Special Needs Trust

Updated on June 10, 2024
Article byKumar Rahul
Edited byAshish Kumar Srivastav
Reviewed byDheeraj Vaidya, CFA, FRM

What Is A Special Needs Trust?

Special Needs Trust (SNT), is a legal and financial tool designed to benefit individuals with disabilities while safeguarding their eligibility for government assistance programs like Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Its primary aim is to improve the quality of life and financial security of individuals with special needs without jeopardizing their access to essential benefits.

Special Needs Trust

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One of the primary goals is to ensure that the beneficiary continues to receive vital government assistance. Assets placed in the trust do not count toward the beneficiary’s asset limit for means-tested programs. Funds from the trust can cover various expenses like medical care, therapy, education, transportation, and recreational activities. It improves the beneficiary’s overall well-being.

Key Takeaways

  • Special Needs Trusts (SNTs) are legal and financial tools designed to benefit individuals with disabilities while preserving their eligibility for government assistance programs like Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
  • There are different types of SNTs, including first-party SNTs (funded with the beneficiary’s assets), third-party SNTs (funded with help from someone other than the beneficiary), and pooled trusts (managed by non-profit organizations).
  • SNTs protect government benefit eligibility by excluding trust assets from the beneficiary’s asset limit for means-tested programs.

How Does A Special Needs Trust Work?

A Special Needs Trust (SNT) is a legal arrangement for individuals with disabilities. It also preserves their eligibility for government benefits. SNT funds can be used for various expenses, including education, housing, assistive technology, personal care attendants, and recreational activities. These are complex legal tools; consulting with legal and financial professionals specializing in special needs planning is essential to navigate the process effectively.

Here’s how an SNT works:

  1. Establishment: The process begins with the establishment of the trust. A parent, guardian, or relative (the grantor) creates the SNT, either in their lifetime (inter vivos) or through their will (testamentary). This is effective after their death.
  2. Selection of Trustee: The grantor appoints a trustee, who can be a family member, friend, or professional trustee, depending on the complexity of the trust and the grantor’s preferences. The trustee’s role is crucial as they manage and distribute the trust assets according to its terms.
  3. Funding: The grantor transfers assets, such as cash, real estate, investments, or life insurance, into the trust. The trustee then manages these assets to benefit the individual with special needs (the beneficiary).
  4. Trust Terms: The SNT document outlines specific instructions and guidelines for the trustee regarding how and when to make distributions. It’s essential to draft these terms carefully to ensure they align with the beneficiary’s needs and government benefit eligibility requirements.
  5. Beneficiary’s Needs: The trustee evaluates the beneficiary’s needs. They also use the trust funds to cover various expenses that enhance the beneficiary’s quality of life. This includes medical and dental care, therapy, education, transportation, housing, and recreational activities.
  6. Government Benefit Protection: The trust ensures its assets do not count against the beneficiary’s eligibility for government programs, like Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
  7. Ongoing Management: The trustee must manage the trust prudently, investing and distributing funds to benefit the beneficiary over the long term. They must keep meticulous records of all transactions and stay informed about changes in laws and regulations that could impact the trust.
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How To Set Up?

Setting up a Special Needs Trust involves several vital steps to ensure its legality and effectiveness. Here’s a general outline of the process:

  1. Consultation with an Attorney: Seek the guidance of an experienced attorney specializing in estate planning and special needs trusts. They can help a person to navigate the complex legal requirements and tailor the trust to their situation.
  2. Determine the Type of SNT: Decide whether one wants to establish a first-party SNT or a third-party SNT. It depends on the source of the funds. First-party SNTs are funded with the beneficiary’s assets, while third-party SNTs are funded with assets from someone else.
  3. Select a Trustee: Choose a trustworthy, financially responsible, and capable of managing the trust in the beneficiary’s best interests. This can be a family member, friend, or a professional trustee.
  4. Draft the Trust Document: Work with the attorney to create a comprehensive trust document. It outlines the trust’s purpose, terms, and instructions for the trustee. This document should specify how trust funds can benefit the individual with special needs while protecting their government benefit eligibility.
  5. Fund the Trust: Transfer assets into the trust according to the trust document’s guidelines. Ensure that all assets intended for the trust are properly titled in the trust’s name.
  6. Notify Beneficiary and Family: Inform the individual with special needs and their family members. It mentions the existence and purpose of the trust. It’s crucial for everyone to understand how the trust works and its role in their financial planning.
  7. Manage the Trust: The trustee is responsible for managing the trust assets, making distributions, and keeping accurate records. They must follow the trust document’s instructions and comply with all applicable laws and regulations.


Special Needs Trusts come in various types, each designed to address specific funding sources and circumstances. Here are the main types:

  1. First-Party SNTs: This type of trust is funded with assets belonging to individuals with disabilities. It is acquired through a legal settlement, inheritance, or personal savings. The primary purpose of a first-party SNT is to protect these assets. It also allows the individual to remain eligible for means-tested government benefits like Medicaid and SSI.
  2. Third-Party SNTs: A third-party SNT is established by someone other than an individual with special needs. It is funded with the donor’s assets and is typically used to supplement the beneficiary’s needs beyond what government benefits provide.
  3. Pooled SNTs: Pooled trusts are managed by non-profit organizations or financial institutions that pool the funds of multiple beneficiaries into a single trust. Each beneficiary has a separate account within the trust.
  4. Non-profit SNTs: Some non-profit organizations offer specialized SNT services, primarily for their members or clients. The organization manages these trusts and may have specific eligibility criteria.
  5. Medicaid Payback SNTs: Sometimes, a first-party SNT may be required to include a Medicaid payback provision. Upon the beneficiary’s passing, any remaining trust funds must be used to reimburse Medicaid for the benefits received during their lifetime before making other distributions.
  6. Temporary SNTs These trusts are set up for specific, time-limited purposes, such as the proceeds from a personal injury lawsuit or an insurance settlement.


Let us understand it more through the following examples.

Example #1

Suppose Sarah, a caring grandmother, wanted to ensure her grandson, Ethan, who had autism, would have financial security and support throughout his life. Sarah established a third-party SNT funded with a portion of her estate to achieve this. She named her daughter, Emily, as the trustee.

As Ethan grew older, the trust allowed Emily to use the funds to provide him with specialized tutoring, speech therapy, and access to adaptive technology. This ensured Ethan had the resources he needed for personal growth and development while still retaining his eligibility for government benefits like Medicaid.

Example #2

In an article published by the New York State Bar Association in 2023, significant changes in child support regulations and their effects on adult developmentally disabled children’s benefits are explored. The article delves into the evolving landscape of child support obligations, emphasizing the potential pitfalls that can negatively impact adults with disabilities who rely on government benefits.

It highlights how changes in child support payments can inadvertently disrupt access to crucial means-tested programs like Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for these vulnerable individuals. Legal experts and advocates urge families to consider Special Needs Trusts (SNTs) to protect their loved ones’ financial security while ensuring continued eligibility for essential government assistance. The article serves as a call to action for parents and guardians to navigate these complex issues with the utmost care and seek professional guidance to secure the best interests of their adult children with disabilities.

Fees And Taxes

Special Needs Trusts fees and taxes can vary depending on several factors, including the type of trust, the trustee, and the trust’s jurisdiction. Here’s an overview of the typical fees and tax considerations:


  1. Legal Fees: Setting up an SNT requires legal expertise so that one will incur legal fees. The cost can vary depending on the complexity of the trust and the attorney’s hourly rate or flat fee. Expect to pay for drafting the trust document, reviewing it periodically, and making necessary amendments.
  2. Trustee Fees: If one chooses a professional trustee, such as a bank or trust company, they will charge fees for their services. These fees may be a percentage of the trust’s assets or a fixed annual fee. Family member trustees often serve without compensation, but some are subject to reimbursement for reasonable expenses.
  3. Administrative Costs: SNTs may have ongoing administrative expenses, including account maintenance fees, investment management fees, and record-keeping expenses. These costs vary depending on the trust’s assets and the trustee’s policies.
  4. Tax Preparation: SNTs may need to file annual tax returns. Tax preparation fees can apply, primarily if the trust generates income or has complex tax considerations.


  1. Income Tax: SNTs may be subject to income tax if they generate income through investments or other assets. However, SNTs often qualify for favorable income tax treatment, such as deductions for distributions made for the beneficiary’s qualified disability expenses. Consult a tax professional for guidance on tax reporting and minimizing tax liabilities.
  2. Gift and Estate Tax: Contributions to an SNT can have gift and estate tax implications. In the United States, annual and lifetime gift tax exemptions fund SNTs without incurring gift tax. Estate tax may apply to the trust’s assets upon the grantor’s passing if their estate exceeds the applicable exemption threshold.
  3. Medicaid Payback: If the SNT is a first-party trust and the beneficiary receives Medicaid benefits, there may be a Medicaid payback requirement upon the beneficiary’s death. This means that Medicaid may have a claim to the remaining trust assets to recover the cost of benefits provided.

Advantages And Disadvantages

Here is a quick comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of Special Needs Trusts:

Advantages of SNTsDisadvantages of SNTs
1. Preservation of Benefits: SNTs allow individuals with disabilities to receive government benefits like Medicaid and SSI while still having access to additional financial resources.1. Complex Setup: Establishing and maintaining an SNT can be legally and administratively complex, often requiring the assistance of legal and financial professionals.
2. Financial Security: SNTs provide long-term financial security for the beneficiary by ensuring that funds are available to cover essential needs and enhance their quality of life.2. Costs: SNTs involve various fees, including legal fees, trustee fees, and administrative expenses, which can reduce the overall assets available for the beneficiary.
3. Estate Planning: SNTs enable family members to include a loved one with special needs in their estate plan, ensuring their care and financial well-being after the grantor’s passing.3. Limited Control: In some cases, the beneficiary may have limited control over trust assets and how they are used, depending on the trust’s terms and the trustee’s discretion.
4. Flexibility: SNTs can be tailored to meet the specific needs and goals of the beneficiary, allowing for a wide range of expenses to be covered.4. Tax Considerations: While SNTs offer tax advantages, they can also be subject to income tax, gift tax, or estate tax, which require careful planning and reporting.
5. Professional Management: Professional trustees can provide expertise in managing trust assets and ensuring they are invested prudently to benefit the beneficiary.5. Medicaid Payback: In first-party SNTs, a Medicaid payback requirement may apply, potentially reducing the amount passed on to heirs or beneficiaries after the individual’s passing.

Special Needs Trust vs Able Account vs Supplemental Needs Trust

Below is a brief comparison of Special Needs Trusts, ABLE accounts, and Supplemental Needs Trusts:

AspectSpecial Needs TrustABLE AccountSupplemental Needs Trust
PurposeTo provide financial support for individuals with disabilities while preserving their eligibility for means-tested government benefits.To allow individuals with disabilities to save and invest money for qualified disability expenses without impacting eligibility for government benefits.To enhance the quality of life of individuals with disabilities by providing supplemental financial support while preserving government benefit eligibility.
Funding SourceIt may offer tax advantages, but income generated within the trust may be subject to income tax.Personal contributions, including those from the beneficiary, family, and friends.Third-party SNTs: Funded with assets from someone other than the beneficiary.
EligibilityAvailable to individuals with disabilities, regardless of age, who meet the criteria for government means-tested programs.Available to individuals with disabilities with an onset of disability before age 26.Available to individuals with disabilities who meet the trust’s eligibility criteria, typically including age restrictions.
Tax-Advantaged SavingsIt may offer some tax advantages, but the income generated within the trust may be subject to income tax.Provides tax-advantaged savings with tax-free withdrawals for qualified disability expenses.It may offer tax advantages, but the income generated within the trust may be subject to income tax.
Account OwnershipHeld and managed by a trustee, often a family member, friend, or professional trustee.Owned and controlled by the account beneficiary, with a parent or guardian as a designated authorized individual.Held and managed by a trustee, often a family member or nonprofit organization.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What is a Medicaid payback provision in an SNT?

In first-party SNTs, there may be a Medicaid payback requirement, which means that upon the beneficiary’s passing, any remaining trust funds must reimburse Medicaid for benefits received during their lifetime.

2. Can SNTs be used in estate planning?

SNTs can be part of an estate plan to provide for a loved one with special needs after the grantor’s passing, ensuring they have financial security and support.

3. Who can serve as a trustee for an SNT?

A trustee can be a family member, friend, or professional trustee, depending on the grantor’s preferences and the complexity of the trust. Professional trustees, such as banks or trust companies, may provide expertise in managing trust assets.

4. How does an SNT protect government benefits?

Assets held in an SNT do not count toward the beneficiary’s asset limit for means-tested government programs. This protection ensures that the beneficiary can continue to receive essential benefits while benefiting from the trust.

This article has been a guide to what is Special Needs Trust. We compare it with ABLE account & supplemental needs trust, explain how to set it up, and examples. You may also find some useful articles here –

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