Family Disagreement Over Special Needs Trust Leads to Court Battle

A New York special needs trust is usually the premier method for local residents to provide a disabled child with financial assistance without disqualifying them from receiving government benefits like SSI and Medicaid. Our New York estate planning lawyers know that providing adequate resources for children with special needs is particularly important today because of the increasing life expectancy of disabled youth. The resources needed by these individuals are often substantial, necessitating very careful planning. All families in this situation must ensure that they seek out professional assistance to learn what legal arrangements are best for their unique situation. No two families are identical, and so specialized help is essential.

Failure to seek out experienced legal aid when dealing with these trusts often results in government benefit penalties, negative tax consequences, and damaging family turmoil. Earlier this month Special Needs Answers reported on developments in a complex legal case related to family disagreement over a special needs trust. The case stems from a trust that was set up in 2002 for an 18 year old high school student who suffered severe brain damage after suffering a heart attack. A lawsuit was filed and settled on his behalf against school officials who failed to take action which would have limited the brain damage. The settlement funds were placed in a special needs trust.

The young man died five years later without a will. Per the rules of intestate succession in the state, the trust funds–valued at $8 million at the time of the young man’s death–were supposed to be split between his parents. The child had been estranged from his father for most of his life, but the victim’s mother did not discuss her specific family situation when the trust was created. In order to avoid having her ex-husband share in the fund assets, the mother had a disclaimer drafted and convinced her ex-husband to sign it by claiming it was a document related to burial. The former spouse initiated a legal challenge when he eventually learned that he had signed away his share of $8 million. The ensuing legal battle lasted several years. It was only this year that a local court ruled that the mother acted wrongly in trying to deceive her ex-husband into signing the disclaimer. The estranged father will be allowed to collect half of the funds left in the trust.

Advocates are using the case to remind all community members that it is vital to consider family dynamics when drafting a special needs trust. As one involved in the situation explained, “If you are thinking of setting up a trust for a loved one, make sure that you discuss your entire family history with your special needs planner. […] Doing so could avoid this problem and lead to a more equitable outcome for everyone involved.”

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Estate Planning is Particularly Important for Families with Autistic Children

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