Estate Planning: A Guide for Parents with Special Needs Children

Last Updated Apr 20, 2011 10:59 AM EDT

April is National Autism Awareness Month. This is a time that is used to educate the public and discuss the the many issues facing the autism community. I would also like to use it as an opportunity to remind mothers and fathers parenting a child with autism or any other special needs to think about estate planning.

We all know estate planning is important for all families. But it is an imperative for those mothers and fathers caring for children with disabilities. So I reached out to Bernard Krooks, a New York City based estate-planning attorney, for some advice on what he thinks parents should consider when planning for a child with special needs.

Draft a Will
If you do nothing else, make sure you draft a will. This is the only way that you can legally name a guardian for your child. Without this document, a judge will decide who cares for your youngster.

When you have a child with special needs, you'll also want to consider writing a letter of intent, says Krooks. While this isn't a legal document, it does provide parents with an opportunity to give the guardian a step-by-step guide for how to care for their son or daughter. Since many special needs children, particularly those with autism, have trouble expressing themselves, make sure to include all the details pertaining to your little one's daily routine, says Krooks.

Most importantly, you'll want to include a full medical history for your child and the contact information for all of his doctors. If there is a special way your son or daughter likes to take medication, make sure you include it in your letter too.

Special Needs Trust
A special needs trust is another useful estate planning tool. It differ from more traditional trusts in that it makes sure that the beneficiary -- your child -- still qualifies for government benefits, including Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid.

Unfortunately, Krooks warns that many government programs are getting squeezed today, including ones that affect those with special needs. So parents need to provide more supplemental income than in the past. How much does it cost to care for someone with a severe disability? Krooks estimates that the sum could total $5 to $10 million for a lifetime of expenses. To provide that kind of financial support, most families will also need to consider life insurance.

Need help finding an estate planning attorney? Call The Special Needs Alliance (877-572-8472) for a referral. Its member attorneys are dedicated to the practice of disability and public benefits law.

Do you have a special needs trust?

Stacey Bradford is the author of The Wall Street Journal Financial Guidebook for New Parents.
Autism Awareness image courtesy of Flickr, CC 2.0.
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