What a Special Needs Trust Pays For

November 9, 2019

Part of a continuing series regarding what can be paid for from a special needs trust. The most common question a special needs trust client has is, “What can the trust pay for?” Policies regarding distributions change frequently and differ from state to state. What is allowable in one jurisdiction may cause a disruption of benefits in another. In general, a special needs trust is extremely flexible as to what it can and will provide. A trustee of a special needs trust generally does not pay for any good or service otherwise available through governmental benefits. Governmental benefits arguably provide for the basic needs of an individual, such as income, housing, medical benefits, and food. Professional trustees, in most circumstances, will not issue cash or a cash equivalent, such as a pre-paid card, due to the immediate impact on the individual’s benefits. The Trust itself is designed to supplement governmental benefits, not replace them, so needs that can be met through outside entities should be exhausted first before seeking payment from the Trust.

Depending on the terms of the trust, a trustee can pay for the basic needs of the individual under certain circumstances, especially in an emergency where the health and safety of the beneficiary are in jeopardy. Payments from the trust for the basic needs or support of the beneficiary may cause a decrease in monthly income or loss of other benefits. This situation can arise even if no money changes hands. For instance, an adult child living in his parent’s home rent-free may see a one-third reduction of his SSI check as in-kind support and maintenance (ISM). A trust that owns a home can pay for all expenses related to the home, including utilities. In most states, this will cause a one-third reduction of the SSI income, but the benefit to the beneficiary outweighs the loss of income. If there are others living in the home, the trustee may have a lease agreement and receive rent to help support the home. Overall, the duty of the trustee is to act in the best interests of the beneficiary and there are circumstances where the benefits to the beneficiary outweigh the penalties. These types of distributions should be done with the professional guidance of special needs attorneys so as to minimize any potential negative impact and maximize the benefit to the beneficiary.

Generally, distributions from the trust must meet several criteria: (1) the distribution must be for the sole benefit of the beneficiary, (2) in his or her best interests, (3) otherwise unavailable from other resources and/or no other responsible party, and (4) be fiscally prudent. Most often clients will inquire about the purchase of a home and transportation. Can they be purchased by the Trust? Yes. However, it must be done in light of the considerations outlined above and the purchase of any home should not be done without professional guidance, and with court approval if the trust is supervised. If the beneficiary is a minor, the trust does not relieve a parent of their obligation to provide for the basic needs of their minor child. Even though parents are losing jobs and facing economic difficulties, the court is generally unsympathetic to requests for funds or purchases to meet the basic needs of the children.

The most important practice tip is that a special needs trust is a very flexible document in which the trustee has full discretion to act in the best interests of the beneficiary. Every jurisdiction has its quirks. Even though the trusts are written pursuant to federal statutory authority, the administrative policies differ greatly between states. An experienced special needs planning attorney can help set reasonable client expectations, which are important for the client’s future relations and satisfaction with the Trustee and/or special needs trust attorney.

Related Posts:
Wills vs. Trusts in Michigan

Planning for the Future

Many people interested in estate planning are unsure of the difference between wills and trusts. While both instruments allow you to distribute your assets after death, there are some key differences between the two. Keep reading to learn the differences between wills and trusts in Michigan to make the best decision for you and your family.


A will is a document that directs how your property will be distributed after you die. You can use a will to:

  • Name an executor who will oversee the distribution of your property.
  • Appoint a guardian for your minor children.
  • Designate beneficiaries for your property, including family members, friends, charities, or organizations.


A trust is another way to direct how your assets will be distributed after you die, but with some important differences from wills. Trusts can be revocable or irrevocable. Revocable trusts can be changed at any point during the settlor's lifetime, while irrevocable trusts cannot be changed once they are created. This means that with a trust you can:

  • Place conditions on how and when assets are distributed.
  • Avoid probate, which is the legal process of distributing a person's assets after they die.
  • Reduce or eliminate estate taxes.

Differences Between Wills and Trusts

While wills and trusts both allow you to direct how your assets will be distributed after you die, there are some important differences to consider. These include:


As mentioned above, one of the main advantages of using a trust is that it can help you avoid probate. With a will, your assets will go through probate after you die. Probate can be time-consuming and expensive, so avoiding it can be a major advantage.


With a will, you have less control over your assets' distribution than with a trust. With a trust, you can place conditions on how and when assets are distributed, which gives you more control over what happens to your assets after you die.


Another advantage of using a trust is that it can help you reduce or eliminate estate taxes. With a will, your assets may be subject to estate taxes when you die.

Work with an Estate Planning Attorney

Deciding whether to use a will or a trust is an important decision in Michigan estate planning. If you have questions about wills vs. trusts, or any other aspect of estate planning, contact an experienced Michigan estate planning attorney today.

October 11, 2022

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