Making Decisions for An Adult Special Needs Child

Parents of children with special needs must be concerned with ensuring that medical and financial decisions will continue to be made in the child’s best interest once the child reaches age 18 – the age of legal capacity. In most states, once a child reaches age 18, he is presumed to have capacity to make decisions and the parents’ legal authority ends. Parents of children with special needs have various options, each with advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation, to establish a new legal authority to continue making important decisions for the child.

If the child is incapable of making personal or financial decisions once reaching the age of majority, a parent — or anyone else who is not a minor, incapacitated, and does not have a substantial conflict of interest — can petition the court to be appointed the adult child’s guardian (for personal, legal, and medical decisions) and conservator (for financial decisions). The downside is that guardianship and conservatorship requires a court process, which can be expensive and time consuming, as well as emotionally difficult for the person with special needs and the family. In order to protect against abuse, the individual who is the object of the guardianship or conservatorship proceeding (the “ward”) will be represented by an attorney and the court must determine if the disabled person is incapable of making decisions.

In cases where someone is appointed to make financial decisions, the court may require that person to be bonded, file annual financial statements and request the court’s permission before dealing with the property of the person with special needs. While this is meant to increase oversight and protection, it decreases family control.

There are ways to avoid the time and expense of a guardianship and conservatorship process while accomplishing the same basic goals If the person with special needs has sufficient capacity to understand, he can appoint an agent using a durable power of attorney over medical or financial matters, or both. Depending on the type of power of attorney, the agent will have the authority to make financial and property decisions or medical and personal decisions on behalf of the adult child, all without court intervention or direct oversight.

If the adult child receives either Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and is incapable of managing the funds, the Social Security Administration allows another person to receive the funds to use on the child’s behalf. However, this option also requires the filing of an annual report showing how the money was used.

Another option for parents to consider is establishing a special needs trust. The trust allows a person with special needs to shield assets for certain purposes while maintaining eligibility to receive SSI and Medicaid benefits. The trustee invests and manages the trust assets without the need of a financial guardian or conservator.

The Farr Law Firm helps families facing these issue decide which approach or a combination of approaches best fits their particular situation. Factors to consider include the nature of the child’s special needs, the source and type of the child’s assets and whether the child has sufficient capacity to understand the options.

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.