After two years of almost complete inaction, the current U.S. Congress is showing some signs of legislative life. Even more surprisingly, several bills benefiting people with special needs may actually have a shot at passage before the end of the year.
The ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) Act has received the most attention in recent months, with 366 co-sponsors in the House and 76 in the Senate. ABLE would allow people with special needs to set up tax-deferred savings accounts resembling 529 college savings accounts that would be exempt from SSI and Medicaid resource limits. Although the bill has got a positive reception in committee, House lawmakers are still trying to figure out a revenue-neutral way to pay for it, which in the current fiscal climate could signal the bill's ultimate death before a final vote.
The Special Needs Trust Fairness Act is a bill that gives individuals with special needs the ability to create their own special needs trusts without the assistance of a parent, grandparent, guardian or court. Up until now, these valuable trusts haven't been easily accessible for everyone because they require a third party's help in order to create them. If the legislation passes, all people with special needs will be able to create special needs trusts without needing a living parent or grandparent, or a court, to do it for them. The Special Needs Trust Fairness Act has also gained some traction with advocates looking to add it to ABLE for passage this fall.
Finally, the Disabled Military Child Protection Act, legislation that would allow members of the armed forces to name special needs trusts as the beneficiaries of their Survivor Benefit Plans, could also pass. Under current federal law, members of the military can only name spouses or children as the beneficiaries of these plans. For a member of the armed forces with a child with special needs, this onerous requirement forces the service member to choose between naming the child as a beneficiary and potentially ruining the child's access to means-tested government benefits or bypassing the child altogether. This bill would give members of the military the ability to direct those funds into a special needs trust, where they could be used for the benefit of the child without compromising access to benefits.
Given Congress's long-standing resistance to passing much legislation at all, let alone three different bills that help people with special needs, it is important for everyone to acquaint themselves with these pieces of legislation and contact their legislators with comments as soon as Congress returns from recess on September 8.