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May the Circle be Unbroken: Coordinating a Circle of (Professional) Support for Special Needs Planning


Frequently estate planning attorneys encounter clients who have sought out legal advice for the purpose of planning for children or grandchildren with special needs. After all, with the cost of caregiving for an individual with disabilities ranging from $19 an hour for a personal care assistant to $120,000 a year for a private room at an institutional care facility, it is not uncommon for our clients' greatest concern to be ensuring their loved one has funds available for optimal levels of care after death.

While an estate planning attorney often creates systems and plans to care for an individual with special needs following a parent or guardian's death, it's not realistic for the attorney to effectively deal with all of the steps that will be necessary to ensure that the systems and plans function properly. Instead, the parent or guardian will need to coordinate a circle of professional support – a circle of advisors and professionals, including an estate planning attorney, financial advisors, insurance professionals, trust officers, and care coordinators, to ensure that all systems and plans are properly executed.

If you are building a circle of support, consider the following roles that are undertaken by different advisors, each of which is integral to creating a holistic, long-term care plan for an individual with special needs:

  • Estate planning attorney: The architect of the plan, your estate planning attorney will create specialized vehicles (generally special needs trusts) to hold assets following your death that will ensure that your loved one remains eligible for government benefits and assistance programs. The attorney can also assist you with the guardianship or conservatorship process, ensuring that there is always a decision-maker in place to act for the benefit of the individual with special needs.
  • Financial planner: While the estate planning attorney can design the vehicle that holds assets for the benefit of your loved one, the attorney cannot fund the vehicle. This is the job of the financial planner, who will manage your assets during your life to ensure that you are taken care of, but also can help ensure that you are leaving a legacy to be used for the benefit of your loved one(s).
  • Insurance professional: In addition to accumulating assets during your life, one of the best ways to fund a special needs trust is through life insurance. Working with a trusted insurance professional to select and purchase an appropriate insurance policy that will maximize the assets available to the individual with a disability is of paramount importance.
  • Care coordinators: Special needs planning is not solely about asset accumulation and management. Instead, the care coordinator occupies the vital role of caring for the medical, social, and personal support of the individual with special needs. From scheduling doctor's visits to arranging trips and supplemental activities, the care coordinator helps ensure your loved one enjoys the day-to-day quality of life and physical and emotional well-being that he/she deserves.

Above all, when estate planning for an individual with special needs, it is vitally important that the circle of support that you have put in place is communicating, sharing knowledge, and working together during the planning process and during the execution of the plan. By taking steps to ensure that the circle of care remains unbroken among your various advisors and professionals, you can rest assured that your loved one will have a team ready to step in when the time comes.

Are you just starting the special needs planning process? Or, do you need to make changes to your current plan? Our holistic team can guide you in the direction of advisors, professionals, and other resources that may be available to you and your family. At Chambliss, we have a full tool kit of highly trained professionals including care coordinators, a Tennessee licensed social worker, dedicated special needs planning attorneys, resident CPAs, and one of only a handful of Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Southeast.