Can the Beneficiary of a Special Needs Trust Change the Trustee?

The beneficiary of a special needs trust can never control or access trust funds – that is the job of the trustee. A common fear among beneficiaries or their families is that the trustee may not do what’s in the beneficiary’s best interests and that, if this happens, the beneficiary may not be able to do anything about it.

Choosing the right person to serve as trustee is one of the most important and difficult issues in creating a special needs trust. If you haven’t chosen wisely, problems can emerge. The trustee might be incompetent in administering the trust and thus jeopardize the beneficiary’s public benefits, be unresponsive to the beneficiary’s needs, or even take improper fees from the trust. Or, the beneficiary and the trustee simply might not get along. Can the beneficiary of a special needs trust do anything about the actions, or inactions, of the trustee?

The short answer is “yes.” First, the law generally charges a trustee of a special needs trust with the usual duties of any trustee, plus other specific obligations. Usually, the trustee has an affirmative duty to inquire into the needs and welfare of the beneficiary, to communicate with the beneficiary and other involved individuals, and to make certain that the beneficiary maintains eligibility for public benefit programs.

If the beneficiary has grounds to believe that the trustee is not acting according to the law, the beneficiary generally has the right to petition a court to remove the trustee and bring related actions to address the trustee’s conduct. Some states allow out-of-court ways to initiate a change of trustee. For example, in Pennsylvania, the beneficiary, or his or her representative, can draft a settlement agreement with the trustee to replace that trustee. As long as the change in trustee does not violate the essential purpose of the trust, the document is binding without going to court. However, these procedures, whether in or out of court, can be time-consuming and costly, and in some cases, merely “not getting along” with the trustee may not be enough to justify removal. Moreover, the beneficiary may not have the wherewithal to initiate the action or the legal capacity to do so. Generally, in court proceedings, the beneficiary must be able to understand what’s going on and assist in the legal representation.

To avoid these types of obstacles, a special needs planner may draft the trust document to include mechanisms for removing a trustee (including defining reasons for trustee removal). The trust can also include provisions for trustee resignation, the appointment of successor trustees, and the appointment of a “trust protector.” The trust protector is a person or entity chosen by the person setting up the trust to keep an eye on the trustee’s performance, usually with the right to remove the trustee and appoint a new one. Even though there is no need to anticipate trustee misconduct, appointing a trust protector is a recommended way to provide an extra level of protection to the beneficiary. However, the rights and procedures for changing trustees vary from state to state. Therefore, the best way to build in protections that allow for the replacement of a trustee gone bad is to consult with a qualified special needs planner.

President Signs Special Needs Trust Fairness Act

The 21st Century Cures Act, which includes the Special Needs Trust Fairness Act has passed both the House and Senate and was signed by President Obama on December 13, 2016.  Individuals with disabilities, who have capacity, can create their own first party special needs trusts (sometimes called (d)(4)(A) trusts as they are established under 42 U.S.C. s. 1396p(d)(4)(A)). The federal statute prior to this legislation only allowed a special needs trust to be established for a person with a disability by the person’s parent, grandparent, guardian, or by a court.

The individual that would benefit the most from the trust, the beneficiary, however could not establish the trust themselves. The law as it was written presumed that all individuals with disabilities lack the mental capacity to establish a trust. The Special Needs Trust Fairness Act will end this presumption. No longer will individuals in need of a special needs trust, but without parents or grandparents, face undue legal difficulties.

The assets held within a special needs trust are considered to be non-countable for purposes of eligibility for means-tested public benefits, including Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid. The Special Needs Trust Fairness Act, along with the recent ABLE account, give individuals more options to managing their own financial affairs.

Please click here for our post on the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act, or ABLE account.

Planning With Special Needs Trusts

When your estate plan includes family or friends with special needs, care must be taken.  As the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program is means tested, beneficiaries are allowed only $2,000 in countable assets to retain eligibility.  Although Social Security allows beneficiaries to have one house and one car, any other assets over $2,000 will be countable and affect eligibility.  Therefore, if you leave money to a loved one who is receiving SSI or Medicaid benefits, there is a good chance it will affect their eligibility.  More importantly, it may affect the medical insurance they receive as part of their benefits.

One option to consider when your estate plan includes special needs family members is a Special Needs or Supplemental Needs Trust.  With this option, instead of leaving your assets directly to your loved one, you leave it to the Special Needs Trust for their benefit.  If the trust is properly drafted, the beneficiary can benefit from the assets without affecting their eligibility for Medicaid or SSI.  This type of Special Needs Trust is a Third Party Special Needs Trust.  Another type of Special Needs Trust is the Self-Settled Special Needs Trust, which will not be discussed as part of this post.

[Read more…]

Financial Planning For Families With Special Needs

ESSENTIAL STEPS TO ACCOMPLISH YOUR GOAL

  • Start Early and Get Help –  Lack of planning may have disastrous consequences.  Planning for special needs families often involves several  financial, legal and benefits-related strategies.  Assembling a team of qualified professionals to advise you will take time.  A financial advisor, estate planning attorney, benefits coordinator, trustee/trust company, family physician/registered nurse, and of course family members may all need to be involved in the ultimate plan.
  • Establish a Special Needs Trust – If you’re receiving government sponsored benefits, a gift or inheritance may cause a disqualification of those benefits.  A frequently asked question  is how to provide for a family member with special needs without jeopardizing those government benefits.  Parents may purchase life insurance to be paid out to a special needs trust.  They may also designate the special needs trust as a beneficiary in a will, trust or retirement account.  The funds designated to the special needs trust at death may be used to supplement the special needs family member without jeopardizing their benefits.
  • Draft a Letter of Intent – How can you be assured that proper care will be given to your child? You’ve established a special needs trust  to provide financial assistance when you’re gone, but have you named  a person that will assume the role of guardian or caregiver?  Do they know the name and address of your child’s physician?  Do they know their therapies, procedure and medication schedule?  Do they know their faith and where they attend religious services?  Answers to these and many other questions should be discussed and memorialized to ensure the best possible care for your child.
  • Consider Life Insurance – Someone, most likely a family member, will have to step in to act as a guardian and raise your child.  In all likelihood, that family member will have to pay for some of the services the parents had provided when able.  If the estate was not large enough, life insurance can provide the needed funds to help defray the cost of care.
  • Review Often – Many changes will occur during the course of your life.  Reviewing your plan annually will ensure everything is up to date to give you the peace of mind your family is taken care of.

Use Care When Planning For Special Needs Children

Being a parent comes with great joy but significant responsibility.  It is no different for parents of children with special needs. In some situations, careful planning can be critical to address a family’s financial needs.  Parents must not only plan to care for their children during their lives, but they must also take steps to ensure they have a plan in place if their child is not able to support or care for themselves when they are gone.  When is the right time to plan?  It is never too early to begin to plan for your child’s care.  As housing and work options may be limited when persons with disabilities reach the age of majority, financial planning must be addressed to ensure there are assets available to cover the long term costs to care for your child. 

COMMON MISTAKES

  • If your child is receiving government benefits, naming your child as a direct beneficiary may disqualify them for needed benefits
  • Disinheriting your child, or directing your special needs child’s inheritance to another family member with the understanding the money will be used to care for your child should be considered with exreme caution.  A lawsuit, divorce, or bankruptcy would subject the assets earmarked for the care of your child to great risk
  • Failing to name a dedicated trustee that will be involved in the life of the child. Naming a trustee to merely distribute the assets, and have no other involvement in the child’s life, may not be the best option

One effective planning tool is the use of a special needs trust.  A special needs trust holds assets earmarked for the costs of caring for your special needs child and distribute those assets for the benefit of your child without jeopardizing eligibility for government benefits.  A comprehensive and often reviewed estate plan will ensure that your special needs child is cared for when you are no longer able to.