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Addressing the unique challenges for families with children who have learning disabilities

by Legacy plan
February 23, 2024

Raising a child with learning disabilities demands not only emotional resilience but also strategic foresight, particularly in terms of financial and care planning. These children may face diverse and evolving challenges that extend well into adulthood, including specialized educational needs, therapy and counseling services, assistive technologies and, in some cases, long-term care arrangements. The associated costs can be substantial and ongoing, often stretching family finances and raising concerns about the child's future well-being and independence.

A special needs trust (SNT) emerges as a pivotal tool in this context. It's designed specifically for families seeking to provide financially for a child with learning disabilities without jeopardizing their eligibility for essential government benefits like Medicaid or Social Security Disability Insurance. Such benefits are crucial but often insufficient to cover all the expenses associated with the child's unique needs. A special needs trust can bridge this gap, ensuring that the child has access to the necessary resources for a fulfilling life while maintaining their benefit eligibility.

Understanding learning disabilities: types and long-term considerations

Understanding learning disabilities is crucial for families and educators to provide the right support and resources for children affected by them. Learning disabilities are neurologically based processing problems that can interfere with learning basic skills such as reading, writing or math. They can also hinder higher-level skills such as organization, time planning, abstract reasoning, long or short-term memory and attention. It's important to note that learning disabilities are distinct from learning problems due to intellectual disabilities, emotional disturbances or environmental, cultural or economic disadvantages.

Some common types of learning disabilities include:

  • Dyslexia. This is perhaps the most recognized learning disability. It involves difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. Children with dyslexia may struggle with reading comprehension, spelling words correctly, writing coherently and sometimes speaking clearly.

  • Dyscalculia. This affects a child’s ability to understand numbers and learn math facts. Children with dyscalculia may struggle with mathematical reasoning, understanding time, using money or counting accurately.

  • Dysgraphia. This involves difficulties with writing. It can manifest as challenges with spelling, poor handwriting and trouble putting thoughts on paper. Dysgraphia can lead to problems with written expression, coherent writing structure and the physical act of writing.

  • Auditory and visual processing disorders. These are sensory disabilities in which a person has difficulty understanding language despite normal hearing and vision. They may struggle to understand verbal instructions or read written information.

  • Nonverbal learning disabilities. Characterized by a significant discrepancy between higher verbal skills and weaker motor, visual-spatial and social skills. Children with this type of learning disability may have trouble interpreting nonverbal cues like facial expressions or body language.
special needs student working with teacher

Long-term considerations for children with learning disabilities encompass a spectrum of continuous and evolving needs. Tailored educational plans, including Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or 504 plans, are often necessary. These may involve special education services, accommodations or modifications within the school setting.

Depending on their specific challenges, children may require speech therapy, occupational therapy or tutoring. Psychotherapy or counseling might also be beneficial for building self-esteem and coping skills.

As they transition into adulthood, these individuals may require guidance in choosing suitable careers or in some cases, particularly when learning disabilities coexist with other disorders, ongoing support into adulthood may be necessary. This can include assistance in independent living, financial management and accessing community resources.

Understanding the nuances of these disabilities and their long-term implications is crucial for families in planning for the future. It helps in identifying the right interventions, allocating resources effectively and ensuring that children with learning disabilities receive the support they need to lead fulfilling lives.

Financial planning for a child with a learning disability: costs and limitations

Financial planning for a child with a learning disability is a critical aspect that requires careful consideration and foresight from families. These children often need specialized services and resources throughout their lives, which can be quite costly. Understanding and preparing for these expenses is key to ensuring that the child receives the necessary support for their development and well-being.

Specialized educational programs or private tutoring services are tailored to meet their unique learning needs but can be significantly more expensive than standard educational programs. The costs can vary widely depending on the frequency and type of tutoring or specialized instruction needed.

special needs child and mother

Many children with learning disabilities benefit from professional therapies such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, behavioral therapy or psychotherapy. These therapies are often ongoing and can accumulate considerable costs over time.

Technology can play a vital role in supporting the learning and development of children with disabilities. This includes software, apps and devices designed to aid in reading, writing, communication and organization. While these technologies can be invaluable, they can also be a significant financial investment.

Modifications to living spaces or learning environments may be necessary to support the child's needs. These can range from minor adaptations, like special furniture or educational tools, to more significant modifications in the home for accessibility or safety.

As children with learning disabilities grow, there may be costs associated with vocational training, career counseling or support for independent living. Planning for these future needs is an essential part of financial planning.

While government programs such as Medicaid, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or education grants can provide some financial relief, they often have strict eligibility criteria and may not cover all the costs associated with caring for a child with a learning disability. Additionally, these programs may not provide the level of specialized support that some children require.

Given these factors, families must consider various financial strategies to ensure they can provide for their child’s needs. This can include setting up a special needs trust, exploring scholarships and grants specifically for children with disabilities, investing in long-term savings plans and seeking advice from financial professionals who specialize in special needs planning. By taking a proactive approach to financial planning, families can create a more secure and supportive environment for their child with a learning disability.

What is a special needs trust?

A special needs trust (SNT) plays a pivotal role in the financial planning for individuals with disabilities, including learning disabilities. It is designed to provide a means of financial support without jeopardizing the beneficiary's eligibility for vital government assistance programs.

An SNT is a fiduciary arrangement where a trustee holds and manages assets for the benefit of an individual with disabilities.

The trust is specifically crafted to ensure that the assets it holds do not count as resources for the purpose of qualifying for public assistance programs like Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

The assets in the trust can be used to pay for a variety of life-enhancing expenditures without impacting the beneficiary's eligibility for needs-based government benefits.

The trustee is responsible for managing the trust's assets and making disbursements for the benefit of the beneficiary. The trustee must adhere to the trust's terms and act in the best interests of the beneficiary.

Booklet opening animation of our free requestable booklet 'Special Needs Planning Guide'

Funds from the trust can be used for a variety of purposes that enhance the beneficiary’s quality of life, such as education, therapy, personal care attendants, transportation and recreational activities. These disbursements must be carefully made to ensure they do not disqualify the beneficiary from government assistance.

An SNT must be properly structured according to state and federal laws to ensure it does not affect the beneficiary's eligibility for government programs. This often requires the expertise of an attorney specialized in special needs planning.

In summary, a special needs trust is an essential tool for families planning for the long-term financial security and well-being of a child with learning disabilities. It ensures that the child can receive financial support from the trust while retaining eligibility for government benefits. Understanding the different types of trusts and their specific functions is crucial for families to make informed decisions about their child’s future.

Types of special needs trusts include:

  • Third-party trusts. These are established and funded by someone other than the beneficiary, typically parents or other family members. Upon the death of the beneficiary, any remaining funds can be distributed to other family members or charities, as specified by the trust's creator.

  • Self-settled trusts. These are funded with the beneficiary's own assets, often from an inheritance, legal settlement or personal savings. These trusts are subject to a payback provision to Medicaid after the beneficiary's death.

  • Pooled trusts. These are managed by nonprofit organizations, pooling the resources of multiple beneficiaries for investment purposes while maintaining separate accounts for each beneficiary’s needs. Pooled trusts are often an option for smaller trusts or when there is no suitable individual to serve as trustee.

Establishing a special needs trust offers several benefits. It protects the child's eligibility for essential government benefits, ensures that funds are available for their care and services and provides long-term financial security. This trust acts as a safety net, covering costs that government programs may not, and can adapt to the changing needs of the child over time.

Before setting up a special needs trust, families should consider various factors, such as the child's current and future needs, the amount of funding required and the choice of a reliable trustee. Consulting with an attorney is crucial in this process, as they can provide expert guidance on legal requirements and the most appropriate type of trust for the child’s specific situation.

While special needs trusts are beneficial, they are not the only financial planning tool available. Alternatives like ABLE accounts, life insurance policies and regular savings accounts can also be part of a comprehensive financial strategy for a child with learning disabilities. Each option has its advantages and limitations, and understanding these can help families make informed decisions.

What is an ABLE account?

ABLE account contribution document

An ABLE account, short for Achieving a Better Life Experience account, is a tax-advantaged savings account in the United States designed for individuals with disabilities. It was established through the ABLE Act of 2014. The purpose of an ABLE account is to help individuals with disabilities and their families save and pay for disability-related expenses while maintaining eligibility for federal public benefits like Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income.

To be eligible for an ABLE account, the individual must have a disability that began before the age of 26. If the individual meets this age criterion and is already receiving benefits under SSI and/or SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance), they are automatically eligible to open an ABLE account. Those who are not on SSI or SSDI but meet the age requirement can still open an ABLE account with a doctor's certification of their disability.

Family members, friends, the beneficiary and others can contribute to an ABLE account. However, there is an annual contribution limit, which is subject to change but is generally aligned with the federal gift tax exclusion limit. Over time, these contributions can accumulate and grow tax-free.

Contributions to an ABLE account are not deductible for federal tax purposes, but earnings grow tax-deferred, and distributions for qualified disability expenses are tax-free.

Withdrawals from an ABLE account can be made tax-free if the money is used for qualified disability-related expenses. These can include education, housing, transportation, employment training, assistive technology, personal support services, health care expenses, financial management and administrative services.

One of the significant advantages of an ABLE account is that the assets in the account generally do not affect eligibility for SSI, up to a certain limit. Once the ABLE account exceeds this limit, SSI benefits may be suspended but not terminated. Funds in an ABLE account do not affect Medicaid eligibility.

While the ABLE Act is federal legislation, ABLE accounts are operated by states. Many states have their own ABLE programs, but some states without a program allow their residents to participate in another state's ABLE program.

ABLE accounts provide a flexible way for people with disabilities and their families to save for the future while preserving important benefits. It's essential for those considering an ABLE account to understand the specific rules and benefits, which can vary slightly from state to state.


In conclusion, families navigating the complexities of raising a child with learning disabilities face an array of challenges, not least of which is financial planning. A special needs trust emerges as a vital instrument in this journey, offering a means to provide for the child’s care and well-being without compromising their access to essential government benefits. These trusts are tailored to address the unique requirements of individuals with learning disabilities, ensuring long-term financial security and support.

However, the decision to set up a special needs trust should not be taken lightly. It requires a thorough understanding of the child's needs, careful financial planning and legal guidance. Families should consider all available options, including ABLE accounts, life insurance and other savings vehicles, weighing each against their specific circumstances and long-term goals.

Ultimately, the objective is to ensure that children with learning disabilities have the resources they need to thrive. Whether through special needs trusts or other financial strategies, the right planning can make a significant difference in their lives. Families are encouraged to seek professional advice to navigate these decisions effectively, paving the way for a stable and fulfilling future for their children with learning disabilities.

How do I create an estate plan?

There are numerous options and scenarios to consider when developing an estate plan that protects your legacy and achieves your objectives, and important decisions should be made with the advice of qualified lawyers and financial experts. Membership with Legacy Assurance Plan provides members with valuable resources and guidance to develop comprehensive estate plans that take life's contingencies into consideration and leave a positive impact for generations to come. Legacy Assurance Plan members also receive peace of mind that a team of trusted, experienced professionals will assist them in developing legal, financial and tax strategies that will meet their needs today and for years to come through periodic reviews.

This article is published by Legacy Assurance Plan and is intended for general informational purposes only. Some information may not apply to your situation. It does not, nor is it intended, to constitute legal advice. You should consult with an attorney regarding any specific questions about probate, living probate or other estate planning matters. Legacy Assurance Plan is an estate planning services company and is not a lawyer or law firm and is not engaged in the practice of law. For more information about this and other estate planning matters visit our website at

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