ABLE accounts help saving for children with special needs


"The primary advantage of using an ABLE account is that the savings largely do not affect an individual’s eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)," write Jeff Witz, CFP, and David Zemon.


My child has a serious disability, and I’ve heard about ABLE accounts. Can you help me understand the benefits of using this type of account?

For many years, parents of children with special needs were limited to using Special Needs Trusts and Pooled Income Trusts to provide long-term financial support, both of which could be quite costly. However, in 2014 the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act, better known as the ABLE Act, was passed. This act allowed individuals with disabilities and their families to open tax-advantaged savings accounts called ABLE accounts. Like a 529 account, the ABLE account allows parents, family members, and friends to save for the financial support of the individual in a tax-advantaged way.

The primary advantage of using an ABLE account is that the savings largely do not affect an individual’s eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Eligibility for these public benefits requires meeting a means or resource test that limits eligibility to individuals with less than $2,000 in cash savings, retirement funds, and other items of significant value. The ABLE Act recognized the extra and substantial costs for families raising a child or working age adult with significant disabilities. ABLE accounts were designed to help alleviate some of these costs.

Like most tax-advantaged accounts, there are limits to how much you can contribute. ABLE accounts are limited to annual contributions from all parties of $15,000. The total lifetime contribution limit for ABLE accounts varies and is subject to individual state regulations. Many states set this limit equal to their 529 lifetime limits, and several states set this limit close to $300,000. However, for individuals with disabilities who are recipients of SSI, only the first $100,000 in the account would be exempted from the SSI $2,000 individual resource limit. If an ABLE account exceeds $100,000, the beneficiary’s SSI cash benefit is suspended until the account falls back below $100,000.

Also by Jeff Witz, CFP, and David Zemon - Setting up an emergency fund: What you need to know

It is important to note that while the beneficiary’s eligibility for the SSI cash benefit is suspended, this has no effect on their ability to receive or be eligible to receive medical assistance through Medicaid. The new Tax Cuts & Jobs Act of 2017 also allows transfers from unused 529 accounts to an ABLE account tax and penalty free, but this provision only lasts until 2025.

Like 529 plans, you can invest your savings using a select number of investment options offered by each state. Each state is different, so it is important to consider your desired rates of return, fund costs, and risk tolerance when selecting the best plan for your needs. As with a 529 account, the investments grow tax free and can be distributed tax free as long as the funds are used to pay for “qualified disability expenses.”

A "qualified disability expense" is any expense related to the designated beneficiary as a result of living a life with disabilities. These may include education, housing, transportation, employment training and support, assistive technology, personal support services, health care expenses, financial management and administrative services, and other expenses that help improve health, independence, and/or quality of life.

Overall, an ABLE account provides more choice and control for the beneficiary and his or her family. With an ABLE account, account owners have the ability to control their funds and, if circumstances change, still have other options available to them. Additionally, the cost of establishing an account is typically considerably less than establishing either a Special Needs Trust or Pooled Income Trust. Determining which option is the most appropriate will depend on individual circumstances, but for many families the ABLE account will be a viable option in addition to, rather than instead of, a trust program.

Next: Maxing out contributions to a 529 account


We want to max out our contributions to our child’s 529 account, but we want to do it in the most tax-efficient way possible. What do you suggest?

Those who are feeling especially generous can front-load 529 accounts with a large contribution. Contributions to 529 plans qualify for the gift-tax annual exclusion, which is $15,000 per recipient in 2018 ($30,000 for benefactors who are married). However, 529s also have a special provision that allows lump-sum contributions of up to 5 years gift-tax free. So, instead of contributing $15,000/$30,000 every year for 5 years, you could just make one lump-sum contribution of $75,000/$150,000.

Read - 2017 tax law: Here are the changes you can expect

However, if you choose to make the full 5-year lump sum contribution, you are unable to contribute to the account for another 5 years. Any contributions you make above the $75,000/$150,000 limit will be subject to normal gift tax rates.

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Send your questions about estate planning, retirement, and investing to Jeff Witz, CFP, and David Zemon c/o Urology Times, at Questions of general interest will be chosen for publication. The information in this column is designed to be authoritative. The publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, investment, or tax advice.

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