CategoryDisability Planning

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.

10674802805_a9b0103bf6_mThe 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.

Estate Planning for Disability

Planning for the possibility of disability is probably the most overlooked part of estate planning. While many people will give serious consideration to estate planning for their death, few will seriously consider planning for their disability. Yet disability planning should be the more important part of estate planning from the client’s perspective both because it benefits the client directly, and because, until a person is well past retirement age, the probability of becoming disabled in the next year exceeds the probability of dying in that period.  As a Grand Rapids, Mi estate planning attorney, I like to phrase it as “estate planning is not just about taking care of others, it’s about taking care of yourself too!”
The best vehicle for disability planning is a fully funded trust – usually a revocable living trust. It’s very important to understand different ways you can design your living trusts, both to provide for taking care of the you in the event of your client’s disability and to provide for anyone who is dependent on you when the disability event occurs.
In this post we’ll take a look at what happens when someone becomes disabled and has not planned for it, and how the right planning can prevent a court from having to step in to protect you and your assets.
Disability Planning Defined
Disability planning is planning for when you are mentally incapacitated to the degree that you are not competent to make business or personal care decisions or so physically disabled that you cannot communicate directions for the management of the your affairs.
A person is considered incompetent when a medical determination has been made that the individual does not have the mental ability to make business or personal care decisions.
A person is incapacitated when a court has declared the person legally incompetent to make business or personal care decisions. When a person is determined to be incapacitated, the court will take away the person’s right to make personal care and business decisions and may empower someone else to do so under the court’s supervision.
Planning for disability is vitally important because disability can happen to anyone, at any age, and at any time. Many of our clients tend to think of disability as being something that only happens to old people, like when they develop dementia. However, as noted earlier, a person’s probability of dying in the next year is much lower than his or her probability of becoming disabled in the next year unless the person is well past retirement age. With people living longer due to advances in medicine, their lifetime probability of becoming disabled is increasing. Today, the odds are better than 50:50 that any given person in the U.S. will have some period of incapacity.
But younger, healthy people can suddenly become disabled from accidents or illnesses—or even acts of violence. For example, Terry Schiavo was just 29 years old when she suffered a cardiac arrest that resulted in permanent, profound brain injury. The consequences of disability without planning can add another level of disaster. That is why everyone, regardless of age and wealth, need disability planning—just in case.
What Happens if We Don’t Plan: Life Probate
Most people think of probate as a legal process for changing titles on assets from the name of a deceased person to the name of the deceased person’s beneficiaries or heirs. But there is another probate court process, a “living probate.”
Living probate is what happens when someone is alleged to be incompetent to manage their own affairs. Someone literally sues them in a probate court, asking the judge to take away their right to make their own care and/or business decisions and give that right to someone else. It is an expensive process in which the alleged incompetent person pays the lawyers on both sides. If the person is found to be incompetent to manage their business affairs and there are business affairs to be managed, the court will appoint a guardian or conservator to do so. The court will require that the guardian or conservator post a bond against theft or mismanagement and provide a detailed accounting to the court on a periodic basis for the court to audit. Sometimes the responsibility for the physical care of a disabled person and the responsibility for the management of assets that are titled in the disabled person’s name are given to two different people: a guardian/conservator of the person (for physical care) and a guardian/conservator of the person’s assets (for financial care).
If there are no assets titled in the incapacitated person’s name, such as when the person’s assets have been placed in a trust, the court has no need to appoint a guardian/conservator of the incapacitated person’s assets. This is just like there is no need for post-death probate if there are no assets titled in a deceased person’s name that are not controlled by beneficiary designation.
Because the courts jealously guard everyone’s rights to manage their own personal affairs and property, living probate provides a form of protection that is anything but free. Living probate, especially when there are assets to be managed, can be costly, time consuming and cumbersome with annual accountings, bonds, reports, ongoing determinations of incapacity/incompetency, and fees for attorneys, accountants, doctors and guardians. All those costs are paid from the disabled person’s assets, and living probate proceedings are a public record. Once a guardianship/conservatorship is established, it will go on until the incapacitated person dies or the court determines that he or she is no longer incapacitated. That can be many years.
Another possible problem is that a court cannot allow an incapacitated person’s resources to be used to provide care for anyone who is not the incapacitated person’s legal responsibility. That means that adult children, parents, grandchildren and others for whom the disabled person was providing support will be on their own.
A Fully Funded Revocable Living Trust Avoids Living Probate
When a living trust is fully funded, all titles of assets are changed from the individual’s name to the name of the trustee and new assets acquired are taken in the name of the trust. Then, if the client becomes disabled, there is no reason for a living probate for asset management because the client does not own any assets in his own name that need managing. While a guardian/conservator of the person may still need to be appointed by the court, a fully funded living trust will allow the person (or people) you choose to be involved with the management of your assets under the direction of your successor trustee.
Living Trust v. Durable Power of Attorney
A durable power of attorney is not a substitute for a fully funded revocable living trust for several reasons. For example:

  • A durable power of attorney will endure the disability, but not the death, of the asset owner (principal). A living trust, on the other hand, is not affected by the trust maker’s death.
  • A holder of trust assets cannot decline to accept the requests of a validly authorized trustee (or successor trustee). A durable power of attorney, on the other hand, works only if whoever is holding the assets decides to accept it. That can be a real problem. Perhaps whoever is holding the assets will think the power of attorney is not broad enough to be acceptable. Or perhaps that it is too complex to understand without a legal opinion that the asset holder is unwilling to seek. Powers of attorney also may not be accepted if more than a certain number of days or months have elapsed since they were executed. This is a particular problem when the power is given to a spouse. Many institutions will not accept a power of attorney unless it is on their own form. We could go on. With a living trust, the trustee is the owner of the trust assets; institutions and securities transfer agents must honor the trustee’s ownership.
  • Durable powers of attorney will not endure the disability or death of the agent to whom the power is given. If the principal is disabled, a living probate will likely be needed if no successor agent is available and willing to serve. By contrast, a trust will not fail for lack of a trustee. A well-drafted living trust will contain trustee succession provisions, and even if all named successors are unavailable to serve, a professional trustee can be appointed.
  • A living probate will cause all powers of attorney to terminate; the court will simply take over and put a conservator/guardian in charge. As explained earlier, a fully funded living trust will eliminate the need for a guardian/conservator of the estate because there is no estate.
  • If the power of attorney fails to work for any reason at the principal’s disability, a living probate may be the only solution for taking care of the principal. The guardian/conservator of the estate will be someone appointed by the court. If the incapacitated person has not made his or her wishes known by a certain kind of formal document, the court may choose someone who is a professional guardian/conservator but a total stranger to the family. With a living trust, you handpick the successor trustees for your trust.
  • Federal agencies, such as the IRS and the Social Security Administration will generally not honor powers of attorney; agents may not be able to cash Social Security checks or sign tax returns. With a living trust, Social Security checks can be set up ahead of time for direct deposit to a living trust account and a trustee will be empowered to deal with the IRS.
  • A power of attorney must contain very specific instructions for running a sole proprietorship or other business entity. If the sole proprietorship or business entity is owned by the living trust, the successor trustee will be able to step in and running the business. The successor trustee can also hire other persons to run the business if the successor trustee does not want to run the business or does not have the proper license to do so. An agent may not have the power to delegate.

Additional Documents for Disability Planning
Durable Power of Attorney
A durable power of attorney can be useful. Often one will be accepted to transfer titled assets to the principal’s revocable living trust, and they are effective in managing assets (like IRAs) that cannot be put into the living trust before a disability event.
Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care
Also called a Health Care Proxy or Medical Power of Attorney, this document lets you legally give someone the authority to make health care decisions (including life and death decisions) for you if you can no longer make them for yourself. Without a designated health care agent, your client could be kept alive by artificial means for an indefinite period of time. (Most clients will remember this happening to Terri Schiavo. Terri’s tragic incapacity saga and information about the Terri Schiavo Foundation can be found at
Living Wills or Directives to Physicians
A living will is different from a living trust. A living trust is a document used in estate planning for control and management of a person’s assets during lifetime and after death, and as explained above, can prevent a living probate at disability because of the way the assets are titled. A living will or directive to physicians is a document that lets a physician know the kind of life support treatment someone would want provided or withheld in case of terminal illness or permanent condition when the affected person cannot make his or her desires known.  Please note – living wills may not be enforceable in Michigan.  Read this previous post for more information.
HIPPA Authorizations
HIPPA authorizations give written consent for doctors to discuss your medical situation with others you have designated and to disclose your medical information to them. These documents are vitally important for disability planning because they can allow not only family members to discuss a your situation and prognosis with the doctors if you are disabled, but they can also allow the trustee and your professional adviser to be kept fully informed.
Defining and Providing for Disability in the Revocable Living Trust
A revocable living trust provides the client the opportunity to define disability in a way that will provide for the continuity of trustee services, to make sure the trust maker and loved ones will be taken care of during a disability, and to ensure that debts, liabilities and obligations will continue to be paid. Options to define disability can include:

  • A determination by two physicians that certify that the trust maker is disabled. (HIPPA authority will be necessary to allow the doctors to discuss the client’s condition with the trustee and other advisors.
  • A determination of incapacity by a living probate court. (The court does not have to appoint a conservator of the estate if all titles are in the name of the trustee.)
  • A determination of disability by a disability panel named in the trust. This option allows you to pre-select a group of people to determine his/her disability. (An odd number is recommended to prevent deadlocks.)

Planning Tip: If you should disappear or are being detained against your will (kidnapped, held hostage, in jail or prison), you can be declared disabled so the trustee can take care of the obligations and people who need to be cared for. (In contrast, years must pass before a missing person can legally be declared dead by a court.)
Designing “Take Care of” Instructions in the Revocable Living Trust
The revocable living trust should include instructions regarding the persons who are to be taken care of in the event of your disability. For example, it could be the you only; or you and your spouse; or you, your spouse and legal dependents. You may also want to include others who are not legal dependents, like parents and adult children who are actually receiving support at the time of your disability. Also, priority must be established for those who you would like to care for, in case there are not enough funds to provide for everyone.
Planning Tip: It’s also important to give direction on how you want to be taken care of and what things are important to you. Are there social, recreation and entertainment needs? Are there religious needs? These instructions can be as detailed as they need to be.
Disability before death is usually not expected, but it should be properly planned for.  We should all put disability planning on the same level as estate planning and recognize that this planning for life is at least as important as after-death planning.

Michael Lichterman is an estate planning and charitable planning attorney who helps families and business owners create a lasting legacy by planning for their Whole Family Wealth™.  This goes beyond merely planning for “stuff” – it’s about who your are and what’s important to you.  He focuses on estate, charitable, and asset protection planning for all generations (“young” and “experienced”), the “sandwich generation” (caring for parents and children), doctors/physicians, nurses, lawyers, dentists, professionals with minor children, family owned businesses, and pet planning.  He enjoys creating life long relationships with his clients centered on their family’s values, insights, stories and experiences.