Many parents make plans to ensure continued care for their children in the event of an unexpected accident, illness, or tragedy. These plans generally provide extensive help for minor children, reducing the amount of help abruptly or gradually once the children reach adulthood. For families raising children with disabilities, however, the financial situation is often far different.

Disabled people may receive various forms of support from federal and state governments. For certain permanent disabilities, support may be available throughout a person's life. Although the amount of government support is sometimes modest, families often find it crucial in making ends meet.

Unfortunately, because of strict limits on eligibility for these programs, even modest gifts and inheritances can disqualify aid recipients from such benefits, at a time when they are emotionally least able to work through the problem. Once disqualified, individuals don't always automatically requalify when their newly received funds run out. Requalifying for aid sometimes requires the same amount of paperwork and red tape as the initial qualification process. Given that the disabled individual may have lost the person most able to help, this situation can devastate a family.

To address this, and allow family members to provide for dependents or relatives with special needs, some government entities recognize a special needs trust. This type of trust allows recipients of government benefits to receive gifts from family members without jeopardizing their eligibility. Because some government programs earmark assistance for necessities such as food and shelter, a special needs trust usually includes provisions that limit its distributions to purposes that supplement, rather than replace, government benefits. Although federal programs have mostly uniform guidelines nationwide, state laws differ. In order to draft a special needs trust correctly, it's crucial to consult with experts who are thoroughly informed about all benefits to which a disabled person may be entitled.

Read more in our series about trusts:

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger welcomes your comments at dan_caplinger@yahoo.com.