Written by: Joanne Marcus, MSW, President/CEO Commonwealth Community Trust (CCT)
“Oh, I’ve been homeless.” says Christine, of Moneta, Virginia. “I never want that to happen again.” Christine has multiple sclerosis (MS). “It hurts to walk most of the time, so I have my push chair,” she explains. Christine’s need for stable housing and a way to pay for her disability expenses is top of mind for her. Christine’s disability prevents her from working, so she depends on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid to meet her living and medical expenses. Sometimes, however, those benefits are not enough. “Thank God I have my trust and ABLE. I’d be in trouble if I didn’t have them,” says Christine.
Joanne Marcus, President/ CEO of Commonwealth Community Trust (CCT), met Christine when she received an inheritance. For those receiving means-tested public benefits, such as Medicaid and SSI, an inheritance creates complex considerations. When given directly to a recipient of public benefits, an inheritance is counted as income when received and becomes a countable resource, if saved, and can threaten eligibility for these critical services. The inheritance became a threat to Christine’s access to her Medicaid and SSI payment.
CCT is a nonprofit organization that administers Pooled Special Needs Trust (PSNT) throughout the United States and is designed to help people in Christine’s situation. A PSNT improves quality of life of the beneficiary. PSNTs are funded with the beneficiary’s own money or the funds of a third party such as a parent, grandparent or family member.
Beneficiaries can enjoy the increased quality of life that comes along with increased financial resources, while still maintaining their access to critical government services and benefits such as Medicaid and SSI. Christine was able to use the money more effectively to support herself now and in the long-term. “It’s a blessing,” she says.
If Christine receives funds for food or shelter, in addition to the funds received from her SSI check, her SSI check will be reduced. CCT helps clients such as Christine manage their spending to ensure their eligibility for public benefits is protected.
This is where ABLE accounts and PSNTs can work hand in hand to meet the needs of beneficiaries. “I had this money, but I couldn’t use it for rent,” Christine told us. “It was really stressing me. Just trying to make plans, make do. It was really, really hard for me.” When Christine submitted housing expenses to CCT for disbursement, they could not pay those expenses directly without impacting her means-tested benefits, but they knew an ABLE account could help close the gap for Christine.
In cases where SSI payments are not enough to cover housing expenses, CCT will direct clients, who meet the criteria, to an ABLE account as a tool to enhance their PSNT while meeting critical shelter and other needs. The accounts are available to those who have a disability with onset prior to age 26. Caps to annual contributions and total balance apply. ABLE accounts are unique in that funds can be used for food and for certain housing and housing-related expenses without jeopardizing means-tested government benefits.
Christine opened an account with ABLEnow of Virginia. Now, CCT can disburse as much as $15,000 *(the current ABLE contribution limits are available here) annually directly to Christine’s ABLEnow account and Christine can use that money to pay housing expenses that exceed her monthly SSI benefit, on her own behalf. This money is no threat to her eligibility for public benefits as long as she uses it within the same month it is disbursed for housing related “qualified disability expenses (QDE),” which include rent and electricity. When managed correctly by a PSNT, those disbursements do not threaten Christine’s benefits and give her the autonomy to pay her own housing expenses using an ABLE debit card or checkbook.
CCT makes deposits to Christine’s ABLE account for shelter expenses only. For other ABLE account users, the balance and the investment earnings are not countable or taxable income when spent on QDEs such as clothing, gas, maintenance for a car and haircuts. Upon the death of the beneficiary, the funds remaining in an ABLE account can be used to pay for outstanding QDEs including funeral and burial expenses. Trust beneficiaries can use their trust and ABLE accounts together to minimize fees and grow funds through ABLE investment options.
“When I first saw that money in my ABLE account, I called my aide over and just shouted, ‘YAY!’ I was so relieved,” says Christine.
“It has been a pleasure working with Christine over the years. I am delighted that we are able to provide her with financial tools and strategies, such as the integrated use of our Pooled Trust and her ABLE account, so that she can have increased financial freedom and peace of mind along with the comfort of knowing that we care.” – Joanne Marcus, MSW, President/CEO Commonwealth Community Trust (CCT)