The Voice is the e-mail newsletter of The Special Needs Alliance. This installment was written by Janet Lowder, CELA; Sandra J. Buzney, JD, LISW and Mary B. McKee, JD, who practice law in northeast Ohio with Hickman & Lowder Co., L.P.A. Janet and Sandra are members of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA); Mary belongs to the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR). Janet is also the Vice President of the Special Needs Alliance, a national organization committed to helping individuals with disabilities, their families, and the professionals who represent them.

June 2010 - Vol. 4, Issue 8

School’s out, spring’s gone, taxes are filed and it’s time to clean out the study / spare room. You’re probably thinking about whether you can throw away all those files and boxes of old records. We’re all supposed to “go green,” right?

Parents of a child with special needs or individuals who had special needs as a child, however, should carefully consider which records to place in the recycle bin and which records to maintain and re-label. Counterintuitive as it may seem, hoarding sometimes helps. Even if eligibility for government benefits or other programs is not a concern at this time, some records may be critically important in the future.

The guiding principle of the record retention strategy is “Hope for the best but plan for the worst.” While many children with special needs will find jobs that enable them to be self-sufficient or pursue educational goals and then start careers, others may rely on public benefit programs.

Many public benefit programs require proof that a person had a disability prior to reaching the age of 22. A person might need documentation of such a condition to acquire appropriate accommodations in vocational training or college, which may one day lead to a career or the fulfillment of educational goals. Others may need to document when a childhood condition was originally discovered because a recurrence or exacerbation in adulthood could put substantial gainful employment on hold and qualifying for various benefits may become necessary.

Some of the most important documents that may be useful throughout a person’s lifetime would include the following:

  • Individual education plans (IEPs), multi-factored evaluations (MFEs), 504 plans, and the recommendations for accommodations
  • Results of medical exams, particularly by specialists such as neurologists and psychologists
  • If there was an acute illness, accident or trauma that resulted in permanent changes in the individual’s cognitive skills or physical abilities, medical records from this period of time to show the before and after picture
  • Documentation that the individual received services from agencies that focus on individuals with special needs or disabilities
  • Records from job training programs or workshop employment
  • Letters from coaches, camp counselors, neighbors, religious or community leaders –anyone not related to you whose observations may someday help to establish how different or special your child was
  • Letters from employers preserving the story of how your child got the job, whether the job was created or tailor-made for your child, and any problems or issues on the job
  • Court documents regarding guardianship/conservatorship, settlements for personal injuries or orders concerning legal capacity

Having appropriate documentation may make it easier for a person to qualify for invaluable public benefits in the future, including many of the following:

  • Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) based on the individual’s work record or adult Childhood Disability Benefits (CDB, formerly DAC) based on the earnings of a parent who is permanently disabled, retired, or deceased
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Medicare
  • Medicaid
  • Income and health insurance benefits available through a parent’s employer for dependent adult children
  • Supported living and other benefits through public Developmental Disability boards
  • Medicaid Waiver programs
  • Military Survivor Benefits Plans

Destroying certain records can be like throwing out the baby with the bathwater – they can be impossible to recreate. Keep in mind that professionals such as attorneys and physicians, and even some government programs such as public schools, may not be required to keep records indefinitely.

Professionals who may have assisted a person in the past may have since retired, moved, changed jobs or even passed away. Schools, non-profit agencies and other programs can merge with other organizations, evolve or even become extinct – making record recreation a nightmare, if even possible at all. Tracing back through the years to track down the people who might still remember enough details to provide testimony or a written statement may prove futile, even in the age of Facebook and Google.

In short, resist the urge to toss those yellowing papers just because they’re more than three, seven, or 37 years old. They may well have more than sentimental value one day. So reach for your goals and encourage individuals with special needs to follow their dreams, but please keep those old records somewhere safe that is conveniently accessible. It is perfectly acceptable to invest in a scanner and build a virtual stockpile of those paper files. If these kids happen to do as well as everyone hopes and have their own households one day, they can do their own housecleaning!

About this Article: We hope you find this article informative, but it is not legal advice. You should consult your own attorney, who can review your specific situation and account for variations in state law and local practices. Laws and regulations are constantly changing, so the longer it has been since an article was written, the greater the likelihood that the article might be out of date. SNA members focus on this complex, evolving area of law. To locate a member in your state, visit Find an Attorney.

 Requirements for Reproducing this Article: The above article may be reprinted only if it appears unmodified, including both the author description above the title and the “About this Article” paragraph immediately following the article, accompanied by the following statement: “Reprinted with permission of the Special Needs Alliance –” The article may not be reproduced online. Instead, references to it should link to it on the SNA website.