Planning for individuals with disabilities poses unique challenges when coordinating across the potentially high cost of special care needs, Federal and state assistance programs such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid, and savings strategies designed to work together with those assistance programs (which themselves can have complex requirements to qualify). For example, in 2014, Congress passed the “Achieving a Better Life Experience” (ABLE) Act that created the tax-favored 529A account, providing tax-free growth opportunities for individuals with disabilities… at least, those with a disability (or blindness) that was diagnosed before the age of 26.
529A accounts allow for annual contributions, from all sources, of up to $15,000/year (the annual gift tax exclusion limit) plus earnings of the ABLE beneficiary, up to the annual poverty limit for a one-person household. They also allow for tax-deferred earnings on contributions inside the 529A plan, and tax-free withdrawals for qualified disability-related expenses. While contributions cannot be deducted from income on Federal tax returns, many states do allow contributions to be deducted on state tax returns. The caveat, however, is that most states also allow state-run Medicaid programs to recover expenses from 529A plans once the beneficiary has died (although five states, so far, have prohibited this, with more possibly to follow), which is important because this recovery-of-Medicaid-assistance provision has been a main reason that many individuals have opted against opening 529A accounts since they were created 5 years ago.
But despite their seemingly complex rules and restrictions – and the potential overhang of state Medicaid recovery at death – 529A accounts can still be used to effectively grow assets in a tax-efficient manner, while serving as a ‘spending account’ for a disabled beneficiary. In fact, advisors can help disabled clients to maximize the value of 529A accounts in light of state Medicaid recovery, particularly since the balance of growth and Medicaid recovery opportunities becomes especially pertinent when the beneficiary is expected to live for at least five more years.
Accordingly, the first step in maximizing the use of a 529A plan, “Contribute, But Don’t Distribute”, is to grow the account balance as aggressively and as quickly as possible in the early years in order to maximize tax-free earnings. However, the balance should be kept below $100,000 if the beneficiary is receiving any SSI benefits (though if the individual does not receive such benefits, the account can be allowed to grow to the maximum account balance as specified by the state, which is often greater than the $100,000 SSI limit).
The second step to maximize a 529A plan, “Earn and Burn”, is to systematically withdraw funds any time the account balance reaches the target threshold (to keep the account balance from exceeding the targeted limit) and to use those earnings to pay for qualified disability expenses.
Finally, the last step, “When In Doubt, Empty It Out”, applies to beneficiaries who live in states allowing for Medicaid recovery from the remaining account balance after their death. In this stage, the account holder proactively spends down and uses the 529A account, in full, if/when the beneficiary’s health takes a turn for the worse or their life expectancy otherwise becomes more limited in time horizon (to ensure there’s nothing left in the 529A account shortly before the beneficiary is expected to die).
Ultimately, the key point is that, despite the complex rules around maintaining a 529A account and the risk of state Medicaid recovery taking away the account’s remaining contributions and growth, the expenses for which a 529A account can be used are broadly defined and thus offer flexible strategies for using 529A plans for the benefit of qualifying individuals who are disabled or blind, ensuring those dollars are fully spent for the disabled beneficiary themselves.