Posts Tagged ‘Supplemental Benefits Trusts’

Principles of Self-Settled (“First Party”) Special Needs Trusts

There is so much confusion about the difference between “self-settled” and “third-party” special needs trusts, that we want to try to explain and simplify some of the key concepts. Here are some of the most common questions (and misunderstandings):

What is the difference between “self-settled” and “third-party” special needs trusts?

This is one of the most perplexing concepts to explain to people, but it is also one of the most important. In general terms, there are two kinds of special needs trusts: “self-settled” and “third-party” trusts. Some people call the former “first-party.” Some make the distinction between “special needs” and “supplemental benefits” trusts. Some talk about “litigation” trusts. But most practitioners use the “self-settled” / “third-party” distinction, and so will we.

“Third-party” special needs trusts (the kind we’re not talking about here) are set up by one person (the third party — sorry about the illogical numbering) for the benefit of another (the first party) who is receiving benefits from the government (the second party in this scenario). Let’s make it simple: if you create a trust for your daughter (who has a developmental disability), and put your own money into the trust, that is a third-party trust. But if your daughter creates her own trust, to hold her money, that is a self-settled trust.

To make things more confusing, most self-settled trusts are not literally self-settled at all. You, for instance, might sign the trust document creating your daughter’s self-settled trust. A judge might authorize you to do so. Your daughter might not be involved at all — in fact, she could theoretically object and still be treated as if she had set up the trust. The key is this: was there a moment in time during which she had the right to receive the money in the trust outright? If so, it is probably a self-settled trust.

Most (but certainly not all) self-settled special needs trusts are set up to receive personal injury settlements or judgments arising from a lawsuit. That may be the easiest way to distinguish self-settled from third-party trusts: if the trust is the result of a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit, it is almost certainly a self-settled trust.

The second most common circumstance in which a self-settled trust might be created is when a family member leaves money or property outright to an heir who has a disability. Because the recipient had a right to receive the money (or property) outright for at least a moment in time, that kind of trust will usually be a self-settled trust, as well — even though arising from an inheritance.

What difference does it make whether a trust is self-settled or third-party?

All the difference in the world. The former type of trust must have a “payback” provision, returning up to the full value of the trust to any state which provided Medicaid benefits upon the death of the beneficiary (or, in most states, upon the termination of the trust). Third-party trusts do not need to have a payback provision, and it is almost always a blunder to include one.

There are other differences: the self-settled trust will be scrutinized much more closely for types of expenditures (in most states — your experience may vary on this one). Third-party trusts usually fly largely under the radar of public benefits agencies. Self-settled trusts are usually supervised by a court (again, state experience may vary widely); third-party trusts almost never are court-supervised. In Arizona, any self-settled special needs trust must include very restrictive language about how it can be used; third-party trusts need not include that language. In general, if you had a disability or were a trustee you would much rather have your trust be third-party than self-settled.

Who is the “grantor” of a self-settled special needs trust?

This is a particularly fun question. There are at least three different concepts involved here, and they have different language. Everyone — including seasoned practitioners — tends to use the terms interchangeably and the result can be confusing.

Trust law recognizes that someone has to have set up a trust. In trust law that person is usually called the “settlor.” Sometimes you see “trust creator” or some similar language — but the sense is the same. The settlor is the person who said “I hereby create a trust.” Usually they say it in writing, but that is not actually required — or at least not in Arizona. But we digress.

Federal income tax law introduces a different kind of person — the “grantor.” The settlor might not be the grantor. There might be one, two or dozens of grantors for a given trust. But usually, the grantor is the person whose money was transferred into the trust. In the case of a self-settled special needs trust, that will always be the beneficiary — the person with a disability whose public benefits are being protected by establishment of the trust.

Along comes public benefits law and invents another role: the trust “establishor,” if you will. Federal law says every self-settled special needs trust must be “established” by one of the following: the beneficiary’s parent, grandparent, or guardian — or by the court. Notice anyone missing from that list? You’re right — the beneficiary isn’t on the list.

So in many self-settled special needs trusts, there are three different people with three different roles:

  1. The grantor, who is also the beneficiary, who did not sign the trust document
  2. The establishor, who might be a judge and might not sign the document at all, and
  3. The settlor, who signed the trust document — perhaps at the judge’s direction.

Can there be more than one grantor in a self-settled special needs trust?

Technically, yes — but only technically. Some states (not including Arizona, happily) require that the establishor of a self-settled special needs trust put some money or property into a trust in order for it to exist. In those states a parent might sign a special needs trust, and staple a $10 bill to the trust to show that it has been legally created. That makes the parent a grantor for tax purposes — as to the $10 investment. The rest of the money comes from the beneficiary’s personal injury settlement (or inheritance, or savings), which makes the beneficiary the grantor for the bulk of the trust’s assets. So technically the parent and the beneficiary are both grantors. Sound like an absurd distinction? It is.

Does a self-settled special needs trust need a new tax identification number?

No. At least, not usually. The beneficiary’s Social Security number will suffice just fine. Some banks, brokerage houses and accountants may argue otherwise, but there is a special IRS rule for such trusts, even though the grantor/beneficiary is not the trustee. But because the trustee is not the beneficiary, it is permissible for the trust to get a separate number — it is called, incidentally, an Employers Identification Number (or EIN), even if the trust does not have any employees.

What can a self-settled special needs trust pay for?

Ah, that is a great question — and very difficult to answer. It depends on so many factors. One must look at the trust instrument itself, at state law governing self-settled special needs trusts and at the appropriate Social Security and Medicaid rules. Sometimes there are things that the trust could pay for that it should not. Sometimes there are things that the trust ought to be able to pay for, but that it can’t — even though everyone might agree that they would benefit the beneficiary. You might look at the Special Needs Alliance’s “Handbook for Trustees” for better guidance, but at some point you are just going to need to talk to an experienced and capable lawyer. The Special Needs Alliance might be able to help you there, too.

We hope that helps explain what a self-settled special needs trust is. Next week we plan on telling you about third-party trusts, and some of the rules governing them.

Distinguishing Two Kinds of Special Needs Trusts

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.

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