ABLE Accounts and Exceptional Needs Financial Planning

If you are embarking in the world of special needs planning, you may have run across the term ABLE account and wonder what that means.  Today I will focus on ABLE accounts in Virginia.

ABLE accounts are similar to 529 accounts, but can be used for any qualified expense for a person with a disability.  They became available in 2014 under the Stephen Beck, Jr. Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act.   In 2015, Virginia became the first state to approve and pass ABLE legislation after the federal ABLE Act was passed.  Virginia directed Virginia529 to create “529a.”  The key to an ABLE account is that having money in an ABLE account does not have an impact on disability benefits, and it provides tax advantages as long as it is structured and spent appropriately.  There are many details to be aware of in opening and maintaining an ABLE account.


1. Let’s talk about how eligibility is determined for an ABLE account.  Any eligible US citizen or legal resident – regardless of state residency – is eligible for an  ABLE account – with “eligible individual” being someone who developed their disability before age 26, and falls into one of three categories:

A.  Is entitled to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Income (SSDI),

B.  Self-certifies that they have a condition listed on the social security administration’s List of Compassionate Allowances Conditions and have a signed qualifying disability diagnosis from a qualified physician; or

C.  Self-certifies that they have an eligible disability and have a signed qualifying disability diagnosis from a qualified physician.

Note that while the doctor’s diagnosis is not necessary to be available when opening the account, it must be readily available for verification.  Both physical and mental disabilities may qualify someone to open an ABLE account.


2.  Let’s talk about the impact on disability benefits.  While there is no limit to the amount that can be put into an ABLE account, if there is more than a $100,000  balance in the account, then the excess of $100,000 is considered an asset to the individual.  Therefore, SSI benefits could be reduced or suspended.  But, an account balance up to $100,000 is disregarded and has no impact on SSI benefits.

Additionally, if money is withdrawn to be spent on a housing expense, but it is not spent in the same CALENDAR MONTH, then it will be considered an asset of the individual with a disability.  This is tricky because if a payment is due on the first of the month, and money is withdrawn on the 31st to pay the bill, then this can interfere with SSI benefits.  If you are helping a person with a disability to manage their finances, you will want to make sure this is taken into account when setting up payment due dates and/or negotiate with those accepting payment on the due date.

Medicaid is not impacted by the balance in an ABLE account.  Virginia state means-tested benefits are also not affected by the balance in an ABLE account.


3.  Let’s discuss the types of expenses that can be paid for through an ABLE account.  What is considered a “qualified disability expense?”

        • Basic Living Expenses
        • Health and Wellness
        • Housing
        • Financial Management/Administrative Services
        • Transportation
        • Education and Training
        • Assistive Technology
        • Legal Fees
        • Expenses for Oversight and Monitoring
        • Funeral and burial

Make sure that the expense was incurred when the account holder was considered an eligible individual, that the expense relates to the disability, and the expense helps the account holder to maintain or improve health, independence, or quality of life.  Keep detailed notes and receipts, as this could be investigated by the IRS or Social Security.  If it is found to have been spent on a non-qualified expense, tax penalties and benefits recapture could be consequences.  Check with your state tax department and local social security office for more information.


4.  Are there any tax advantages to an ABLE account?  Absolutely!!  Virginia state residents will receive up to $2,000 per contributor, plus beneficiaries can qualify for the federal Saver’s Credit for up to $2,000 in contributions they make to their ABLE accounts.  Additionally, earnings grow free from federal and state taxes.


5.  Is there a limit to how much can be contributed to an ABLE account?  Currently, it is $15,000 – tied to the annual gift limit.  Those working who don’t have access to an employer 401k may be able to contribute an additional amount.  The maximum allowed ABLE account value is $500,000.  But as stated above, if the account owner is receiving SSI or SSDI benefits, an account value above $100,000 is not recommended.


6.  What happens to an ABLE account after the account holders death?  If the account holder was eligible for Medicaid benefits, then Medicaid can file a claim for repayment.  First, the decedent’s estate can use the balance to repay any outstanding Qualified Disability Expenses, including funeral and burial costs.


When looking at financial planning for an individual with a disability, an ABLE account is an important piece of the overall puzzle.  Offering additional freedom, allowing the individual to control their own finances, and coming with some great tax advantages, an ABLE account is a necessary tool for those with disabilities.


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