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For a loved one with a disability, are there good alternatives to guardianship?

When you have a minor or an adult child with serious disabilities, a guardianship is one way to help ensure that your child receives appropriate care after you are gone. However, if setting up a guardianship sounds too complicated or costly, there are some alternatives that may interest you.

A special needs trust

A special needs trust is one way to provide financially for a person with disabilities. This kind of trust can also help the person continue receiving government disability benefits in addition to the funds provided through the trust. Disadvantages may include the cost of maintaining the trust, or your loved one might express frustration about not having control over how the funds are distributed and used. That is one aspect of a special needs trust: a designated trustee -- not the person with a disability -- controls the distribution and usage of funds. That is how the person with the disability is able to continue receiving government benefits.

Power of attorney

It could be that the person with the disability is competent enough sometimes to make his or her own decisions. In such cases, you could urge your child to name a person he or she trusts to make decisions on his or her behalf when necessary. This can be accomplished by creating powers of attorney for financial and medical decisions.

Unofficial family help

Many times, at least one or two family members take on the responsibility of helping a relative with a disability. This works best in situations where the disability is mild enough that the person with the disability is able to make completely voluntary decisions.

The same idea applies if assistive or supportive services are really all the person needs. This can be the case with, say, a person who is blind and mentally competent but just needs help with transportation.

Still, unofficial family help -- or help promised without a written document -- can become problematic when unforeseen circumstances arise, and an appropriately documented plan is the surest way to ensure that your loved one with a disability is cared for.

In any case, it is best to speak with an estate planning attorney about an optimal strategy for achieving your specific goals and those of your family.

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