AUGUST 23, 2010 VOLUME 17 NUMBER 27
It really is unfortunate that we didn’t see this problem coming. Those of us who pioneered special needs trust planning back in the 1980s should have realized that we were setting up everyone (including ourselves) for confusion. We should have just given the two main kinds of special needs trusts different names. But we didn’t, and now we have to keep explaining.
There are two different kinds of special needs trusts, and the treatment and effect of any given trust will be very different depending on which kind of trust is involved in each case. Even that statement is misleading: there are actually about six or seven (depending on your definitions) kinds of special needs trusts — but they generally fall into one of two categories. Most (but not all) practitioners use the same language to describe the distinction: a given special needs trust is either a “self-settled” or a “third-party” trust.
Why is the distinction important? Because the rules surrounding the two kinds of trusts are very different. For example, a “self-settled” special needs trust:
- Must include a provision repaying the state Medicaid agency for the cost of Title XIX (Medicaid) benefits received by the beneficiary upon the death of the beneficiary.
- May have significant limitations on the kinds of payments the trustee can make; these limitations will vary significantly from state to state.
- Will likely require some kind of annual accounting to the state Medicaid agency of trust expenditures.
- May, if the rules are not followed precisely, result in the beneficiary being deemed to have access to trust assets and/or income, and thereby cost the beneficiary his or her Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid eligibility.
- Will be taxed as if its contents still belonged to the beneficiary — in other words, as what the tax law calls a “grantor” trust.
By contrast, a “third-party” special needs trust usually:
- May pay for food and shelter for the beneficiary — though such expenditures may result in a reduction in the beneficiary’s Supplemental Security Income payments for one or more months.
- Can be distributed to other family members, or even charities, upon the death of the primary beneficiary.
- May be terminated if the beneficiary improves and no longer requires Supplemental Security Income payments or Medicaid eligibility — with the remaining balance being distributed to the beneficiary.
- Will not have to account (or at least not have to account so closely) to the state Medicaid agency in order to keep the beneficiary eligible.
- Will be taxed on its own, and at a higher rate than a self-settled trust — though sometimes it will be taxed to the original grantor, and sometimes it will be entitled to slightly favorable treatment as a “Qualified Disability” trust (what is sometimes called a QDisT).
So what is the difference? It is actually easy to distinguish the two kinds of trusts, though even the names can make it seem more complicated. A self-settled trust is established with money or property that once belonged to the beneficiary. That might include a personal injury settlement, an inheritance, or just accumulated wealth. If the beneficiary had the legal right to the unrestrained use of the money — directly or though a conservator (or guardian of the estate) — then the trust is probably a self-settled trust.
It may be clearer to describe a third-party trust. If the money belonged to someone else, and that person established the trust for the benefit of the person with a disability, then the trust will be a third-party trust. Of course, it also has to qualify as a special needs trust; not all third-party trusts include language that is sufficient to gain such treatment (and there is a little variation by state in this regard, too).
So an inheritance might be a third-party special needs trust — if the person leaving the inheritance set it up in an appropriate manner. If not, and the inheritance was left outright to the beneficiary, then the trust set up by a court, conservator (or guardian of the estate) or family member will probably be a self-settled trust.
That leads to an important point: if the trust is established by a court, by a conservator or guardian, or even by the defendant in a personal injury action, it is still a self-settled trust for Social Security and Medicaid purposes. Each of those entities is acting on behalf of the beneficiary, and so their actions are interpreted as if the beneficiary himself (or herself) established the trust.
Since the rules governing these two kinds of trusts are so different, why didn’t we just use different names for them to start with? Good question. Some did: in some states and laws offices, self-settled special needs trusts are called “supplemental benefits” trusts. Unfortunately, the idea didn’t catch on, and sometimes the same term is used to describe third-party trusts instead. Oops.
We collectively apologize for the confusion. In the meantime, note that the literature about special needs trusts sometimes assumes that you know which kind is being described and discussed, and sometimes even mixes up the two types without clearly distinguishing. Pay close attention to anything you read about special needs trusts to make sure you’re getting the right information.
Want to know more? You might want to sign up for our upcoming “Special Needs Trust School” program. We are offering our next session (to live attendees only) on September 15, 2010. You can call Yvette at our offices (520-622-0400) to reserve a seat.