An Introduction to ABLE Accounts

On December 3, 2014, Congress passed the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act, or as it’s more commonly known as, the ABLE Act. The ABLE Act authorized a new type of tax-favored savings account for blind or disabled individuals with a qualifying disability incurred prior to age 26.  As of January 1, 2018, these individuals may receive up to $15,000 per calendar year in an ABLE account, without having the funds in the account counted against them for Medicaid or SSI eligibility purposes.  The ABLE account beneficiary is able to manage the funds on deposit in the account and may use the account proceeds to pay for “qualified disability expenses (QDEs).” As long as the expenditures of funds from the ABLE account being attributed to the blind or disabled account beneficiary are used for QDEs, the dollars will not be subject to federal income tax, nor will they be deemed as countable resources in determining eligibility for most federal welfare benefit programs.

So why is the ABLE account such an important vehicle?  Simply put, many disabled individuals and their families can’t afford the rising costs of care related to their lives with disabilities. Medicaid and SSI only provide so much, and eligibility requirements force the beneficiary to have no more than $2,000 of countable assets at any time. ABLE accounts can protect additional resources for the disabled beneficiary, whose friends, family members, or the disabled individual himself, may transfer up to $15,000 per calendar year per disabled beneficiary into the ABLE account. Undistributed earnings will not be taxed, and no 10% penalty will apply on distributions.  The funds may accumulate in the account year after year, up to the applicable state 529 cap for Medicaid purposes. For SSI purposes, the limit is $100,000, after which eligibility for SSI is suspended until the account proceeds are spent down below the $100,000 SSI threshold. Therefore, assuming the account owner follows the rules of ABLE accounts (outlined below), he or she can not only receive Medicaid, SSI and/or SNAP (food stamps), but can also use the ABLE funds to supplement those benefits with tax-free dollars.

In order to be eligible to open an ABLE account, you must be deemed a disabled individual by the Social Security Administration, and need to have incurred such disability before turning age 26 (NOTE: This does not prohibit applicants aged 26 or older from applying, only those whose disability began after age 26). Should you meet the eligibility qualifications, the following financial regulations apply:

  • “Qualified disability expenses” or QDE’s are defined as “any expense related to the beneficiary as a result of living a life with disabilities1.” Examples of such expenses can include education, housing, assistive technology, transportation, health care expenses, and other expenses that help improve the individual’s quality of life1
  • As of January 1, 2018 until December 31, 2025, the funds on deposit in a 529 educational savings account may be rolled over into an ABLE account if the beneficiary of the 529 account, or a family member of that individual, is a qualified disabled beneficiary.

Similar to a First-Party Special Needs Trust (more information in future blog), there is a payback provision associated with ABLE accounts. This provision requires that upon the passing of the ABLE account owner, the state Medicaid agency that provided benefits to that individual is allowed to reclaim or recoup all or a portion of that individual’s ABLE account remaining after death, equal to the amount of dollars expended on behalf of the individual, beginning from the time their ABLE account was opened.

Ultimately, the supplemental financial support afforded to the beneficiary during lifetime almost always outweighs the downside of the Medicaid payback after death. Regardless, it’s imperative to speak with your tax, legal, and financial advisors before opening or contributing to an ABLE account

For more information on ABLE accounts and their potential utility for a loved one with disabilities, contact Sean Rice, CTFA, srice@gstrustco.com, (856)-281-1300.

1 http://ablenrc.org/

Special Needs Planning 101: Why you should act NOW

“In 2015, U.S. health care costs were $3.2 trillion. That makes health care one of the country’s largest industries, equaling to 17.8% of gross domestic product (GDP). In comparison, health care costs were $27.2 billion in 1960, just 5% of GDP.” 1

“Advocacy group Autism Speaks reports that the cost of caring for a person with autism can run an estimated $1.4 million over the course of their lifetime.” 2

Unfortunately, caregivers of special needs children and adults know all too well the financial and emotional challenges they face now, and often dread the idea of trying to plan for when they’re no longer around. But taking the time to properly plan ahead for a child’s care in the future will help to alleviate some of the stress being felt currently.

First and foremost, visit with an estate planning attorney with extensive experience in the field of special needs planning. These are experts in a complex and dynamic field, in which the rules are frequently changing. For loved ones who may be eligible for governmental assistance programs such as Medicaid or SSI, that eligibility could be lost if the child receives a lump sum from a lawsuit or inheritance( For example, 2018 Medicaid eligibility requires that an applicant own no more than $2,000 in countable assets). Therefore, if one is planning to leave a relatively large sum of money  to a child who may currently be or may eventually be eligible for these types of “means-tested” benefits, it’s critical that the family speak with an attorney about creating a third party Special Needs Trust (also referred to as a Supplemental Benefits Trust). If anyone is planning on making smaller, periodic lifetime gifts to the disabled child, ask the attorney about the benefits of an ABLE account. Both of these vehicles are designed to receive assets on behalf of the beneficiary, allow those assets to be made available for supplemental needs or qualified disability expenses, and yet still allow the beneficiary to retain eligibility for certain governmental benefits. (More detailed articles to follow on both vehicles)

Next, speak with your financial advisor and/or insurance professional. If you will be creating a third party SNT during your lifetime or under your wills, it’s critical to ensure that beneficiary designations for any qualified plan (401(k), IRA, pension, annuity, insurance policy, etc) are made payable to the third party SNT and not to the disabled child outright. Failure to do so could result in disastrous consequences such as causing the child to become ineligible for valuable governmental benefit programs. For example, in the state of New Jersey, the loss of Medicaid eligibility can simultaneously result in the loss of housing and other services provided through the Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD).

You will also want to speak to your tax advisor regarding any special needs planning you undertake. They will be able to provide necessary advice regarding the tax laws surrounding the gifting or bequeathing of various assets to a loved one. If you haven’t already done so, introduce all of your trusted advisors to one another to ensure that everyone is up to speed with the latest planning taking place. Failing to inform an advisor of a loved one’s special needs and any plans currently in place/in progress could not only unravel the plan, but cause devastating consequences like the one previously cited.

Lastly, if a third party SNT is created, it’s extremely important to consider the use of a professional trustee to manage the trust on behalf of a loved one. While many individuals’ first thought is to name a family member or friend as trustee, there are almost always significant drawbacks to that decision. SNTs are extremely complex, and the laws governing them are frequently changing. Individual family member/friend trustees almost never have the necessary time, experience, expertise, objectivity or energy to devote to the role of trustee, and they may not be able to serve when their role is called upon (death, disability, too busy, moved away). In nearly all circumstances, the use of a professional trustee is the better choice. (See previous article comparing family member trustees and professional trustees).

In this age of rising health care costs, it becomes even more critical to plan NOW for the care of loved ones with special needs. Assembling a team of professionals ahead of time will ensure peace of mind for the family, as they will know that there is a proper plan in place to care for their loved one when they are no longer able to do so.

For more information regarding Special Needs planning, and the role a professional trustee can serve in that planning, contact Sean Rice, CTFA, srice@gstrustco.com, (856)-281-1300

1 https://www.thebalance.com/causes-of-rising-healthcare-costs-4064878
2 https://blog.mint.com/planning/the-cost-of-raising-a-special-needs-child-0713

Choosing a Trustee: Pro vs. Average Joe?

From the perspective of a trust officer, the benefits of a professional trustee are endless and obvious. Professional asset management, trust administration, and tax planning are the most commonly cited, but they don’t even scratch the surface in terms of the full job description. With such a wide array of services provided, we at Garden State Trust Company tend to hear only two recurring reasons against working with a professional trustee:

  • Fees for their services
  • Lack of familiarity between the family and the corporate trustee

Fees

Often times the first question asked by potential new clients is simple: “What are your fees?” An understandable question, as professional trustees do not work for free. Similar to an accountant, investment manager, or attorney, there is a cost in obtaining professional trustee services. However, as Einstein might say, “It’s all relative!” See below a more productive question that considers the alternative options.

Q: I’m fee conscious. How do the trustee costs compare between your company and my Uncle Joe?

A: Great question! First and foremost, Uncle Joe should be entitled to compensation for his services as a fiduciary, in addition to reimbursement for expenses incurred related to his duty as trustee. Is Uncle Joe an experienced investment manager? If not, he may be best suited to hire a professional investment manager (0.75%-1.5% annually). How about taxes? Has Uncle Joe been exposed to proper fiduciary accounting rules and regulations? Hiring an accountant is most certainly prudent (many accountants charge $500-$1,000 to file the annual 1041 fiduciary income tax return, in addition to their hourly rate for providing trust accounting services). What happens when Uncle Joe needs guidance as to the administration of trust? It would be wise for him to seek legal advice from a trust and estates attorney ($300-$500/hr rates)

Let’s do a cost comparison.  Keep in mind that individual trustees in New Jersey are generally entitled to a statutory fee/commission schedule for their services as trustee equal to 0.5% on the first $400,000 of assets, and 0.3% on amounts over $400,000. In addition, Uncle Joe would be entitled to 6% of any income generated from the trust assets. Conversely, professional trustees are instead (generally) entitled to their published schedule of fees.

$1M Trust Example Chart

As you can see in this example, even the most conservative estimated costs of hiring investment management services produce a higher total annual cost to the trust than the total fees of a professional trustee. Also, it should be noted GSTC’s cost for filing the annual 1041 tax return is significantly lower than the average cost for an individual seeking accounting services. Additionally, an individual, less-experienced individual trustee may need to seek legal guidance more frequently than a professional trustee when it comes to properly administering the trust document.

Family Familiarity

Q: I want an experienced trustee, but I also want someone who is close to my family. What do you suggest?

A: A common knock on professional trustees is their unfamiliarity of the specific dynamics of a particular family. A fair point during the first meeting, but this argument fizzles over time as the relationship develops. In these types of situations, we may recommend a co-trustee arrangement between a family member trustee and the professional trustee. The family member trustee is able to be the eyes and ears on the ground, and relay the news and needs of the beneficiary to the professional trustee on a regular basis. Meanwhile, the family benefits from having an objective, professional trustee available to handle the investment management, accounting, and daily administrative duties that otherwise might be burdensome or impractical for the family member trustee. Most importantly, should the individual trustee become incapacitated or pass away, the professional trustee is readily available to continue the administration of the trust for the family without interruption.

Serving as a trustee is an ongoing commitment and, for many individuals, an unfamiliar job in which they have had little to no experience. Aside from the fiduciary obligations, family dynamics can put individual trustees in difficult situations. The trustee may have a close relationship with a beneficiary who is making incessant requests for distributions that the trust creator would have never approved. This can potentially cause uncomfortable situations between trustee and beneficiary that both parties would prefer to avoid. A co-trustee arrangement with a professional trustee can help alleviate these types of issues. Let the professional trustee be the “bad guy” who is saying no to the constant requests for a Porsche from an 18-year-old trust beneficiary.

Q: What services do professional trustees provide?

A: A professional trustee takes on an extraordinary role. Held to a higher fiduciary standard than an individual trustee (family member, friend, e.g.), a corporate trustee holds a duty of care and loyalty to the beneficiaries. In addition to the duty to manage the assets, coordinate the tax preparation and filing, and administer the trust document properly, trustees are of service to the beneficiaries. Whether they’re planning and paying for higher education, coordinating the sale and purchase of a new residence, or simply arranging for the payment and installation of a new kitchen appliance, the roles of a trustee are endlessly defined. For many beneficiaries, their trusts are their main financial source and, as a result, trustees take on an enormous responsibility.

Garden State Trust Company possesses capabilities and expertise in the investment management, financial planning, and fiduciary administration areas. When one considers that all of these services are included in our annual fee, it pales in comparison to the cumulative, a la carte professional expenses hired by an individual, inexperienced trustee. Additionally, consider the fact that the trust responsibilities and liabilities fall on the shoulders of the trustee. Not only does the individual trustee need to take the time to seek out competent professionals to perform the necessary work, but they need to ensure the work is done correctly and in a timely fashion. This can involve many phone calls, emails, and meetings on an ongoing basis. Often times, individual trustees can only contribute part-time attention to their role as trustee. After all, they have jobs, children, parents, and all of life’s obligations to worry about each and every day.

Professional trustee fees can actually be a bargain when you compare them to the alternative expenses required by an inexperienced individual trustee. Individuals can benefit from partnering with experienced, professionals who efficiently and accurately perform all of the services required as a trustee. This partnership allows the family to preserve and grow their personal relationships while the professionals preserve and grow their wealth.