For families with disabled loved ones who are potentially eligible for means-tested government benefits such as Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), estate planning can be a challenge. On the one hand, you want to provide the most comfortable life possible for your family member. On the other hand, you don’t want to jeopardize his or her eligibility for needed government benefits.
For many years, the most effective solution to this problem has been to set up a special needs trust (SNT). But beginning in 2014, the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act created Internal Revenue Code Section 529A, which authorizes the states to offer tax-advantaged savings accounts forthe blind and severely disabled, similar to Sec. 529 college savings plans.
The ABLE Act allows family members and others to make nondeductible cash contributions to a qualified beneficiary’s ABLE account, with total annual contributions limited to the federal gift tax annual exclusion amount (currently, $14,000). To qualify, a beneficiary must have become blind or disabled before age 26.
The account grows tax-free, and earnings may be withdrawn tax-free provided they’re used to pay “qualified disability expenses.” These include health care, education, housing, transportation, employment training, assistive technology, personal support services, financial management and legal expenses.
An ABLE account generally won’t affect the beneficiary’s eligibility for Medicaid and SSI — which limits a recipient’s “countable assets” to $2,000 — with a couple of exceptions. First, distributions from an ABLE account used to pay housing expenses are countable assets. Second, if an ABLE account’s balance grows beyond $100,000, the beneficiary’s eligibility for SSI is suspended until the balance is brought below that threshold.
Here’s a quick review of a few of the relative advantages and disadvantages of ABLE accounts and SNTs:
Availability. Anyone can establish an SNT, but ABLE accounts are available only if your home state offers them, or contracts with another state to make them available. Also, as previously noted, ABLE account beneficiaries must have become blind or disabled before age 26. There’s no age restriction for SNTs.
ABLE accounts may be used to pay only specified types of expenses. SNTs may be used for any expenses the government doesn’t pay for, including “quality-of-life” expenses, such as travel, recreation, hobbies and entertainment.
An ABLE account’s earnings and qualified distributions are tax-free. An SNT’s earnings are taxable.
About the author
Joe is a 2004 graduate of Mount Saint Mary’s University, with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. He is also a 2000 graduate of Archmere Academy in Claymont, Delaware. Joe started with the firm in 2002 as a part-time intern, joining full-time in 2004.
Since then, he has worked with a myriad of clients, including entrepreneurial firms, agricultural businesses and nonprofit entities, including those with OMB A-133 audits. Joe, along with the firm, contributes to Toys for Tots, Goodwill Industries, as well as several other community organizations. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the Delaware Society of Certified Public Accountants.