If nothing prepares a person for parenting, consider how much harder it is to be prepared to raise a child with special needs. Parents often sink in uncharted waters. It’s not just a matter of negotiating all of the day-to-day details, says Newsday in the article “Be ‘biggest advocate’: Parents plan future for adult children with special needs.” Special needs families need to plan for what will happen as the parents age, become ill or die.
As an adult child with disabilities ages, eventually there will be medical issues. If the parents are gone, who will be able to make medical decisions? Where they live, who will oversee their finances and who will be there for them to rely on in a parenting role? There are many questions and they all need answering.
For one family, raising their special needs daughter was a full-time challenge. Their daughter, now 24, has autism. The couple sought out others in their same situation, noting that often even their own family members could not relate to their daily experiences.
It takes a village for special needs families to do more than survive. That includes estate planning and elder law attorneys with deep experience in special needs planning, social workers, therapists and medical professionals. Here’s what needs to be top-of-mind:
Don’t wait to plan. Families often think they have time, but you never know when unexpected events occur. Have a plan in place for legal guardianship, finances and health care.
Work with experienced legal help. You want to work with an attorney who has a great deal of experience and knowledge in special needs law and estate planning. Someone who dabbles on the side of a real estate practice is not the right professional for the task.
Stay in control. When children turn 18, they are adults. Parents and guardians will need to go through Surrogate’s Court to become the child’s guardian. Unless that is done, the parents and guardians will have no legal rights about the child’s medical, financial or other affairs. A successor guardian also needs to be named, so that when the parents are no longer able to serve, someone is in place to care for the child.
Create a Special Needs Trust. A trusts attorney with experience in Special Needs planning will be able to work with the family to create and structure a Special Needs Trust (SNT). A disabled person usually cannot earn enough to support himself, or the caregiver who remains at home to care for them and care-related expenses. The SNT helps to meet current needs and plan for future needs. The trust is used to preserve eligibility for any means-tested state and federal benefits. It allows the individual to have a better quality of life, by providing for expenses that are not covered by their benefits.
It’s very important that no assets be left to the child in an inheritance. Any assets must be placed in the trust. A well-meaning relative could put their eligibility for aid in jeopardy.
Parents and guardians also need to name a trustee and a successor trustee. The person needs to be competent, good with money management, organized and focused on caring for the loved one. It cannot be an emotional decision.
Parents of special needs children are advised to create a Letter of Intent, a narrative that outlines their child’s likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, activities and friends they enjoy and other details that will help them to continue an enjoyable life, when their parents are gone.
Parent’s own estate planning must be done with an eye to maintaining the SNT and caring for their other children. This is a case when assets need to be distributed in a realistic and fair manner. If one sibling is the successor trustee, for example, they may need a larger portion of an estate to help care for their sibling.
Reference: Newsday (May 9, 2019) “Be ‘biggest advocate’: Parents plan future for adult children with special needs.”
Suggested Key Terms: Special Needs Trust, Estate Planning, Elder Law Attorney, SNT, Guardian, Successor Guardian, Trustee