in a POA to steal. These people would probably be stealing from the principal regardless of the existence of a gifting power. Third, the gifting power isn’t the problem, the choice of agent is. So long as the agent you choose is 100% trustworthy, there should be no problems.


Are You Ready For ABLE?

Friday, February 06, 2015

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.

Final Thoughts

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

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