How To Leave An IRA To A Child Who Has a Disability

This is so confusing to clients, but it needn’t be. The rules are actually simpler than they seem. Stay with us, and we’ll walk you through it.

OK, here’s the set-up: You have three children, one of whom (the youngest) has a disability. We’ve decided to name her Cindy (sorry if we got that part wrong). Your estate plan is to leave everything equally to your three children, but you know that (1) Cindy can’t manage money, and (2) even if she could, leaving her money directly would knock her off of her public benefits. Just to make things more complicated, nearly half of your net worth is held in an IRA.

Before we roll up our sleeves, let us make a few observations about your situation:

  1. If instead of an IRA you have a 401k, a 403b, Keogh or other retirement plan, the rules are pretty much the same. They’re somewhat different if you have a Roth IRA; we may tackle that issue in a future newsletter.
  2. If Cindy’s disability entitles her to public benefits but she is able to manage money just fine then some of the trust issues might be different from what we describe here.
  3. We’ve decided that your estate (your combined estate, if you are married) is just under the estate tax limits, whatever they might be. That’s so we don’t have to complicate this explanation with an estate tax element. But the truth is, that wouldn’t complicate things all that much — we just don’t want to have to throw those oranges into our apple basket. Not today, anyway.

Ready? Here we go. We’ll start by asking you some questions:

First question: What benefits does Cindy get? Is she on Supplemental Security Income (SSI)? Does she also get Social Security benefits, either on her own work history or on yours? Is she receiving Medicare coverage? How about Medicaid (or, in Arizona, AHCCCS)? Does she also get a housing subsidy, benefits through the Division of Developmental Disabilities, or therapy and care from the school district?

This question is important, because first we need to figure out whether her benefits will be affected by any trust you might set up for her. Here’s a surprise: it’s not enough to figure out what benefits she is on now, particularly if she was disabled before age 22. She might be eligible to receive benefits on your work history (or your spouse’s), and those benefits could go up when you retire and again when you die. Since your estate plan is all about what happens to your money when you die, the benefits Cindy gets then will be more important than the benefits she receives now.

Second question: How important is it to you to give your children the chance to “stretch-out” your IRA? We’re sorry — we didn’t explain what that means.

You already know that you have to withdraw money at a set pace, calculated based on your life expectancy, once you reach age 71 (we know — it’s really 70.5; it’s actually the year after you turn 70.5, so let’s just call it 71, okay?). You probably also realize that your beneficiaries get to use their own life expectancies after they inherit your IRA. Or at least they do most of the time.

If that is important to you, your beneficiary designation should make it easy for your children to use the longest stretch-out period possible. Since they are probably all different ages that means there is a benefit — maybe a slight one, but a benefit — to the youngest children to be able to use their own age rather than being stuck with an older sibling’s age.

Note: this assumes your children share your interest in stretching out the IRA withdrawals. Take the simple case, with Cindy not involved: if you make the other two children (let’s call them Amelia and Barbara) beneficiaries of the IRA, Barbara (the younger) will be able to take a little less out each year than Amelia is required to do. But if either of them decides to just withdraw all the money and use it for an extended European vacation, then they can choose to make a decision that is not tax-wise. If you want to prevent them from doing that, you have raised the complication factor — but it can be done. We’re just not going to try to explain it here. But we do — here.

Third question: Do you want to try to give Cindy some non-IRA assets rather than an interest in the IRA, just to make this simple? Let’s say you left your IRA to Amelia and Barbara, and increased Cindy’s share of the non-IRA assets to make the shares equal. Would that work?

Well, yes — but it’s not quite that easy. Say you leave $100,000 in an IRA to Amelia — is that worth $100,000 to her? No, because she will have to pay taxes on it when she takes it out. How much? It depends on her state, her marginal tax rate and how long she leaves it in the IRA, so it’s very hard to figure out the “real” value to Amelia. Plus we know that the real value of the same amount of IRA will be different for Barbara, making the calculation that much more difficult.

Maybe we can use a rule of thumb, though. Let’s guess that Amelia and Barbara will delay taking out their inherited IRA money as long as possible, and that when they do they’ll both be retired and not making a lot of income. Perhaps the “real” value (to them) of your IRA will be 65% to 80% of its balance when you die. Is that close enough for you to figure out what would be “fair” if you gave Cindy more cash and less IRA? We can’t tell you — this one is a judgment call for you.

Fourth question: Who will manage Cindy’s money after your death? Amelia, the banker (and classic first-born)? Barbara, who has some financial challenges of her own but has always been close to Cindy, and still lives in the same community with her? Your local bank? A family friend, or a professional you have worked with?

Enough questions for a moment. Let us tell you what we think, based on your answers.

First, you can create a trust and name it as beneficiary of your IRA. Don’t listen to your banker or your accountant if they tell you that you can not do that — they are reciting old rules that no longer apply.

But if you do name a trust as beneficiary, you are likely to force everyone to use a shorter stretch-out date — probably all three daughters will be stuck with Amelia’s life expectancy. If there are only a few years’ difference between the girls, that may not be a big deal. If this issue is important, then we probably can work around it — we can name Amelia and Barbara as beneficiaries directly, and a stand-alone “special needs” trust for Cindy’s benefit to receive her share of the IRA. If we do that, though, you have to make us a promise: you can’t let anyone else tell you to change your beneficiary designations after we get them set up. At least you have to promise not to make any changes until after you have met with us and gone back over the beneficiary form.

In fact, you will find that you have to help educate lots of folks about IRA beneficiary designations. Over time you will be told that you have a mistake in your designation, that you have unnecessarily caused tax increases for your daughters, that your lawyer obviously doesn’t know how to do this. We do, and we can help you respond to those bankers, accountants and others who tell you that you need to make changes. Keep us in the loop, please.

We also need to make sure you realize Cindy’s share can’t go to charity after her death. None of it. Even though the non-profit which provides a sheltered workshop for her would be the logical beneficiary of a share of “her” IRA portion, it mucks everything else up.

So how do we get Cindy’s portion of the IRA — and for that matter the rest of her inheritance — set up to benefit her without knocking her off of her SSI, Medicaid, AHCCCS and other government benefits? That’s what a special needs trust is all about.

We have important advice for you: Be careful as you look for information about special needs trusts, though: much of what you read will be about the rules (and limitations) on so-called “self-settled” special needs trusts, and Cindy’s trust will not be one of those. You will be establishing a “third-party” special needs trust, and the rules will be much different, and much more liberal. You can leave IRA and non-IRA assets in a special needs trust for Cindy’s benefit, and you will actually improve the quality of her life without jeopardizing the programs and benefits she receives.

We hope this helps sort through some of the finer points of IRA beneficiary designations. If you want more, we can recommend a really thorough article by our friend Ed Wilcenski, a New York lawyer. He wrote for, and he’s a smart guy who writes well.

Incidentally, we’d love to hear from you. Maybe you have a question about IRAs and special needs trusts, or you just want to tell us whether this helped you out. Maybe you want to quibble with some of our advice. We love to hear from readers.

We will not, however, undertake to represent you based on a simple e-mail or internet inquiry — we need much more information (starting with where you live — we don’t practice outside Arizona) before undertaking a lawyer/client relationship. We won’t be able to answer your specific questions about your own legal situation, either. What good are we, then? Well, we’ll try to demystify some of the general rules and answer general questions about these topics. Contact us if you’d like us to try, or simply Leave a Reply below. We’ll read your comments and let you know, even if we can’t help you with individual legal problems.

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