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March 2008 - Vol. 2, Issue 6


Young girl with hands on cheekSometimes it is difficult to figure out what expenditures are appropriate for a Special Needs Trust. Confusion may arise because of differences in state law, trust size, age or condition of the beneficiary, terms of the trust itself, or any number of other variables. To compound the problem, there has been little direct guidance from the courts, and the legal literature is far from extensive.

The Range of Choices.

A Special Needs Trust might have been created to handle proceeds from a personal injury settlement or an inheritance left directly to an individual with a disability. It might be designed to protect eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid, or other public benefits programs — or for a number of programs (usually including those two) at the same time. Common questions about the use of trust money often revolve around travel and entertainment, transportation and housing — but all manner of other expenditures crop up as an issue from time to time.

In one case, a mother acting as trustee might wonder about her ability to pay another family member for personal care not covered by Medicaid. In the next, a corporate trustee might be willing to pay for a trip to Disney World, but not know how to cover the costs or whether to pay for other family members who travel with the trust beneficiary. In yet another, the father who established the trust might chafe at the suggestion that he should not use the money he contributed to the trust to pay for improvements on the family home.

Where to Look for Answers.

The first advice to a trustee is usually to look at the trust document itself. It may be fine that state and federal law permit a particular expenditure, but if the trust does not then the trustee cannot take advantage of the government’s flexibility. Sometimes there is nothing to prohibit a proposed expenditure in public benefits law or the trust document, but that still might not mean that the purchase is appropriate — it might be imprudent considering the circumstances, or a violation of general trust administration principles.

All that said, the very purpose of Special Needs Trusts is usually to provide extra, or supplemental, items to the beneficiary — the things that the system, family and other sources cannot or will not provide. One of the very few court cases addressing this concept is a 2004 Minnesota Court of Appeals case, In re: The Irrevocable Supplemental Needs Trust of Collins.

Mr. Collins had been appointed trustee of a Special Needs Trust for the benefit of his teenage daughter. Over the course of five years, he used trust income and assets to pay for a number of items that later were challenged in court. A local judge ordered Mr. Collins to repay a little more than $2,000 of allegedly improper expenditures.

What had Mr. Collins paid for with trust funds that got him in trouble? Among other things, he had purchased a snowmobile for her when she was 13, and Britney Spears concert tickets for her a year later. The Judge reviewing his accounting decided that some of those expenditures were inappropriate for a young beneficiary, and that was why Mr. Collins was ordered to return the funds from his own money.

The Court of Appeals Reviews the Accounting.

Mr. Collins appealed the order directing him to return funds, and the state Court of Appeals (one step below the state Supreme Court in Minnesota) agreed with him. The proper approach ruled the appellate court, was not to second-guess the trustee as to each expenditure but to determine whether the trustee was properly exercising his discretion. Since the whole point of a Special Needs Trust (or, as the trust was called in this case, a “Supplemental Needs” Trust) is to provide extra benefits that are not otherwise available, the trial judge here should have presumed that a trustee/father knows best whether his daughter is mature enough to ride a snowmobile or attend a Britney Spears concert.

The Minnesota case gives some insight into how judges — at least appellate judges — view Special Needs Trust expenditures, but it does not provide much assistance. That is partly because the decision was “unreported.” That means that the judges decided that it should not be made available to cite as precedent. Even if it had been reported, it might not be very useful outside of Minnesota.

Nonetheless, the Collins case can give us some assistance in determining whether a given expenditure should be approved by a Special Needs Trust. Among the items to consider in a given case:

1. Is the expenditure permitted by the trust terms? Is it prohibited by Medicaid or Social Security regulations?

2. Does the expenditure clearly benefit the trust’s beneficiary? Does it also benefit others, such as family members? If it benefits the trustee (as, for instance, a home improvement that clearly aids the beneficiary but also increases the value of the home owned by a parent/trustee), it should be scrutinized much more closely, and may not be permissible in all circumstances.

3. Is there enough money in the trust to make the proposed payment without seriously affecting the ability to provide other benefits in coming years? Not every expenditure that reduces future benefits is forbidden, but the larger the expenditure (in relation to the trust’s size), the harder it is to justify.

4. Is the proposed expenditure related to the purpose for which the trust was established? In other words, if the trust came from a personal injury settlement it will ordinarily be easier to approve expenditures for therapy or adaptive equipment related to the injury for which the settlement was obtained.

5. Are there other sources of funds? If public benefits are available to provide the same items, the money ordinarily should not come from the trust. But if the public benefits are so limited that the quality of the items will suffer, or if it takes an extremely long time for equipment or services to get to the beneficiary, the trust might still be available to make the purchase more quickly or to purchase better supplies or equipment. Where family resources are available, it might be better to save trust funds — especially if the beneficiary is a minor, and parents have a general obligation of support.

There will, of course, be other considerations in each case. We do not mean to give an encyclopedic list here, so much as to suggest that decisions about expenditures can be very difficult. It is not enough for the trustee to really, really want to make the expenditure, or to be completely convinced it is appropriate — it is important to consider the proposal from all sides, admitting that there may be good reasons not to proceed, as well. The key is that the trustee must act reasonably, remain free from self-interest or bias, and above all, be prudent.

How Does a Trustee Act Prudently?

The best way to assure that proper decisions are made, and to minimize the possibility of later difficulties, is to seek independent advice from a qualified legal expert. While many lawyers may insist that they know how to draft Special Needs Trusts, not all of them have experience dealing with state and federal agency treatment of expenditures.

Sometimes it may be appropriate to consider the options and risks, make an expenditure report it to the appropriate government agency, and wait for a response. Sometimes it may be better to seek the blessing of the court system, giving notice to government agencies as appropriate and asking for a determination of the validity of the proposed expenditure in advance. The Special Needs Alliance advisor you consult will be able to give you guidance with expenditures, accounting requirements, and government benefits.

Special Needs Trust Spending Rules

A special needs trust is created for the benefit of a person with a disability and provides financial support while ensuring eligibility for government benefits. One of the most important aspects of a special needs trust is how the funds can be spent. In this blog, we will discuss the spending rules of a special needs trust and how they can be used to enhance the life of the beneficiary.

1. Basic Rules of Spending:

A special needs trust is designed to supplement the government benefits for the beneficiary in a way that ensures they continue to receive assistance from the government. It is important to note that the funds from the trust cannot be used for “basic support” such as food or housing, as it would disqualify the beneficiary from receiving government assistance. Instead, the funds must be used for “special needs,” which could include things like education, transportation, medical expenses, and other related expenses.

2. Seeking Professional Advice:

When it comes to spending the funds of a special needs trust, it is always recommended to seek the advice of a professional such as a lawyer or financial advisor. The spending rules may vary depending on the state and the type of trust, and consulting with a professional can ensure the funds are used properly and avoid any penalties or disqualification from government benefits.

3. Trustee Responsibility:

The trustee of a special needs trust plays an important role in managing the funds and ensuring they are spent properly. The trustee must keep detailed records of all expenses, verify that they fall under the “special needs” category, and be transparent in their spending. It is also important for the trustee to have a good understanding of the beneficiary’s needs so that the trust can be used to enhance their quality of life.

4. Maximizing Benefits:

The spending rules of a special needs trust can be used to maximize the benefits of the beneficiary. For instance, the funds can be used to pay for educational programs or a vocational training course to help the beneficiary become more independent and self-sufficient. They can also be used for home modifications or special equipment that can help the beneficiary live more comfortably and safely.

5. Supplementation vs. Direct Payment:

It is important to understand the difference between supplementing government benefits and making direct payments to the beneficiary. If the funds are given directly to the beneficiary, it could potentially disqualify them from receiving government assistance. On the other hand, if the funds are used to supplement government benefits, the beneficiary can still receive assistance while also benefiting from the trust funds. It is important to work with a professional to determine the best course of action.


A special needs trust can be an invaluable tool in providing financial support for a person with a disability. Understanding the spending rules of the trust and seeking professional advice can ensure that the funds are used properly and also maximize the benefits for the beneficiary. With careful planning and management, a special needs trust can help enhance the quality of life for the beneficiary and their loved ones.

About the Author

Robert B. Fleming, CELA practices law in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of The Elder Law Answer Book (with his co-author and fellow Special Needs Alliance member Lisa Davis from Connecticut) and Alive and Kicking: Legal Advice for Boomers. His law firm, Fleming & Curti, PLC, provides one of the leading internet resources on elder law and special needs.

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.

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