Special needs trusts allow individuals with disabilities to qualify for need-based government assistance while maintaining access to additional assets which can be used to pay for expenses not covered by such government benefits. If the trust is set up correctly, the beneficiary will not risk losing eligibility for government benefits such as Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) because of income or asset levels which exceed their eligibility limits.
Special needs trusts generally fall within one of two categories: self-settled or third-party trusts. The difference is based on whose assets were used to fund the trust. A self-settled trust is one that is funded with the disabled person's own assets, such as an inheritance, a personal injury settlement or accumulated wealth. If the disabled beneficiary ever had the legal right to use the money without restriction, the trust is most likely self-settled.
On the other hand, a third-party trust is established by and funded with assets belonging to someone other than the beneficiary.
Ideally, an inheritance for the benefit of a disabled individual should be left through third-party special needs trust. Otherwise, if the inheritance is left outright to the disabled beneficiary, a trust can often be set up by a court at the request of a conservator or other family member to hold the assets and provide for the beneficiary without affecting his or her eligibility for government benefits.
The treatment and effect of a particular trust will differ according to which category the trust falls under.
A self-settled trust:
- Must include a provision that, upon the beneficiary's death, the state Medicaid agency will be reimbursed for the cost of benefits received by the beneficiary.
- May significantly limit the kinds of payments the trustee can make, which can vary according to state law.
- May require an annual accounting of trust expenditures to the state Medicaid agency.
- May cause the beneficiary to be deemed to have access to trust income or assets, if rules are not followed exactly, thereby jeopardizing the beneficiary's eligibility for SSI or Medicaid benefits.
- Will be taxed as if its assets still belonged to the beneficiary.
- May not be available as an option for disabled individuals over the age of 65.
A third-party settled special needs trust:
- Can pay for shelter and food for the beneficiary, although these expenditures may reduce the beneficiary's eligibility for SSI payments.
- Can be distributed to charities or other family members upon the disabled beneficiary's death.
- Can be terminated if the beneficiary's condition improves and he or she no longer requires the assistance of SSI or Medicaid, and the remaining balance will be distributed to the beneficiary.