Wednesday, January 21, 2015

ABLE Accounts and Michigan Special Needs Planning

In the flurry of new laws passed at the end of 2013, there was a law that provides additional options for individuals with special needs or disabilities.  The law is called the ABLE Act – the “Achieving a Better Life Experience” Act. It had overwhelming support from all political parties, something that is rare these days. As you might expect, I am not able to cover all the details one blog post, especially when much of the “nuts and bolts” of how ABLE accounts will work has yet to be figured out through the regulatory process.  So, I will attempt to summarize the act and some important considerations.
The ABLE Act recognizes that there are additional financial strains faced by individuals with disabilities and their families, including those in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area.  In short, the ABLE Act allows for individuals to utilize a tax-free, state-based private savings account, referred to as an ABLE account, for the care of people with disabilities. This ABLE account can be used to supplement government benefits for “qualified disability expenses” such as medical and dental care, education, employment training, housing, and transportation, while not disqualifying a disabled individual from governmental benefits. As a result of the ABLE Act, eligible individuals and families are now allowed to establish ABLE savings accounts that will not affect their eligibility for Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid and other public benefits.
The ABLE Act states that eligibility will be limited to those individuals with “significant disabilities” with an age of onset of disability before turning 26 years of age. It is important to note that the person does not have to be under 26 years of age, just that the onset of the disability was before turning 26 years of age. Additionally, there are dollar limits on the amount that can be contributed to an ABLE account, both on an annual basis and as a total dollar amount in the account.  The annual contribution limit is $14,000 and the overall amount allowed in the account is $100,000.  To exceed either limit would disqualify the account as an ABLE account, a potentially disastrous result.
Keep in mind, this is not something you can set up immediately. Congress put the general structure in place and it was signed in to law, however regulations must be established before states can begin to set up procedures for managing ABLE accounts. It will likely be late this year before you can set up an ABLE account.
Keep in mind, an ABLE account is not a one size fits all solution for everyone.  An ABLE account is not without its drawbacks.  One of the biggest drawbacks of an ABLE account is that any money remaining in the account upon the passing of the ABLE account holder must be used first to pay back the State for care provided to the account holder.  Many of the planning options that are already available for someone with different abilities continue to provide a better approach for many families.  For example, a special needs trust will likely continue to be the best option for many Grand Rapids, MI area individuals and families.  Why?  For a few main reasons:
  • There is no maximum annual contribution amount
  • There is no maximum allowed amount
  • There is much more flexibility in how the assets are invested
  • You maintain more control over how the assets are used
  • Assets in a special needs trust are not subject to the Medicaid and/or SSI payback to which an ABLE account is subject.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of that last point.  If you, as a family member or friend put money into an ABLE account for someone, that money will be subject to Medicaid and/or SSI claims upon the ABLE account holder’s passing.   Yet, if you established a special needs trust (or contributed to one that was already established), no such “payback” is required and you can specify what happens with the remaining trust assets when the beneficiary passes away.  In short, you have more control.
All that said, an ABLE account is another “tool” in the planning “toolbox” and will help some families and individuals who may otherwise be disqualified from government benefits.

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