Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Why Michigan families need special needs savings plans

Michigan State Rep. Anthony Forlini recently introduced legislation, House Bill 4543, that will allow the state to set up a framework so citizens with special needs can save money in special accounts. This is a big deal for my family and I hope others will join me in encouraging our legislators to pass Michigan's plan for the federal ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) Act of 2014.

To explain what this means by example, last year my husband and I helped our 6-year-old son with classic autism and cognitive impairment start a tradition of showing a pen of chickens at the county fair. He sold them at auction for around $150, just like his big sisters who experience hard work and responsibility by raising, showing and selling livestock and poultry. We pay for everything our son might need or want, so that money went into his small savings account at the bank. If he raises a few fair chickens each year he is in 4-H and no more, he will have the maximum amount of money allowed before a person becomes ineligible for Supplemental Security Income (disability) support, Medicaid and other federal programs based on means. About $2,000 in chicken money will max him out.

While our family is doing everything we can to help our son learn and grow to become as independent as possible, the reality is he will probably need disability support sometime in the future — whether that is when he becomes an adult or when we are gone. That means any money in the bank given to him by grandparents as birthday gifts or that he might earn during childhood, such as by raising pigs, selling eggs or helping in the family maple syrup business, would either be forfeited or deem him ineligible for disability support. We want to encourage our son to develop simple job skills, so being able to work at supervised tasks and earn a little bit of money is important to his development. And if you've met my little guy even briefly, you know he loves his farm animals!

Of course a person with permanent disabilities such as my son's is exactly why this program exists, so it makes sense to make it accessible.

"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'" —Matthew 25:40

It's true that even before the federal ABLE Act passed last year, a family with means has been able to hire an attorney to set up a special needs trust, which costs $500+ in legal fees in my area. Some families have found ways to funnel funds to other places to get around the law.

Now that the federal ABLE Act passed last year, all people with special needs are allowed to keep their own money in their own names in special tax-free savings accounts that won't be taken away from them or counted against their eligibility to receive federal disability benefits. However, it's up to each state to set up a system for its citizens to participate.

Michigan offers tax-free 529 college savings plans for families to set aside money so students can attend college. My 6-year-old chicken-showing son, as well as his little brother who is also seriously affected by disabilities, won't likely be able to attend college. The boys will, however, have long-term needs. Families like mine who can help their children with special needs set aside some money for the future should be able to do so without being penalized. A Michigan special needs savings plan will make that happen.

Thank you, Rep. Forlini and cosponsoring Reps. Jenkins, Irwin, Victory, Poleski, Lucido, Howrylak, Miller, Liberati, Lane, LaVoy, Geiss, Hooker and Courser for supporting Michigan's special citizens through this bipartisan legislation. Thank you Lt. Gov. Brian Calley for testifying in support of it today. Won't you contact your Michigan senator and representative to let them know you support Michigan's implementation of the ABLE Act, too?

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