Special Needs Trust vs. ABLE Account: An Overview
ABLE accounts and special needs trusts, also known as supplemental needs trusts, both give people with disabilities a way to save money tax-free. By saving money in an ABLE account or supplemental needs trust (SNT), you can also make sure that a disabled person continues to be eligible for public programs.
Both ABLE accounts and SNTs protect resources. Each allows the accumulation of resources for the benefit of an individual with a disability without jeopardizing key federally funded benefits, like Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid.
There are significant differences between the two ways of saving, though. ABLE accounts and SNTs have different rules when it comes to what you can use your savings for. They also have different annual limits on how much you can save. Then there are a number of other differences that may have an impact on you, depending on your circumstances.
In this article, we’ll take a brief look at each type of saving strategy and explore the differences between them.
- Both ABLE accounts and SNTs allow a person diagnosed with disabilities—or their relatives—to save money without affecting their eligibility for public benefits. Prior to 2014, only SNTs could be used for this purpose.
- ABLE accounts are easier to set up and manage. However, they come with some disadvantages—primarily, limits on the amount of money you can contribute each year.
- SNTs don’t have any such limits but can be expensive to set up and more complicated to manage.
- You don’t have to choose one or the other. It’s possible to set up an ABLE account for everyday expenses and have an SNT that you can use for larger purchases that are not covered by public benefits.
Supplemental Needs Trusts (SNTs)
A supplemental needs trust (SNT) is a way for a disabled person to receive money without losing access to their public benefits.
Most public assistance programs for people with disabilities have income and asset restrictions—if a disabled person earns too much or has too much money in savings, they will no longer be eligible for these benefits. An SNT is a way around this restriction. Money put in the trust doesn’t count toward the purpose of qualifying for public assistance.
An SNT is a legal arrangement and fiduciary relationship. In a fiduciary relationship, a person or entity acts on behalf of another person or people to manage assets. An SNT is a popular strategy for those who want to help someone in need without taking the risk that the person will lose their eligibility for programs that require their income or assets to remain below a certain limit.
An SNT benefits the beneficiary as it allows them to put more money away without losing their Social Security benefits. The individual who creates the trust can rest assured that the money contributed will be used as outlined in the creation of the trust. Furthermore, benefiting both the beneficiary and the trust creator, assets in the trust cannot be claimed by creditors or in the loss of a lawsuit.
It’s also important to recognize that the money in an SNT can only be used for a limited range of expenses. You are not supposed to use these funds to cover basic living expenses. Instead, proceeds from this type of trust are commonly used for healthcare needs, transportation, and other qualifying costs.
In many ways, an ABLE account is similar to an SNT. An ABLE account is a tax-advantaged savings account available to individuals with significant disabilities appearing before age 26. Contributions can be made to the account by the beneficiary, friends, or family members, just as with an SNT.
Just as with an SNT, money saved in an ABLE account doesn’t affect a disabled person’s eligibility for public benefits. There are also tax benefits to setting up an ABLE account—while the contributions themselves are not intended to be tax-deductible, the funds within the account grow tax-free and distributions are tax-free.
ABLE accounts are a much newer financial product than SNTs. They were created by the 2014 Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act as a way of giving more disabled people access to the benefits that, up until then, were restricted to those who held SNTs.
ABLE accounts can be used to pay for a wider range of things than the money in an SNT. The money in an ABLE account can be used to pay for any qualified disability expenses (QDEs).
There is an annual limit to how much you can contribute to an ABLE account: $17,000 in 2023. SNTs have no limits.
There are three main differences between SNTs and ABLE accounts: eligibility, the expenses permitted for each type of account, and the limits on how much money you can save through them.
ABLE accounts are offered to those meeting certain requirements. You only have to meet one of the following:
- Eligible for SSI determined by a disability or blindness that occurred before the age of 26
- Eligible for benefits, including disability insurance benefits, childhood disability benefits, and disabled widow/widower benefits determined by a disability or blindness that occurred before the age of 26
- A certificate proving that your disability or blindness occurred before the age of 26
An individual that qualifies for disability according to the Social Security Administration has to set up a first-party SNT before they reach 65. Third-party trusts, however, have no age restrictions. First-party SNTs are invested with assets that belong to the beneficiary while third-party trusts are invested with assets from anyone but the beneficiary.
ABLE accounts have contribution limits as well as amount limits. You can only contribute a certain amount each year. This amount is set federally under the same tax code governing 529 plans: $17,000 in 2023. In addition, ABLE accounts have a maximum limit set by the state that manages them. Many states set this limit above $300,000, with only the first $100,000 exempt from impacting eligibility for supplemental security income (SSI). SNTs have no such limits.
One disadvantage of SNTs is that they can be expensive to set up. You will typically need to hire an attorney to set up the trust. In contrast, setting up an ABLE account is fast and easy, and can be done directly through the state’s website. No attorney or financial advisor assistance is needed.
The third main difference between these accounts concerns what you can use them to pay for.
Put simply, SNTs are supposed to pay for “extra” things that make life more comfortable, such as vacations, pets, entertainment, home furnishings, assistive technology, therapies not covered by Medicaid, and more. These are things that public benefits cannot pay for. If the money in an SNT is used to pay for basic costs of living, a person’s public benefits might be decreased.
ABLE accounts have a broader range of permitted expenses. This includes anything that helps a person with a disability improve their health, independence, or quality of life. QDEs can include basic costs of living, as well as costs for education, food, employment, transportation, technology, support services, and more.
As well as the fundamental differences mentioned above, these accounts differ in several other ways. These features may make a big difference to you, depending on your situation.
- Everyday management: In general, money in SNTs is more difficult to access. The funds in ABLE accounts can be accessed easily, and many programs offer a debit card that allows you to pay for items directly from the account.
- Who manages the account: ABLE accounts are owned and managed by a person with disabilities, who is responsible for making sure that they only spend money on allowable expenses. SNTs are managed by trustees, who are responsible for keeping records of expenses.
- Tax: The money you keep in an ABLE account is tax-free, but the money kept in an SNT is taxable each year.
- Medicaid liability: Money left in a person’s ABLE account after they die may be used to reimburse the state Medicaid agency for services Medicaid paid for after the ABLE account was created, depending on state regulations. There is often no money left after Medicaid is paid back. SNTs that were created with a parent, grandparent, or other person’s money (known as a third-party trust) do not have to repay Medicaid after a person dies.
SNT vs. ABLE Account: Which Is Better?
Every family’s needs and circumstances are different, and when making financial decisions it’s best to consult a professional. You can find lists of financial professionals who work with people with disabilities online, and the ABLE National Resource Center provides a comparison tool to help you understand how each type of account can help you.
It’s also important to realize that you don’t need to choose between an ABLE account and an SNT. You can in fact have both. These accounts are best used for different purposes, despite having some characteristics in common.
According to the team at the ABLE National Resource Center, these financial instruments can work together. That’s because, they explain, “a special needs or pooled trust is considered a ‘person’ who can contribute to an ABLE account, much like any other third party, without an effect on means-tested benefits. The ABLE account then may, in turn, fund food or shelter expenses of the account owner without a reduction in supplemental security income benefits, unlike the effect which would occur if the SNT or [pooled trust] paid directly.”
The money in SNTs is to pay for “extra” expenses that are not covered by public benefits. You can use the money in an ABLE account for a much broader range of expenses, including the basic costs of living, education, food, employment, and transportation.
You should set up an ABLE account if you or a family member qualify. This will ensure that the disabled individual, whether you or a family member, will be able to obtain benefits. There may be additional benefits as well, such as tax relief.
There are many factors to consider when choosing the best option for your family, points out Juliana Crist, senior consultant at AKF Consulting, a municipal advisor to state-run investment plans. “Things like guardianship orders, end-of-life planning, tax considerations, Medicaid payback, and total assets all play into the decision of which financial tool to use,” Crist says. Her firm, she continues, “always likes to say that SNTs and ABLE accounts are complementary tools—they work very well together.“
Establishing an SNT is strategically viable if you need to sequester more money than an ABLE account allows, which is up to $100,000. If you put in more than $100,000, then SSI benefits will be suspended. Additionally, the maximum you can contribute to an ABLE account in 2023 is $17,000. If you wish to fund more than that per month, it is recommended you set up an SNT.
Can I Have an SNT and an ABLE Account?
Yes, you can have both. And you can even set up an SNT so that it can fund an ABLE account.
Who Controls an SNT?
The most common type of SNT is a third-party trust set up by parents to benefit their children. In this case, the parents act as trustees. A trustee is a person or entity who manages the trust assets and administers the trust provisions. A trustee can be a family member, friend, or colleague of the beneficiary, a professional, or a combination of the two.
Does Autism Qualify for an ABLE Account?
Yes, autism is a disability that qualifies for an ABLE account. The Internal Revenue Service lists the disabilities that qualify, which the Social Security Administration will accept for SSI or SSDI.
The Bottom Line
Both ABLE accounts and SNTs allow a person diagnosed with disabilities—or their relatives—to save money without affecting their eligibility for public benefits. Prior to 2014, only SNTs could be used for this purpose, and they can be expensive to establish.
ABLE accounts are much easier to set up and manage. However, they come with some disadvantages: primarily, limits on the amount of money you can save each year. You don’t have to choose one or the other, though. It’s possible to set up an ABLE account for everyday expenses and have an SNT that you can use for larger purchases that are not covered by public benefits.