Q&A: Special needs trust

Dear Liz: Your suggestions about resources to help a parent with an emotionally ill adult child were very helpful. But from a financial standpoint, don’t you think you should have discussed a special needs trust for the time when the parent dies? Whatever assets she has, most likely her home, should be put in this trust to protect her son’s eligibility for government benefits (Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid, for example). An inheritance could jeopardize his eligibility for these programs. It will be overseen by a responsible party and can never be taken as part of a potential lawsuit. This is something I recommend to my clients as a geriatric social worker.

Answer: Thank you for the suggestion. Given the brevity of this column, it’s impossible to cover all potential angles to every situation. In this case, there was no indication that the son was receiving government benefits or that his mother had sufficient assets to be concerned about an inheritance.

That wouldn’t be unusual. One study for the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 46% of Americans have less than $10,000 in financial assets when they die. Many single-person households (57%) have no home equity.

Still, even a small inheritance can disqualify someone from SSI, and losing access to Medicaid health coverage would be catastrophic for people who depend on the program. So parents who have both an heir who needs these programs and assets that might outlive them should discuss a special needs trust with an estate-planning attorney.

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