What Is a Special Needs Trust (SNT)?

Special Needs Trust (SNT) DefinitionSpecial Needs Trust (SNT) Definition

Key Takeaways

  • Special Needs Trusts are legal entities that hold assets for the benefit of individuals with disabilities without affecting their eligibility for government benefits.
  • There are three main types of Special Needs Trusts: first-party, third-party, and pooled trusts. Each is designed to suit different circumstances.
  • They are managed by a trustee responsible for investing the assets and making distributions for the beneficiary's benefit.
  • They can be used for a wide range of expenses, including medical care, education, transportation, and personal care.
  • Special Needs Trusts can be complex to set up and manage, so it is important to seek professional assistance from an attorney or financial advisor.

What Are the Types of Special Needs Trust?

Three types of Special Needs Trusts are designed to suit different circumstances. Each type manages resources for a beneficiary with disabilities without affecting their eligibility for means-tested government benefits. The choice among these trusts depends on the individual circumstances, funding sources, and the trust's specific goals.

1: First-Party Special Needs Trust

  • Funded with assets that belong to the person with disabilities, such as an inheritance or from a personal injury settlement. They are typically irrevocable, meaning that they cannot be taken back once the assets are transferred to the trust.
  • Upon the beneficiary's death, any remaining funds must be used to reimburse the government for medical care provided through Medicaid.

2: Third-Party Special Needs Trust

  • Set up by someone other than the beneficiary, typically parents or other family members, using their assets. They can be either irrevocable or revocable.
  • It's not subject to Medicaid payback upon the beneficiary's death, meaning the remaining trust assets can be passed to other family members or charities as per the trust directives.

3: Pooled Trust

  • Managed by a nonprofit organization, this trust combines the resources of many beneficiaries, each with a separate account for their needs. They are always an irrevocable trust.
  • On the beneficiary's death, funds may stay with the trust to benefit other pool members or may be subject to payback provisions, depending on state laws and the trust structure.

It is crucial to consult with a qualified legal professional specializing in special needs planning to determine the most appropriate type of trust for a beneficiary's situation.

How Does a Special Needs Trust Work?

A Special Needs Trust works by holding assets for the sole benefit of a person with disabilities without jeopardizing their eligibility for government programs like Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).1,2 Here's a breakdown of how it functions:

  • Creation: A trust is legally established by a grantor, who may be a family member, a legal guardian, or an individual with special needs themselves, depending on the type of trust.
  • Funding: Assets are transferred into the trust. These can include money, investments, real estate, life insurance policy, or other property. A trustee then manages the assets belonging to the trust.
  • Trustee Management: The trustee administers the trust according to its terms to benefit the person with special needs. The trustee decides how the funds will be distributed for the beneficiary's care, including medical expenses, education, transportation, personal care, and recreation.
  • Benefit Preservation: The assets in the trust do not count as personal assets of the beneficiary. This is crucial because to qualify for government benefits like Medicaid and SSI, an individual's personal assets are often required to be below a certain threshold.
  • Disbursements: Funds from the trust are not given directly to the beneficiary, which could potentially disqualify them from public assistance. Instead, payments are made to third parties for goods and services used by the beneficiary.
  • Protection: The trust is protected from creditors and legal judgments against the beneficiary, ensuring the assets are used solely to support the individual with special needs.
  • Termination: When the beneficiary passes away, the trust is terminated. If it's a first-party trust, any remaining funds are used to repay the state for Medicaid benefits received. In a third-party trust, the remaining assets can be directed to other family members or beneficiaries according to the grantor's wishes.

The specific workings of a Special Needs Trust can vary based on the type of trust and the individual circumstances, and it requires careful legal and financial planning to ensure that it functions as intended.

Remember, it is important to take the time to research using trusts within your estate plan thoroughly. You can use different types of trusts depending on your needs and financial situation. Consider all available options, evaluating your financial objectives, family, and personal preferences.

How Do You Set Up a Special Needs Trust?

Establishing a Special Needs Trust (SNT) involves a series of steps and considerations to ensure it is properly structured and managed. Here are the steps to set up an SNT:

  1. Consult with a Professional: Seeking guidance from an experienced attorney or financial advisor specializing in special needs planning is crucial. They can provide personalized advice, draft the trust agreement, and help you navigate the legal and tax implications of an SNT.
  2. Determine the Type of SNT: There are three main types of SNTs: first-party, third-party, and pooled trusts. Each type has different funding sources and eligibility requirements. Your attorney will assess your situation and recommend the most suitable type for your loved one.
  3. Identify Assets for the Trust: Determine the assets that will be used to fund the SNT. This could include cash, investments, real estate, or life insurance policies. Consult with your financial advisor to ensure the assets align with the beneficiary's needs and circumstances.
  4. Select a Trustee: The trustee is the individual or institution responsible for managing the trust assets and making distributions for the beneficiary's benefit. Choose a trustee who is trustworthy, competent, and knowledgeable about SNTs.
  5. Draft the Trust Agreement: Your attorney will draft a legally binding trust agreement that outlines the terms and conditions of the SNT, including the purpose of the trust, the beneficiaries, the trustee's responsibilities, and the distribution rules.
  6. Fund the Trust: Transfer the designated assets to the SNT according to the trust agreement. This may involve establishing a separate bank or investment account for the trust assets.
  7. Obtain Tax Identification Number (TIN): Apply for a TIN for the SNT from the IRS. This TIN is required for tax reporting purposes.
  8. Maintain Records and Comply with Regulations: The trustee is responsible for maintaining accurate records of all trust transactions and investments. They must also comply with all applicable laws and regulations related to SNTs and taxes.
  9. Review and Update Trust Agreement: Regularly review the trust agreement to ensure it continues to meet the beneficiary's needs and circumstances. Updates may be necessary due to changes in the beneficiary's situation, laws, or tax regulations.
  10. Seek Ongoing Professional Guidance: As the beneficiary's needs evolve and the legal landscape changes, consult with your attorney or financial advisor to ensure the SNT is effectively managed and continues to provide the intended benefits.
Establishing and managing an SNT can be complex, and seeking professional assistance is essential to safeguard the beneficiary's well-being and ensure the trust is administered properly.

What Are the Benefits of a Special Needs Trust?

The benefits of a Special Needs Trust (SNT) are numerous, especially for the financial security and overall well-being of individuals with disabilities. Here are some key advantages:

  • Government Benefit Protection: One of the primary benefits is that the assets in the trust do not count against the eligibility for means-tested government benefits, such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
  • Financial Management: Many beneficiaries with special needs may be unable to manage their finances.
  • Flexibility in Use of Funds: The trust can pay for a wide range of life-enhancing expenditures without compromising the beneficiary's government benefits.
  • Preservation of Family Assets: It allows family members to leave assets to a loved one with special needs without risking their long-term care provisions. This can be especially important when parents or primary caregivers are planning for the time when they may no longer be able to provide support.
  • Legal Protection: Trust assets are generally protected from creditors and lawsuits. They are also usually exempt from claims made against the trust beneficiary, ensuring that the funds are used for their intended purpose.
  • Long-Term Security: The trust provides long-term financial security for individuals with disabilities, ensuring they have the resources to support them financially throughout their lifetime.
  • Customization: Special Needs Trusts can be customized to the specific needs and circumstances of the beneficiary, ensuring that the trust serves their best interests.
  • Continuity of Care: The trust can help ensure continuity of care for the beneficiary. Even if the primary caregivers cannot continue in their roles, the trust continues to provide for the beneficiary's needs.
  • Avoidance of Probate: Like other trusts, a Special Needs Trust can help avoid the probate process, allowing for a more seamless transfer of assets upon the death of the grantor.

What Are the Drawbacks of a Special Needs Trust?

While a Special Needs Trust (SNT) offers numerous benefits, there are also potential drawbacks to consider:

  • Complexity and Cost: Establishing and administering an SNT can be complex and often requires assistance from legal professionals specializing in special needs and trust law, which can be costly.
  • Trustee Responsibilities: Finding a competent and trustworthy trustee can be challenging. The trustee has significant responsibilities, and their trust management can profoundly impact the beneficiary's quality of life.
  • Limited Control for Beneficiary: The beneficiary has little control over the trust assets and distributions. This lack of control can frustrate individuals who wish to manage their finances.
  • Government Reimbursement: For first-party Special Needs Trusts, any remaining assets in the trust after the beneficiary's death may have to be used to reimburse the government for Medicaid benefits received, leaving less for other heirs.
  • Rigid Rules: Trusts must be carefully structured and managed to ensure they do not disqualify the beneficiary from receiving public benefits. This can limit the flexibility in how the funds are used.
  • Tax Considerations: Trusts may be subject to higher tax rates and different tax treatment than individuals, potentially leading to less favorable tax outcomes for the income generated by the trust assets.
  • Maintenance and Oversight: Ongoing oversight and maintenance of the trust are necessary, which may involve legal, accounting, and administrative costs over time.
  • Funding Challenges: Adequately funding the trust can be challenging for some families, particularly if the beneficiary's needs are significant and the family's resources are limited.
  • Irrevocability: Many Special Needs Trusts are irrevocable, meaning they cannot be changed once established. This can be problematic if the beneficiary's situation changes over time.

Despite these drawbacks, for many families, the advantages of establishing a Special Needs Trust outweigh the potential negatives, particularly in protecting the beneficiary's eligibility for critical government benefits while providing for their additional needs.

It's important to consult a knowledgeable attorney to fully understand the implications and responsibilities of creating and managing a Special Needs Trust.

How Much Does a Special Needs Trust Cost?

Establishing a Special Needs Trust (SNT) involves several costs, which can vary widely depending on the complexity of the estate, the attorney's fees, and the jurisdiction. While it's challenging to provide a precise cost without specific details, let's explore the general financial components:

  • Attorney's Fees: Legal fees might range from a few thousand dollars to several thousand for a straightforward SNT. Attorney's fees can escalate substantially if the estate has numerous assets, diverse investments, or complex family considerations.
  • Trustee Fees: If a bank or a professional trustee manages the trust, fees could be a percentage of the trust's assets annually, often ranging from 0.5% to 2%. Costs for individual trustees might be lower but could still involve compensation and expenses related to trust management.
  • Administrative Costs: Filing the trust documents with relevant authorities, preparing and filing tax returns for the trust, and managing trust finances, particularly for extensive or intricate estates, may incur potential costs.
  • Asset Management Fees: Investment advisory fees will apply if the trust's assets are actively managed. Property management fees may be incurred if real estate is held within the trust.
  • Ongoing Operational Costs: Managing and executing income distributions might have associated costs. Ensuring detailed documentation and record-keeping might involve additional expenses, mainly if professional services are engaged.

Given the range and variability of costs involved in setting up and maintaining an SNT, obtaining detailed estimates from attorneys, trustees, and other professionals is crucial before proceeding.

Is a Special Needs Trust Right for You?

Determining whether a Special Needs Trust (SNT) is the right choice involves careful consideration of individual circumstances and needs. Here are some points to consider when evaluating if an SNT is a suitable option:

  • Eligibility for Government Benefits: If the beneficiary is currently receiving or is expected to qualify for government assistance programs like Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), an SNT can help preserve their eligibility while providing additional financial support.
  • Financial Resources: If there are significant assets that the beneficiary will inherit or receive as a settlement, an SNT can protect those assets and ensure they are used for the beneficiary's benefit without compromising public benefits.
  • Care Requirements: For individuals with long-term or lifelong care needs, an SNT can provide a structured way to manage funds for care that extends beyond what is covered by public assistance.
  • Desired Quality of Life: An SNT can fund additional services and goods that improve the beneficiary's quality of life, such as personal care attendants, education, therapy, recreational activities, and specialized medical equipment.
  • Family Dynamics: If there are complex family situations, such as concerns about inheritance management or the beneficiary's future welfare, an SNT can offer a legally binding arrangement that specifies how funds should be used.
  • Management Capability: If the beneficiary cannot manage their own finances due to disability, an SNT ensures that a responsible trustee is appointed to handle financial matters.
  • Legal and Tax Considerations: Understanding the legal and tax implications of setting up an SNT is important, as they can be complex and require ongoing management and potential tax obligations.
  • Costs: The costs of setting up and maintaining an SNT should be weighed against the benefits it provides. These costs can be significant, so evaluating whether the trust will be a cost-effective solution is important.
  • Alternatives: Consider other options, such as ABLE accounts, which may be more straightforward and cost-effective in certain situations but come with limitations and requirements.

It's crucial to consult with legal and financial professionals specializing in special needs planning to analyze your situation and guide you through the decision-making process. They can provide personalized advice and help you understand the benefits and responsibilities of establishing a Special Needs Trust.

What is the Difference Between a Special Needs Trust vs ABLE Account?

Special Needs Trusts (SNTs) and ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) accounts are both financial tools designed to help individuals with disabilities without jeopardizing their eligibility for needs-based government benefits.3Here are the key differences between the two:

Establishment and Control:

  • SNT: Can be established by a parent, grandparent, legal guardian, the individual with disabilities, or the court. The trust is managed by a trustee who has discretion over distributions.
  • ABLE Account: Can be opened by the individual with disabilities if they are capable or by their parent or legal guardian. The beneficiary or their designee controls the account within specific guidelines.


  • SNT: No age restrictions exist for those who may benefit from an SNT.
  • ABLE Account: The beneficiary must have become disabled before the age of 26.


  • SNT: There are no limits on how much money can be placed into an SNT.
  • ABLE Account: There are annual contribution limits (linked to the federal gift tax exclusion amount, which is $18,000 in 2024), and there's also a total limit on how much can be contributed, which varies by state.

Tax Advantages:

  • SNT: Generally, SNTs do not have tax advantages for contributors or beneficiaries.
  • ABLE Account: Contributions are made with post-tax dollars, but the earnings grow tax-free, and distributions for qualified disability expenses are tax-free.

Qualified Expenses:

  • SNT: Can be used for a broad range of expenses as long as it does not interfere with eligibility for government benefits.
  • ABLE Account: Can be used for "qualified disability expenses," which include education, housing, transportation, employment training, assistive technology, personal support services, out-of-pocket medical expenses, financial management, and administrative services.


  • SNT: Can be more flexible regarding what the funds can be used for, as determined by the trust agreement.
  • ABLE Account: Has more restrictions on using funds to retain the tax benefits.

Medicaid Payback:

  • SNT: A first-party SNT is subject to Medicaid payback, but a third-party SNT is not.
  • ABLE Account: Subject to Medicaid payback provisions upon the beneficiary's death.

Ownership and Estate Planning:

  • SNT: The assets in an SNT are not owned by the beneficiary, which allows for more flexibility in estate planning.
  • ABLE Account: The assets are considered owned by the beneficiary, which may affect estate planning.

While both SNTs and ABLE accounts offer benefits for individuals with disabilities, they have different rules and features that can make one more suitable than the other depending on the individual's circumstances. It's often beneficial to use them in conjunction with each other to maximize the advantages they offer.

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  1. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. https://www.medicaid.gov/.
  2. Supplemental Security Income (SSI). https://www.ssa.gov/ssi.
  3. About ABLE Accounts. https://www.ablenrc.org/what-is-able/what-are-able-acounts/.

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