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Planning for a Child with Special Needs

  • June 28th, 2013

Americans are living longer than they did in years past, including those with disabilities. According to one count, 730,000 people with developmental disabilities living with caregivers who are 60 or older. This figure does not include adult children with other forms of disability nor those who live separately, but still depend on their families for vital support.

When these caregivers can no longer care for their children due to their own disability or death, the responsibility often falls on siblings, other family members, and the community. In many cases, expenses increase dramatically when care and guidance provided by parents must instead be provided by a professional for a fee.

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Planning by parents can make all the difference in the life of the child with a disability, as well as that of his or her siblings who may be left with the responsibility for caretaking (on top of their own careers and caring for their own families and, possibly, ailing parents). Any plan should include the following components:

  • A plan of care that carefully establishes where the child with special needs will live, who will be responsible for assisting the person with special needs with decision making and who will monitor the person with special needs' care.  It will help everyone involved if the parents create a written statement of their wishes for their child's care. They know him better than anyone else. They can explain what helps, what hurts, what scares their child (who, of course, is an adult), and what reassures him. When the parents are gone, their knowledge will go with them unless they pass it on.
  • At least one type of special needs trust.  In almost all cases where a parent will leave funds at death to a disabled child, this should be done in the form of a trust. Trusts set up for the care of a disabled child generally are called "supplemental" or "special" needs trusts.  Trusts designed to aid a person with special needs are commonly known as "special needs trusts".  There are three main types of special needs trusts: the first-party trust, the third-party trust, and the pooled trust. All three name the person with special needs as the beneficiary, but they differ in several significant ways, and each type of trust can be useful in its own way.  Choosing a trustee is also an important issue in supplemental needs trusts. Most people do not have the expertise to manage a trust, even if they are family members, and so a professional trustee may be a wise choice. For those who may be uncomfortable with the idea of an outsider managing a loved one's affairs, it is possible to simultaneously appoint a trust "protector," who has the power to review accounts and to hire and fire trustees, and a trust "advisor," who instructs the trustee on the beneficiary's needs. 
  • Life insurance.  A parent with a child with special needs should consider buying life insurance to fund the supplemental needs trust set up for the child's support. What may look like a substantial sum to leave in trust today may run out after several years of paying for care that the parent had previously provided. The more resources available, the better the support that can be provided the child. And if both parents are alive, the cost of "second-to-die" insurance--payable only when the second of the two parents passes away--can be surprisingly low.

For more on special needs trusts and special needs planning, visit our SpecialNeedsAnswers Web site at www.specialneedsanswers.com. While some ElderLawAnswers attorneys practice in this area of the law, all attorneys listed on SpecialNeedsAnswers devote a significant part of their practices to working with individuals with special needs and with their families to plan for the future.


Last Modified: 06/28/2013
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