Let's enable parents of special-needs kids to set money aside for lifetime care
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My 10-year-old son, Andrew, loves his iPad, McDonald’s cheeseburgers with no pickles, walks in the woods and Disney’s Pocahontas. Since he was two, my wife and I have known that he has autism. He struggles to speak in sentences, receives almost all of his schooling in a special education classroom and has difficulty sitting still for more than five minutes at a time. He has never sat through a movie in a theater, read a chapter book or had a sustained conversation.

Although it’s impossible to know how any 10-year old will be as an adult, it's likely that the task of navigating adult life will pose challenges for Andrew that it doesn’t pose for neurotypical people. As his parents, my wife and I want to be there to support him. For families like ours — comfortable, but not possessed of great wealth — 2014’s Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act was a godsend for long-term planning. But to make the law work better for Andrew, and for more than 1 million other special-needs kids like him, will require swift passage of some proposed improvements now pending before Congress.

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The ABLE Act set up a new system by which families with special-needs children under 26 could set aside funds for their children’s needs. This money, when deposited in state-authorized plans, is exempt from some state taxes on the front end, can grow without incurring federal taxes and can be withdrawn from the accounts to cover “qualified life expenses.” The savings deposit in ABLE accounts, up to the maximum of $500,000, do not count against Medicaid eligibility. Disabled individuals with modest ABLE balances can still receive Supplemental Security Income, as well.

 

In the past, this kind of long-term disability planning generally required complicated and expensive trusts, and was thus the sole province of the well-to-do. ABLE accounts provide a path for nearly everyone else to do the same thing. In the long term, the accounts offer the prospect of more comfortable lives — and less reliance on public benefits — for people with special needs like Andrew’s.

But like a lot of new policies, the ABLE Act’s first few years in action have shown it needs some tweaks. Many families (mine included) have put money into conventional 529 college savings plans and would now like to move it into the more flexible ABLE Accounts. Under current law, that’s not possible without paying massive tax penalties. Moreover, while one of the law's goals was to help the disabled take jobs and lead more typical lives, the law doesn't raise limits to allow beneficiaries to deposit their own earnings into the accounts. Finally, people who develop severe disabilities later in life from accidents, adult-onset mental illness or conditions like Lou Gehrig’s disease can’t benefit from the ABLE Act at all.

A bipartisan legislative package — styled "ABLE 2.0" and spearheaded by House Republican Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.) — would address each of these flaws. It would allow rollovers of 529 plan balances into ABLE accounts; raise the limits for working disabled people with ABLE accounts to deposit more of their own earnings; and increase the eligible age to open an ABLE account to 45. It’s a package of commonsense measures that will make it easier for special-needs families to save for their children and for special-needs adults to have the resources they need to live better and more independent lives.

As Congress considers major changes in health care and tax policy, the reasonably modest losses in revenue from ABLE 2.0 (none of the bills require a penny in new federal appropriations) should be easy to cover without increasing the federal budget deficit. There’s no reason for Congress not to act. It needs only the will. Passing ABLE 2.0 will make ABLE accounts work for thousands more disabled Americans. 

 

Eli Lehrer (@EliLehrerDC) is president of the nonprofit R Street Institute (@RSI), an organization that supports limited government in Washington, D.C.


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