Planning for special needs beneficiaries is highly complex, a mixture of making challenging care decisions and managing limited resources. Many families will try to save assets on behalf of a special needs beneficiary to provide further support, but if not coordinated properly, can actually disqualify the beneficiary from Federal and state aid programs, including SSI and Medicaid.
The primary solution – establishing a (third-party) supplemental special needs trust – can help preserve the beneficiary’s eligibility for aid programs, but itself has a non-trivial cost to create and maintain, in terms of both legal fees, administrative expenses, and potentially unfavorable tax treatment.
To help ease the challenge for families with special needs children, the recently passed “tax extenders” legislation at the end of 2014 created a new type of account for the supplemental needs of special needs (disabled) beneficiaries. Under the new IRC Section 529A, Qualified ABLE programs will allow families to accumulate funds for such beneficiaries, enjoy tax-free growth, and allow the assets to (mostly) avoid disqualifying the beneficiary from any state or Federal aid, but without the cost and hassle of creating a special needs trust.
Given the limitations of these new 529 ABLE accounts – from restrictions on the size of contributions, to a rather “unfavorable” Medicaid payback provision after the death of the disabled beneficiary – the new Section 529A plans will not likely replace all special needs trusts, but could be used effectively as a supplement to them, and may be an especially appealing alternative to trusts for “smaller” account balances under $100,000.