JANUARY 21, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 3
Administering a "special needs" trust can be a challenge. The rules often seem vague, and they occasionally shift. What may seem like a simple question might actually involve layers of complexity. Sometimes an expenditure might be permissible under the rules of, say, the Social Security Administration, but not acceptable to AHCCCS, the Arizona Medicaid agency -- or vice versa. Trustees work in an environment of many constantly-moving parts.
Take two questions we have been asked lately:
I am trustee of a self-settled special needs trust for my sister. Can I pay her credit card bills?
Maybe (don't you just love lawyers' answers?). Let's break the question down a little bit.
First, have identified the trust as "self-settled." That means the money once belonged to your sister (it might have been an inheritance, or a personal injury settlement, or her accumulated wealth before she became disabled). That also means the rules are somewhat more restrictive.
We will assume that the bills are for a credit card in her name alone. If the card belongs to someone else, the rules may be different. Not many special needs trust beneficiaries can qualify for a credit card; when they can, it can be a very useful way to get things paid for (as you will soon see).
The next question requires a look a the trust document itself. It might be that it prohibits payments like the one you would like to make. That would be uncommon, but not unheard of. We will assume that the trust does not expressly prohibit paying her credit card bills.
What benefits does your sister receive? Social Security Disability and Medicare? No problem. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and AHCCCS (Medicaid)? Could be a problem.
Next we need to know what was charged to the credit card. Was it food or shelter? If it was used for meals at restaurants, or grocery shopping, or for utility bills, you probably do not want to pay the credit card bill from the trust. If you do (and assuming the trust permits it) then you will face a reduction of any SSI she receives, and possible loss of AHCCCS benefits.
Were the credit card bills for clothes, medical supplies, gasoline for her vehicle, even car repairs? There is probably no problem with paying the credit card statement. Even home repairs should be OK in most cases (just not rent, mortgage, utilities, etc. -- and the rules might be different if anyone else lives with your sister).
As you can see, what started out as a simple question turns out to have a lot of complexity. You might want to talk with a lawyer about your sister could use the credit card. When it works, though, it can be quite a boon -- it is an easy way to get gas into her car and clothes on her back.
Can my special needs trust pay the security deposit on my new apartment?
What an interesting question. We think the answer is probably "yes."
Once again we need to look at the trust document itself. Was it funded with your own money (like a personal injury settlement), or was the trust set up by a relative or friend with their own money? Is there language prohibiting payment for anything related to your apartment?
Assuming no trust language prohibits the payment, we can turn to the effect such a payment would have on your benefits. Social Security Disability and Medicare? Once again, no problem. SSI and AHCCCS/Medicaid? Your benefits might be reduced, but the payment can probably be made.
The key question is whether a "security deposit" is "rent." Arguably, it is not -- it is advance payment for cleaning. A special needs trust -- even a self-settled special needs trust -- can pay for cleaning. Social Security's rules treat payment of "rent" as what's called "In-Kind Support and Maintenance (ISM)." This payment, we think, should not be characterized as ISM.
If it is not ISM, then it should have no effect on your SSI or your AHCCCS benefits. If it does, it might simply reduce your SSI payment (by the amount of the deposit, but capped at about $250). So long as you still get SSI it should not have any effect on your AHCCCS benefits.
Are these rules unnecessarily complicated? Yes. Does it sometimes end up costing more in legal fees to figure out what to do than it would to just pay the bills? Yes. Welcome to the complex world of special needs trust administration. Would it be possible to write simplified rules that allowed limited use of special needs trust funds while saving a bundle on administrative expenses? Yes -- but please don't hold your breath while waiting for them.