Parents of a child with special needs must confront a myriad of challenges managing their child’s condition while planning for their child’s future well-being. Special needs estate planning focuses on making available adequate care and sufficient resources for a family member with a mental impairment throughout his or her life in context of a family’s overall estate plan. Proper preparation of a special needs estate plan is both essential and requires a unique understanding of a complex web of state and federal laws that may significantly impact public benefits available to a loved one with a disability throughout his or her life. Being aware of these rules is critical for parents of children with mental illnesses so that they may construct an estate plan that provides for the care and well-being of their special needs loved ones throughout their lives.
Whether or not your child’s special needs is manageable such that she or he can take care of herself or himself adequately, it is imperative that your estate plan addresses their specific condition to help ensure that she or he receives proper medical care, maintains a standard of living and quality of life in which she or he is accustomed, and is guarded against negative influences after you are gone. If your child’s mental illness is severe and constitutes a legal disability under applicable federal and state legal rules, he or she may be eligible to receive certain public benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and Medi-Cal (or Medicaid outside California).
Parents of children with special needs should consider consulting an attorney well-versed in special needs planning to help develop and implement an appropriate estate plan that specifically addresses their unique challenges and needs. Without proper planning, an otherwise well-intentioned estate plan may inadvertently disqualify a special needs child from public benefit program eligibility. As part of a family’s overall estate plan, an attorney may prepare a certain type of trust (commonly referred to as a “special needs trust”), which helps provide for a mentally disabled child’s future well-being while preserving his or her eligibility for SSI, Medi-Cal and other public benefit programs.
Proper estate planning also may address less severe, but potentially debilitating needs. Even if your child has the capacity to take care of himself or herself despite his or her special needs, a well-tailored plan may help deal with the unique challenges stemming from your child’s specific condition. Children who suffer from alcoholism or drug addiction, for example, may be susceptible to negative influences throughout their lives. Through the creation of trusts (not necessarily special needs trusts) an estate plan may effectively help guard against such influences or individuals who attempt to take advantage of your loved one’s condition for personal gain. Your estate plan therefore may be crafted flexible enough to accommodate substantial improvements in your child’s condition such that she or he ultimately may take care of herself or himself adequately.
As you are well aware, mental illness can be just as debilitating to one’s quality of life as any physical illness. Your child’s well-being is your number one priority. Your estate plan may effectively provide for your loved one’s care and quality of life in the way that you see most appropriate and, consequently, can help bring you and your family some peace of mind.