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How do financial planning and estate issues differ for families with special-needs members?

“Everyone in your family needs to know the ramifications of their actions.”

Most of us, when we hear the term special needs, almost automatically add the word children or kids. But special-needs family members come in all shapes, sizes, ages and relationships. And according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report, of the 72.3 million families included in the survey, about two in every seven reported having at least one member with a disability.

If your family is one of those two in seven, you already know the day-to-day challenges that exist alongside the love and care these loved ones need. But you may not know that there is a greater urgency in crafting a solid financial and estate plan when your family includes a special-needs member. So, as a first step in that process, here we will present eight essential planning steps to take to protect and provide for not only those with special needs but also all members of the family.

1. Write a will.

You should seek out an attorney who specializes in special needs. Contacting either the Academy of Special Needs Planners or the Special Needs Alliance is a good place to start. For example, the organization Autism Speaks alone lists 69 qualified attorneys just in New York.

2. Create a special-needs trust.

All money or assets for your special needs family member, including gifts, insurance settlements and so on, should go into a trust. And set it up ASAP, even if there are no assets to fund it now. This avoids your family member potentially losing federal benefits such as Medicaid and Social Security income. As little as $2,000 in assets in a child’s or adult’s name can disqualify that person for federal benefits.

3. Name a guardian.

This is not only necessary for children under 18; it is often recommended for special-needs family members over 18, too. Before choosing a guardian, discuss your wishes with the individual and make sure he or she has the time, patience and disposition to make what may be a lifetime commitment.

4. Apply for guardianship/power of attorney.

Whatever their age, when it is determined that special-needs family members cannot make important decisions for themselves, appointing a guardian for them involves a legal process. So, best to start now.

5. Name a trustee.

Guardians take care of the person. Trustees take care of the person’s finances. A trustee will manage the special-needs trust after your death. Whether a family member or a trusted professional like a bank or an attorney, a trustee will invest a special-needs family member’s assets and protect and disburse them as necessary.

6. Put your instructions in writing.

Who knows better than you what your special-needs family member, well, needs? But you must share that knowledge, write it down, in as much detail as possible—from your family member’s daily schedule to favorite foods, to meds dosages and frequencies, to important phone numbers, to contact information for everyone in the caring universe: doctors, guardians, trustees, schools, teachers, friends and so on. And update the list frequently.

7. Educate your family.

Best practices for caring for a special-needs family member should not be kept a secret. Everyone in your family needs to know the ramifications of their actions, such as holding a secret savings account in that person’s name, which could disqualify the member from getting government benefits.

And finally…

8. Find a qualified financial advisor.

Don’t try to do this all by yourself. Find an advisor well versed in all the nuances of special-needs planning, like 529ABLE for education and life insurance plans. And just as important, whatever the age or needs of this family member, for their good, your good and the good of your family, do it now.

Read More from GGM Wealth Management Group at Morgan Stanley

Family MattersWealth Management

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