ABLE Plans Let Those With Disabilities Set Financial Goals

By Christina Elston

special needsFor most of us who would like to save up for something – a new computer, a college class, a trip or even retirement – all we need to do to get started is to open a bank account or take advantage of a retirement or college savings plan. Most people with disabilities don’t have that luxury.

Those who take advantage of state and federal government benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) risk losing those essential benefits if they save too much.

For people with special needs, new option called the ABLE account is changing that.

Some state and federal disability benefits programs allow participants to save no more than $2,000 before curbing benefits, according to David Bell, outreach director for ABLE for ALL, which is part of the Oregon State Treasury and offers ABLE plans nationwide. “These really low asset limits have forced people with disabilities to live in poverty,” Bell says.

Money put into ABLE plans does not count toward these asset limits. And the accounts also function as a financial empowerment tool, allowing people with disabilities, where possible, to set their own goals and manage their own money.

“People with disabilities have the same dreams and goals as people without disabilities,” says Bell. They might want to go to college, travel or rent an apartment. One mother who was part of the working group that participated in the creation of the ABLE for ALL program has an 18-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy who traveled with a friend to Disney World with money from her account. Another family has a son with a disability who is moving out on his own and will use money from his ABLE account to pay rent.

The accounts can also be used to pay for new electronics, classes, public transportation and a wide range of other expenses. “It’s supposed to be for the health and benefit of the individual with the disability,” Bell says, but that is really the only limit.

Anyone who qualifies for SSI or SSDI benefits – whether or not they use them – is eligible to open an ABLE account. And parents can open an account for a child with a disability at birth.

There are four ABLE for ALL account options. The FDIC-insured cash option is similar to a checking or savings account, and a good place to save money for short-term goals. The ABLE conservative, moderate and aggressive accounts are more like mutual funds meant to finance long-term goals. However, the earnings accrued by these accounts aren’t taxed. Each account has a $14,000 yearly savings limit, and a lifetime maximum of $310,000. Friends and family members can also contribute to the accounts.

Accounts can be set up online with a minimum $25 deposit. ABLE for ALL charges account holders $55 per year, plus .3 percent of the account’s balance. Bell points out that special-needs trusts, another option for families looking to protect benefits, can cost thousands of dollars to set up.

ABLE for ALL offers lots of help to families with questions about setting up or managing the accounts, including a call center, extensive and searchable FAQ section on its website and upcoming free monthly webinars about money management. “We don’t want people to set it up and forget it,” Bell says of the accounts. “We want them to be on there once or twice a month checking on their progress.”

ABLE for ALL accounts – and accounts from many other states – are available nationwide, and interested families can get information through the ABLE National Resource Center at www.ablenrc.org. ABLE for ALL information is online at www.ABLEforALL.com.

Bell says the state of California is investigating how it will set up its ABLE plans, which it could do independently, by contracting with another state that has already set them up, or by joining a consortium of states. Meanwhile, he encourages families to set up an ABLE plan through another state program. “They can always roll those over when their state sets up a plan,” he says.

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