April is Autism Awareness Month, which seeks to educate the public about the needs and challenges facing those with autism spectrum disorders.  Yet despite the observance, attorney Bedard warns that many parents of special needs children are still in the dark as to three key planning steps designed to protect their child if the unthinkable happens.

Cary, NC – April is Autism Awareness Month in the United States.  According to the Autism Speaks website, the disorder affects one in 110 children in the United States, with boys being four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed on the spectrum. The prevalence of autism has also increased 57 percent from 2002 to 2006, thus prompting The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to refer to autism a “national public health crisis”.

While autism awareness is at an all-time high, Cary attorney, Jackie Bedard warns that many parents are still in the dark as to how to make sure their child is physically and financially cared for if and when death or incapacity occurs.

“As much as parents of special needs children hate to think about it, there will come a time when they are physically unable—or perhaps no longer alive—to oversee their child’s care,” warns Bedard.  “That’s why long-term care plans must be put in place as soon as a diagnosis is made to ensure the child always stays physically and financially protected if the unthinkable occurs,” she adds.

While Bedard does admit that the options for long-term care planning are broad and depend on the needs of the child, she explains that parents can simplify the process by starting with these three key planning steps:

  1. Name Guardians– Bedard urges parents to immediately name short and long-term guardians who can oversee their child’s care if something unexpectedly happens to them. Without such designations in place, the child could end up in a lengthy custody battle—or worse—be placed in foster care if the unthinkable happens.  Bedard advises parents to think outside the box and focus on finding someone whose love and dedication to the child closely resemble their own. Finally, parents should give copies of their designations to the guardians themselves, as well as the child’s school, babysitters and even the neighbors so everyone knows exactly who to call if a crisis occurs.
  2. Set up a Special Needs Trust– A special needs trust is a legal tool that ensures a disabled child’s health care and living needs are taken care of if something happens to mom or dad.  Bedard explains that while many parents have good intentions of leaving their child life insurance benefits or other assets in a will if they pass, leaving a child an inheritance outright could void their child’s eligibility for Social Security or Medicaid in the future (which is often the only health care option available!).  Instead, a trust helps to ensure that the child receives such financial benefits without actually having assets in their name—thus leaving all government benefits intact.
  3. Build a Team of Support- According to Bedard, it’s never too early to begin building a team of trusted caregivers and advisors who can immediately step in and help the child if a crisis occurs.   Such team members may include the child’s legal guardians, a trusted doctor, financial advisor, special needs estate planning attorney, and dedicated family or friends.  Building such a team now also helps to ensure you have the right people in place, as opposed to someone who will prey upon your child’s disability in an emergency.

“Parents of special needs children must go into planning with the mindset that their child will require a lifetime of care,” says Bedard.  “Fortunately, by starting with these three key steps, parents will make tremendous progress in ensuring their child is physically and financially cared for in their absence.”

Attorney, Jackie Bedard is the founder of Carolina Family Estate Planning in Cary, NC, a practice that focuses on estate planning law.  She is also an active member of the National Network of Estate Planning Attorneys.  For more information on how you can protect yourself and your loved ones, visit call (919) 443-3035.

Jackie Bedard
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Attorney, Author, and Founder of Carolina Family Estate Planning
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