Highlights and Updates in Special Needs Planning

Planning for individuals with disabilities is typically referred to as “special needs planning.” Stetson University College of Law presented its 23rd annual National Conference on Special Needs Planning and Special Needs Trust in mid-October. This is the best program of its kind in the nation, and, as has been the case for almost all of those years, Maine Elder Law Firm’s attorneys were in attendance – this time virtually.

The conference provides three days of programming with nationally recognized speakers. Here are few of the highlights, some take-aways, and each of our favorite sessions:

  • Ken Brown, retired Deputy Office Director at the Social Security Administration, provided a summary of significant changes in the SSA’s Program Operations Manual System (called the POMS) from 2018 to date, almost all of which are positive for individuals with disabilities.
  • Several presenters touched on how the SECURE Act (passed in December of 2019) impacts special needs planning, and speaker Michael Amoruso explained why the SECURE Act and special needs trusts are “a match made in heaven.” We agree.
  • There were several sessions on Supported Decision-Making as an alternative to guardianship and conservatorship, especially for young adults with disabilities. This information was helpful to us and consistent with the new requirements under Maine law following the adoption of the Uniform Guardianship and Conservatorship and Other Protective Proceedings Act in 2019.
  • Jane Skelton’s favorite panel included a young man named Chandler, his mother, the trustee of his special needs trust, and Doug Jackson, the Deputy Directory of Ohio’s ABLE program (called STABLE). They provided a real-life illustration of how a special needs trust plus an ABLE account plus a True Link card are enhancing Chandler’s autonomy and independence. This was particularly relevant to us since Maine rolled out its own ABLE program just a few weeks ago.
  • Rachel Trafton appreciated two presentations on housing. One addressed the increase in private group homes established by individuals with disabilities and their families. Another session grappled with the perennial question of when to own a home for an individual inside the special needs trust and when the client’s goals might be better served by different ownership.
  • Sarah Ranger was impressed with the speaker who demonstrated why a special needs planner is so important during the negotiation and drafting of a settlement agreement in a divorce when there is a child with disabilities.
  • Our firm will be monitoring these two important pieces of legislation. The first would increase the age threshold for ABLE accounts from age 26 to 46. The second piece of legislation would change the definition of “in-kind support and maintenance (called ISM) to include only shelter expenses. The SSA reduces an individual’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit if they receive ISM from a third party. ISM originally included clothing, food and shelter. Clothing was dropped in from the definition in 2005, and this legislation would drop food.

The attorneys in our firm take advantage of many opportunities to stay current in the ever-changing area of public needs planning in many ways, including participating in great programs like this one. Let us know if we can help you in this area.