U.S. special needs trust law comes after years of local work

President Barack Obama signs the 21st Century Cures Act on Dec. 13 at the White House.
President Barack Obama signs the 21st Century Cures Act on Dec. 13 at the White House. AP file

Amos Goodall knew something had to change.

A Centre County lawyer who works with matters of the elderly and disabled, Goodall frequently ran into a problem.

At least once a week, he sets up a special needs trust. That’s a kind of account in which the government allows someone receiving benefits, like Supplemental Security Income, to place an unexpected chunk of cash that could be used for their disability.

Say, for example, someone was in a car accident and was paralyzed. The crash required the person to get help from the government to cover ongoing care, but it didn’t make him unable to understand his problems or make decisions for himself.

Now say he gets a settlement from the crash. The $50,000 check could make him unable to qualify for the SSI benefits and other assistance that is needed to keep him alive, but as a disabled person, the law blocked him from creating the special needs trust that would allow him to receive the money he was due from an accident that wasn’t his fault. Without that trust, things that could have been paid for from it for his care would either not happen or become the government’s responsibility.

Goodall saw scenarios like that happen three or four times a year in his practice. He knew from other attorneys they happened much more often around the country. But nobody seemed to notice it was a problem.

Six years ago, he brought up the issue to U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard.

Today, the law has been changed. Thompson’s Special Needs Trust Fairness Act was folded into the 21st Century Cures Act signed by President Barack Obama last week.

Thompson said the Social Security Administration has already begun implementing the legislation

“I consider this a civil rights issue,” Thompson said. “Obviously there was a need.”

Aside from allowing the disabled more control over their lives, Thompson said there is another impact — efficiency. Allowing the trusts to be created by those that need them streamlines the process.

Goodall said the law also irons out other unnecessary roadblocks in the benefits process. Thompson said that could speed up the amount of time it takes an applicant to receive benefits by a matter of months.

Thompson’s bill was introduced twice before passing with bipartisan support.

The two men credit each other for making the change happen.

“No one else was paying attention to this when I went to the congressman,” Goodall said. “He was the first to take notice of the problem and take action.”

“I can’t say enough about Amos Goodall’s bringing this to my attention,” Thompson said, noting Goodall’s technical expertise in how the process actually worked for applicants.

“This is the point of my philosophy. I don’t create the idea. I listen,” Thompson said. “What is the problem? What is the issue? What is the solution?”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce