Retirement Plans and Government Benefit Eligibility – Part 2

October 13, 2010
People with disabilities often need help from government benefit programs that provide monthly income, medical care, attendant care, housing and food. Many of these programs, including Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and food stamps, are means-tested. These programs count the amount of an applicant’s monthly income and also the applicant’s resources (bank accounts, stocks, retirement plans, and other assets) in determining eligibility for benefits.

For those individuals with disabilities who have worked and accumulated money in a retirement plan, how will those plans be treated when it comes time to apply for benefits? If a parent wants to name a child with disabilities as a beneficiary of the parent’s retirement plan, how will that affect the child’s elgibility for benefits? If a child is offered a retirement plan as part of her employment benefit package in a supported work opportunity, how will that affect her current or future eligibility for benefits?

In almost all cases a retirement plan inherited outright by a person with disabilities will be treated as an available asset or as monthly income that will reduce or eliminate means-tested government benefits, including SSI, Medicaid and food stamps. The fact that the retirement plan is taxable as funds are withdrawn does not mean it will not affect eligibility for needs-based benefits.

For example: If Sam inherits a $100,000 IRA from his mother at her death, that IRA account exceeds the $2,000 Medicaid and SSI asset limit and will disqualify him from those benefits. There are planning opportunities available to Sam’s mother to avoid this result but still protect the retirement plan for Sam’s benefit.

If the retirement plan is owned by the individual with disabilities, the effect of the plan on government benefits is more complicated. The government benefit program will need to determine if the retirement plan, or any portion of the plan, can be accessed by the individual. In other words, are the plan’s assets available to the individual? This issue of availability will vary from plan to plan, and some state Medicaid rules may vary on how availability is determined.

In most cases, if the plan owner is no longer working, the retirement plan will be available and counted as a resource. If the plan owner is still working, the retirement plan may prohibit the owner from withdrawing funds from the plan while employed. In that case the plan should not be counted as an available asset. If the retirement plan allows a hardship waiver of the prohibition on withdrawing from the plan or the option of borrowing against the account, then the plan may be counted as an available asset depending upon how the plan defines “hardship” or under what circumstances employees can borrow again their account.

In some cases, the retirement plan may be treated as monthly income rather than an asset if the plan has been converted from a lump sum to irrevocable periodic payments from the plan over the life expectancy of the plan owner. Income usually reduces or offsets means-tested government benefits, so having a retirement plan treated as income rather than an asset probably will not help. Again, if Sam inherits a $500 per month IRA annuity from his mother at her death, the $500 will offset and reduce his SSI income dollar for dollar (other than $20 that will be disregarded). Instead of receiving his SSI income of $674 plus $500, Sam will receive $500 from the inherited IRA and $194 from the SSI program for total monthly income of $694.

The rules governing the treatment of retirement plans vary depending upon the source of the retirement plan and may vary from state to state. Individuals with retirement plan assets should seek legal advice before applying for means-tested government benefits.