When Flexibility Matters in Special Needs Trusts

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Parents of a young child with special needs may be unable to assess whether their child will actually be eligible to receive government benefits in the future because of an inability to determine whether the child will be able to be self-supporting and earn income through employment as an adult. For example, children with Asperger’s Syndrome, mild autism and other issues may become part of the mainstream. Locking assets up in a special needs trust for the child’s benefit where assets are to be used for luxury items only may not be the best way of utilizing the assets towards the child’s care in those circumstances. In this situation, the parent’s estate plan can create the flexibility to reassess the situation in the future. The trust could initially be structured as a lifetime trust for the benefit of the child. The trustee could have the ability to make income and principal distributions to that child for health, education, maintenance and support purposes for the life of the child.

If, in the future, the trustee believes that the child has the financial savvy and wherewithal to handle the investments on his or her own, the trustee would always have the ability to make discretionary distributions of principal to the child or to terminate the trust entirely and distribute the assets to the child.

Alternatively, if the trustee determines in the future that the child cannot be self-supporting and would be eligible to receive government assistance, the trustee could have the flexibility to convert this trust at the time of that assessment to a special needs trust. The conversion would not require court consent and upon conversion, the trustee would have the ability to use trust assets for luxury items (items not otherwise covered by government assistance) such as equipment, vacation costs and therapies and any other expenses to supplement (but not replace) government benefits.

The family should be careful in assessing who is the best individual to serve as trustee of this trust as this person will be responsible for making the determination as to how this trust should be structured going forward. This flexible structure permits the child to achieve his or her potential allowing the trustee to use trust assets to enhance the child’s lifestyle, while ensuring that the trust will not create a impediment to the best care of the child where government assistance is needed in the future.

As the law continues to evolve on these matters, please note that this article is current as of date and time of publication and may not reflect subsequent developments. The content and interpretation of the issues addressed herein is subject to change. Cole Schotz P.C. disclaims any and all liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on any or all of the contents of this publication to the fullest extent permitted by law. This is for general informational purposes and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship. Do not act or refrain from acting upon the information contained in this publication without obtaining legal, financial and tax advice. For further information, please do not hesitate to reach out to your firm contact or to any of the attorneys listed in this publication.

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