• Autism Awareness Month: Focus on Special Needs Planning

By
Brendan J. King

April is National Autism Awareness Month.  Through the efforts of the Autism Society, other special needs service organizations, and individuals with autism and their families/support networks, public awareness of the condition has increased significantly. Additionally, the movement has resulted in legal protections, benefit programs, and social services all designed to meet the educational, medical and economic needs of special needs individuals.

For parents and other caregivers, one of their most important jobs is ensuring continuity of care of their special needs loves one.   We should all have a proper estate plan in place; however, for these families, proper planning to secure the future of their most vulnerable member(s) is a must.

What is involved in estate planning for your special needs child?  The following documents/tools play a key role:

–          Last Will and Testament: allows you to name a legal guardian/conservator for your child in the event of your death; without this designation, a judge will decide who will care for your child.

–          Durable Power of Attorney: through this document, you appoint the individual who would handle your legal and financial affairs in the event of your inability to do so, which by extension would impact your child.  If your child has reached age 18 and is able to understand and sign documents, he/she should also sign a Durable Power of Attorney, which could avoid the need for a court-appointed conservator.

–          Health Care Proxy: In addition to naming your own health care decision-makers, your adult special needs child may be able to sign his/her own document to name health care agents and possibly avoid court guardianship proceedings.

–          Special Needs Trusts (SNT): SNTs come in different forms – first party vs. third party; revocable vs. irrevocable; funded vs. standby.  The purpose of these trusts is to allow your child to benefit from assets while ensuring that their health and welfare is maintained through maximum eligibility for benefits such as SSI, Medicaid and other government programs.  The goal is to create the best standard of living possible for your child.  The funds of the SNT are also protected from creditors, and are earmarked so that they can only be used for the child’s benefit during his/her life.

For additional information on SNTs, click Special Needs Trust: How Will it Help Parents? (

–          Letter of Intent or Statement of Wishes: Although not a legal document, this is your opportunity to describe how to best support and care for your loved one, and to help make the transition from your care to another’s easier. Medical information, foods enjoyed or to avoid, comments about what helps, hurts, scares or reassures your loved one, are among the items that can be included in the statement.

Amidst the daily challenges and joys of caregiving, finding the energy, time and resources to address legal and financial planning can feel overwhelming.  Working with special needs attorneys who are skilled and empathetic will turn a stressful undertaking into a manageable and satisfying endeavor.

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