Caring for a family member with disabilities requires dedication and resources to handle the legal, financial, social and health issues that are part of daily life. To ensure a loved one’s future is financially secure, a legal professional who specializes in estate planning with a focus on special needs can provide peace of mind.
Christine Matus has a child with Down syndrome. She is the founder of The Matus Law Group in Toms River, New Jersey. Her firm specializes in helping families navigate the future for their loved ones with disabilities.
Business Innovators Magazine contributing writer Stephanie Miller recently spoke with Christine about how to put together a financial plan for your special needs child.
Stephanie: In your law practice, who do you enjoy helping the most and why?
Christine: The parents. Being a parent of a child with Down syndrome, I know exactly what they’re going through; the angst, the worries, and the victories that we go through together. I love helping parents plan ahead to give them that security, to make them know they’re not alone. We’re here for the parents who are jolted awake at two, three o’clock in the morning feeling like, “Oh my gosh. Am I doing enough? Am I not doing it right? I don’t know what I’m doing.”
We try to be that haven for parents, to give them security, reassurance that it’s going to be great. Everything’s going to be great. We sit with them and try to plan out not only how the assets can get to their child, but to answer the question, “Who’s going to be involved in their life when we’re no longer around?”
Parents are the clients I love helping, because once they see that there’s a light, that there’s a solution, it’s like a home run for me. It’s going to be fine, because they ‘get it,’ and I totally get it, so they are really my ideal client.
Stephanie: What are some of the things you help these parents with?
Number one, we help them think about who is going to be in their child’s life. We talk about guardianship.
Stephanie: What should a parent look for in a guardian?
Christine: Definitely it has to be someone who they know has the same moral values, someone who is going to be in a place that your child will feel comfortable, that they could also live with if need be. I want to make sure they ask potential guardians who may not be close by, are they willing to either move to where you are or will the kids relocate?
You want guardians who are healthy and already have financial means. Obviously you’ve made sure your children are taken care of, but as far as picking guardians that are already having financial troubles or have a very big family, if they added another person to their household…is this something they are capable of? They really need to sit down with these guardians and make sure they understand that, ask if they are ready for this and are they comfortable raising your child. It’s a big deal.
Stephanie: Now I see where that angst at two and three o’clock in the morning comes into play. What else do you help the parents with?
Christine: We talk about what they call ‘trustees,’ people who will help protect their money, protect them from predators. We help set that up for the parents. We find a lot of parents are nervous that their choices keep their child eligible for governmental benefits, which is great because it will help them not only receive funding from the government but also medical provisions.
Your child is only able to qualify if they have a certain amount of assets. Our main goal is to help make sure their assets are protected as well as qualifying for benefits.
Stephanie: What are the guidelines?
Christine: The main guideline is the child have no more than $2,000 in their name. If they do, they will not qualify for Medicaid or Social Security Income. The fact is, if God forbid a parent passes away and they have a house, an asset they want to give to their child, they’ll be disqualified from receiving benefits if they do. The child will be forced to use up their entire inheritance.
Depending on their medical situation, that money could be gone in a year or two, and then they’ll have to reapply for benefits, which doesn’t happen overnight. There’s going to be a gap of time with nothing, and, at this time, if they qualify again, I think the monthly right now here in New Jersey is about eight hundred a month. That’s a hard life. If you don’t have the trust prepared, that’s what you are looking at.
Stephanie: The trust is what protects the funds?
Christine: Yes. It’s like a box. We create this box where money that should have gone to the kids will go in this trust. We’re going to nominate someone to manage it for them, and make sure it’s going to be spent wisely, and also make it grow. You don’t want it just in a CD, you don’t want it in a checking account. That wouldn’t be a very prudent investment, because it really should last for the lifetime of the child if possible.
There are different types of special needs trusts. We help a lot of parents who want something set up that will only take effect when they’re no longer around. That’s called a third-party special needs trust, also known as the supplemental needs trust. A ‘third-party’ because the money that’s going to the child really was the parent’s money, it’s coming from a third party.
Stephanie: How else do you help parents with a special needs child?
Christine: The third thing is we try to create a community environment. Like I said earlier, we want to make sure you know that you’re not alone. We try to be a hub for the parents with: speech therapist, physical therapist –anyone that they feel they can turn to if they’re not having success with the people they’re currently working with.