“Special needs children” are those who need extra assistance. They may be disabled, have learning issues, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, ADD, autism, muscular dystrophy, depression, obsessive compulsive behavior, closed head injury, spinal cord injury, or any one of a host of other physical or mental challenges. Sometimes those problems are severe, other times children function normally only at a lower level. Special needs children usually need more emotional support, have higher expenses and need additional financial resources for a longer period of time. It is possible (if not probable) that a special needs child will require assistance throughout his or her adult life.

When a special needs child loses his or her parents (whether that special needs child is 8 years old or 50 years old), he loses his prime support network. It is important to understand the devastation of that loss and to try to put a support system in place — just in case — to cushion the blow. Issues change with age, but in general parents must think through who will monitor that child’s welfare, help him apply for and continue to receive benefits, help him decide whether to continue working, how to get around, and fulfill supplemental needs like vacations or travel. Special care must be given to who the guardian, trustee and advocate will be, and it is especially important in this case to line up successors.

Many special needs children and adults pay for food, shelter and some medical costs with money from governmental programs funded by the Social Security Administration and Medicaid and some state sponsored programs. Even if a child is covered under a private health insurance plan, that may not be enough. Medicare and private insurance do not cover residential care or most medication expenses. Medicaid does cover those expenses and for most special needs children.

Medicaid is the most important government benefit. Special Needs Trusts, which preserve Medicaid eligibility, can be created to allow the child to be eligible for governmental assistance. The Trust can be set up by a parent, grandparent, guardian or the court. It can be funded while the parent is alive or upon death or even through a life insurance policy. Keeping the child’s assets in trust reduces the risk that the inheritance will be squandered, mismanaged or subject to government or creditor claims.

Some children’s “special needs” are not grave enough to require governmental assistance. And then there are others whose problems are not serious enough . . but perhaps may be if they deteriorate. The issue that must be decided is whether the Special Needs Trust should be one that qualifies for governmental assistance (and is therefore is more restrictive) or one that is more conventional — one, for example, that simply provides for the child’s health and support for his or her lifetime. A qualified Estate Planning attorney can assist in navigating through these various decisions.