Special Needs Planning Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

RunningUnlike some areas of law like "employment discrimination law" or "patent law," special needs planning does not focus on one specific legal principle or topic. Instead, it encompasses a broad array of subjects that people with special needs and their families encounter, from estate planning to government benefits to guardianship to advocacy. Attorneys who focus on special needs planning have dedicated their practices to helping families with a wide variety of legal issues, and they must master a vast section of the legal canon in order to properly assist their clients. But all too often, clients arrive at the doorsteps of special needs planners with what they see as specific problems, and they believe that there will be a single, quick solution. Fortunately, good special needs planners don't operate this way, because unlike some types of law that require a concentrated burst of effort to "solve" a particular problem, special needs planning is a marathon, not a sprint.

Of course, there are some times when clients need immediate solutions to very concrete problems, and special needs planners are happy to help. For instance, if someone is seriously injured in an accident and can no longer make decisions for himself, his family may need to pursue a guardianship right away, and this one step may consume significant time and energy, both by the family and by a special needs planner. That's a sprint. But what happens once a family obtains guardianship? Do they no longer require special needs planning? Of course not!

  • The guardian will need assistance filing annual reports and accounts with the court, and this could go on for years.
  • If the injury came about because of someone else's negligence, then the injured party may need a special needs trust to hold a personal injury settlement.
  • If he qualifies, he may need to apply for government disability benefits, including Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability Insurance or Medicaid.
  • Family members may have to change their own estate planning documents to make sure that they reflect their relative's special needs.


No one needs to tell parents of young children with special needs that planning is a marathon (even though daily life may seem like one endless sprint). These families often come to special needs planners because they want to provide for their children if something happens to them, and this often leads to the creation of a special needs trust and a coordinated estate plan for the parents. As the child grows older and reaches the age of majority, he may need a guardianship if he is incapable of managing his own affairs. However, in many cases, the 18-year-old with special needs will be able to sign his own estate planning documents delegating the power to make health care decisions through a health care proxy and naming an attorney-in-fact to assist with financial affairs, and a special needs planner can help him do this. Housing, financial aid for college, and getting ready for independence all take years of planning, and the plans often change over time as an individual grows.

Special needs planners provide all of these services because their focus is on the long-term health and well-being of the client, not just on the immediate issues at hand. That's why attorneys who focus on this area of law are called "planners."

It can be frustrating to enter an attorney's office with one problem only to realize that there is a lot more to think about (and probably worry about, at least initially) than you thought. But a good special needs planner will set your mind at ease and help you approach the future with confidence, and when emergencies strike (as they often do), your planner can jump to the rescue with the added benefit of having already gotten to know your family. If you've already started working with a special needs planner, make sure that you stay in touch. And if you're just starting out, welcome to the marathon -- your planner will be there every step of the way.

Article Last Modified: 08/02/2011

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