People with serious disabilities often qualify for government benefits like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid that limit eligibility based on finances. Thus personal injury recoveries attributable to a disabled person often are placed in trust to minimize benefit reduction. However, federal and state law provide that trusts containing assets of the disabled beneficiary or the beneficiary’s spouse may be disqualifying unless the trust satisfies a safe-harbor exception.
Social Security Administration (SSA) Program Operations Manual System (POMS) SI 01120.201 says that to satisfy a safe-harbor exception, a trust must be for the exclusive benefit of the trust’s disabled beneficiary. While a safe-harbor trust may pay reasonable amounts for goods and services routinely provided to the disabled beneficiary, other trust payments can prove suspicious. For instance, where a trust pays family to provide services to the beneficiary, the trust should be prepared to prove the payments are reasonable and have a sole purpose to benefit the trust’s disabled beneficiary rather than family.
New POMS provisions issued in 2011, caused an uproar among the disabilities community and families with special needs trusts by dramatically tightening the exclusive benefit rule. The 2011 POMS provided that a trust violates the exclusive benefit requirement if the trust authorizes payments for the beneficiary’s family to visit the disabled beneficiary because trust payments of travel costs benefit the family. Compounding the concern, SSA staff orally stated that payments to family to care for a trust’s disabled beneficiary also may be disqualifying in common situations.
While SSA’s goal to guard against diversion of trusts that should be administered to benefit a disabled trust beneficiary, the SSA pronouncements triggered great concern and impeded trust flexibility to provide legitimate benefits to disabled people.. Reacting to these undesirable side effects, SSA withdrew the travel provision from the POMS, agreed to study the exclusive benefit rule, and invited the disabilities community to work with SSA to resolve the issue.
On May 15, 2013, SSA announced a series of POMS changes designed to ensure that safe-harbor trusts operate for the sole benefit of the trust’s disabled beneficiary without unduly precluding legitimate expenditures to aide the disabled beneficiary that also impart incidental benefits to family or others. The POMS now provide that when a trust purchases durable goods like a car or house, the trust or beneficiary must receive appropriate equity interest. It is unclear whether this requirement will be triggered where a trust funds accessibility improvements that don’t increase value. The POMS also now permit a trust to pay a third person’s travel costs when necessary for the trust’s disabled beneficiary to get medical treatment or to visit the trust beneficiary in a long term care facility, group home or other supported living arrangement in which persons other than family are paid to provide or oversee the living arrangement and the travel is to ensure safety or health. While the POMS don’t say trust payment of third party travel costs in all other situations will be disqualifying, that is a major risk and generally should be avoided unless facts are extremely favorable.
The new POMS go a long way to protecting rather than hampering disabled trust beneficiaries. While they still leave questions open, they are a major improvement over the POMS issued in 2011.
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