Estate planning is an important aspect of an overall financial plan for any individual, but it takes on even greater significance for the parents of children with special needs. Parents of children with special needs face a number of unique estate planning decisions that should be carefully considered with professional assistance. These considerations include:

Naming guardians. If parents pass away, who will provide day-to-day care for the special needs child? This is a critical and difficult decision and must be provided for in the parents’ Wills.

Creating a special needs trust.  A special needs trust is a trust that permits (but does not require) distributions to a child with special needs for a variety of reasons. Often, distributions are permitted only to supplement but not supplant monetary support that the individual is receiving from governmental benefit programs such as Social Security Disability Income (“SSDI”), Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and Medicaid. Failure to create a proper special needs trust can inadvertently disqualify the special needs child for these programs. The trust structure is also important to ensure that assets are not placed in a child’s hands before the child is responsible enough to invest and use the assets prudently (if ever).

The choice of trustee for a special needs trust is another critical decision. A trustee should have financial savvy, should have the parents’ complete trust, and should be or become knowledgeable regarding the child’s needs.

Powers of attorney.  A power of attorney allows an individual to appoint people to manage his or her assets and make investment decisions on his or her behalf. Having this document avoids the necessity of having to go to court to get someone appointed as a guardian if an individual cannot manage his or her own affairs. A power of attorney is important for all individuals, but in a special needs situation, it is important for both the parents and the special needs child.

Parents of an adult child with special needs should also consider whether a power of attorney is adequate or if parents should be named as guardians of the adult child to better protect the child’s interests. If there is a concern that the child cannot adequately manage his or her own affairs at all or could be taken advantage of, a guardianship (full or limited) may be more appropriate.

Life insurance. Life insurance is typically used to ensure that sufficient assets are available to provide adequate income to the surviving spouse and to provide for the care of children until they finish schooling and are able to earn a living. In a special needs situation, life insurance can be used to fund a special needs trust to ensure there will be assets available for the rest of the child’s lifetime. This may be especially important if parents can no longer provide the care the child needs.

While estate planning is essential for any individual, for a parent with a special needs child it takes on additional significance.