Children with special needs, who are under the age of 18, are considered minors in the state of New Jersey. Until then, parents have full authority to act on behalf of their child(ren) when it comes to making important decisions. But once the child turns 18, parents are often caught off guard when they discover that although the child continues to be dependent on his or her parents long after they turn 18, parents no longer have the same authority as before, as the children are now deemed adults under the eyes of the law. Financial, legal, and healthcare decisions can no longer be made as before, and in the unfortunate situation when one or both parents pass away, assets passing to the child as an inheritance could trigger adverse consequences if the child has been receiving critical government benefits.
So what can you do now to avoid a disaster from occurring?
As a first step, you will need to begin the process of a guardianship (typically, this should be started a few months before the child turns 18). This involves filing a Verified Complaint with the courts, requesting your (and your spouse, where applicable), appointment as legal guardian of your child. While it is rare for a judge to deny guardianship to a parent, the formalities of the guardianship process still need to be adhered to.
The application must include, among other things, certifications from two physicians (one of these could be made by a licensed psychologist). The court will then appoint an attorney to conduct an investigation of the interested parties and then prepare a report for the judge, either confirming or rejecting the appointment of the Petitioner. Finally, a hearing is conducted before the judge, so all relevant parties can appear and be heard in court. Once the judge approves the appointment, a final judgment containing the decision is circulated to all parties.
At this time, the parent(s) will need to appear at the surrogate’s office to become qualified and collect their Letter of Appointment. Be prepared to incur some expenses associated with the filing fees and legal costs, especially if you choose to go with private attorneys for both the submission of your application (as opposed to going pro se) and for the court appointment. Depending on the situation, a court may also be able to appoint an attorney from the Public Defender’s office at no charge to the parents, but this could delay things a bit. A final judgment signed by the judge at the end of the proceeding will then grant you the right to procure Letters of Guardianship.
The next step is to consider whether or not you want to set up Special Needs Trusts (SNT) for your child. Here you have an option to set up (1) a first-party special needs trust and/or (2) a third-party supplemental needs trust as stand-alone trusts. These trusts can hold assets of your child’s or assets passing from you, respectively, without jeopardizing your child’s government benefits. These assets are meant to supplement, but not supplant, any other benefits so your child can have an enhanced quality of life without concern that the critical benefits provided by the government would be denied.
Finally, you should definitely consider setting up or updating your own existing estate plan to ensure that all of your assets passing to your child upon death are protected by either having the assets pass into the stand alone SNT that you set up (see above paragraph), or have it pass into a SNT under your Will. It is important to consult with the estate planning attorney as to which trust should hold the inheritance. Inadvertently naming the wrong SNT could result in having the assets inside of the trust going to the estate, instead of the family or other heirs.