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  • Posted October 12, 2021

Three Part Series: The Emotional Benefits Of An ABLE Account

In our previous article we examined the financial benefits of the ABLE account, who is eligible to use it, and how it differs from other plans available to disabled beneficiaries.

Now, in Part 2 of our three-part series, we consider the all-important emotional benefits of the ABLE account.

As previously demonstrated, the opportunity to accumulate inside of an ABLE account is very important, as ABLE account assets may provide the crucial ‘transition support’ necessary to navigate benefit purgatory – that challenging point where a disabled individual begins to work and generates enough income to disqualify themselves from support programs, when they might not actually have enough income to fully support themselves. In other words, saving into an ABLE account can be a crucial pathway for those who are trying to reach the point of being financially self-sufficient and avoiding the need to rely upon (and be subject to the constraints of) government programs.

And even for those disabled individuals who may not be able to achieve financial autonomy, ABLE accounts make it possible for beneficiaries to achieve a greater level of financial autonomy, by being able to draw directly upon their own assets (that don’t have to be immediately spent down to remain qualified for government aid), without needing to necessarily go the pathway of conservatorship or guardianship. Which makes ABLE accounts especially helpful in a framework of supported decision-making to develop greater autonomy and self-confidence for the account beneficiary, with long lasting emotional benefit.

Part 2: The Emotional Benefits of an ABLE Account: Empowerment, Independence, and Living with Anxiety and Shame

Guardianship and conservatorship are legal processes that exist to make decisions on behalf of someone who is deemed unable to control their own money. Which in turn renders them largely unable to make any of their own decisions, from opening a business to even being able to sign their own documents and contracts.

As a result, guardianship should be viewed as a relatively ‘extreme’ measure. As it is not just that the individual can’t make decisions without the support of somebody trusted, or an expression that they may make some less-than-ideal decisions for themselves (as nearly all young adults do at some point!); it is effectively saying the individual can’t make any decisions on their own.

In turn, this means that just because an individual may need some help making decisions, it doesn’t mean that they should irrevocably have their rights taken away from them. Because in reality, the loss of confidence that comes from being ‘prohibited’ from making decisions for oneself can be extreme, and can permanently impair the future prospects of a disabled person ever wanting and being prepared to live independently.

In addition to the outright control issues, guardianship and the use of supplemental needs trusts can also create challenging power dynamics for disabled individuals. What 55-year-old wants to approach his little sister to get money out of his bank account to replenish his checking account on a monthly basis after rent is paid? Especially if it’s a younger sister who has a family of her own, answers the phone in a frustrated tone every time you call, complains about the tasks of administrating your trust and how it is more complicated than she thought, and lectures you on your forgetfulness when you are asking for a replacement phone for the 3rd time in a year? Even in situations where the trustee actually is supportive – but especially when they’re not – such situations can lead disabled individuals to not feel free to ask for financial support. Which in turn can result in periods of being underfed, ill-housed, and/or mentally in a bad place.

Another significant emotional challenge for disabled individuals is that the benefits system that exists has check-ins, which can be as often as every six months. Nominally, the purpose of check-ins is to ensure that those receiving benefits are not ‘gaming’ the system and drawing more than they are entitled to. In practice, though, most of the time the recipient doesn’t even know there is a “game to play,” and is simply trying to maintain their benefits and figure out how to get what they are entitled to while not falling into crisis while trying to figure out a new process they may not understand. Some laws are so obscure you need to have the know-how of all the systems just to understand the rules. Consequently, often individuals are just so confused by the system that they are discouraged from seeking or using government benefits altogether, even in times of need.

LEVERAGING AN ABLE ACCOUNT TO GAIN (EMOTIONAL) INDEPENDENCE

One of the major challenges that disabled individuals face is “ableism”: when others assume that something must be done for a disabled person, or assume that someone with a disability is not able to do something for themselves because of their disability.

For instance, the assumption that somebody with Down syndrome cannot speak for themselves, or that somebody with a physical disability will always need to be helped in moving around (and jumping in to do so, even with the intent of helping them, before they have an opportunity to do it themselves), is ableism. Which for the disabled individual can lead to feelings of shame, anxiety, and self-doubt (around money, and more), such that even if the disabled individual is just as capable in a certain domain, if they’ve been taught to have feelings of shame, and are constantly reminded that they can’t do or have access to certain things… they may eventually deny themselves, too.

The opposite of ableism is to always assume that the individual is competent until they prove otherwise, and to always include the individual in the decision-making process. Which ultimately can help empower them and build their confidence to be more competent in being able to take care of themselves.

In this context, one of the best things about an ABLE account is that it is always owned by the individual with the disability, enabling them to have greater control of and autonomy over their own financial decisions, and empowering their confidence to navigate their own financial lives (without running afoul of eligibility for government benefits).

In fact, not only can a disabled individual open the ABLE account, and fund the ABLE account, but there is no rule against a trust contributing to an ABLE account, giving even more power (back) to the beneficiary. Thus, a trust can use its own distribution powers to fund the ABLE account, annually or as needed, so that the beneficiary gains more opportunity to make their own decisions throughout the year on what to do with that money… without needing to go to the gatekeeper of their money, and reducing what otherwise can be bad feelings between the trustee and the beneficiary of the trust. (Notably, this strategy also legally works around the restriction that supplemental needs trusts cannot pay for housing and food. ABLEs can.)

And while ABLE accounts do still have their own restrictions about how funds can be used – not entirely unlike the limitations on assets and income and how government benefits can be used – the ABLE account’s reporting structure, to ensure the distributions are qualified, is a process more akin to bookkeeping than a process to qualify (or disqualify) future support. Thus, an ABLE account does not have such a gatekeeper. Some individuals will still require the support of a representative payee to access and keep track of the transactions within the account, but that is a fully different process than going to a family member such as a sibling or aunt, friend of the family, parent, or another custodial support person for little things such as a new cell phone, groceries, or painting supplies. Vacations and sports tickets are now attainable without asking permission.

The result, again, is that the use of the ABLE account makes it feasible for the individual to express what they would like to do, and what they would like for themselves.

In other words, the goal is to achieve “supported decision making,” or the ability for someone to not be controlled by guardianship and conservatorship and to have some more say in what they want for their lives… while maintaining a structure that provides the necessary support.

After all, the reality is that very few of us live truly independent lives. Nobody lives entirely in a bubble; nobody is 100% a hermit. Support is required from friends and family members, and sometimes outside professionals. In the case of disabled individuals, there may be a need for greater support, but support systems do exist. When we look at people living in “connected households,” homes where professional caregivers, homemakers, and other support team members are employed into a network of care, there are many individuals surrounding the person to make their lives more independent, structured in a way that gives the individual power to lead their care, and fire and hire who they want.

Where needed, a team of support can help in financial decision making, and a Power of Attorney can still step in to support a person who has higher support needs in making complex decisions. While an ABLE account allows the disabled individual to have more autonomy and empowerment over the core of their financial needs and maintenance.

In our final article on the ABLE accounts, we will examine how to maximize ABLE account benefits, and compare the various ABLE accounts available.

Contact Planning Across the Spectrum for Certified Neurodiverse Financial Planning Services.


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