Pittsburgh – — In May 2006, Claire Senita was a 14-year-old eighth-grader performing routine warmup exercises during a gymnastics program when her life took a tragic turn.
“It was just a tumbling class for fun,” she said. “I did a dive roll and the next thing I knew I was staring at the ceiling. I couldn’t move. It was quick.”
Kara Cook was 12 years old in August 2000 participating in a swim team program when she dove off a block and injured her spinal cord.
Both young women are in wheelchairs as a result of their accidents. And after receiving sizable settlements for their injuries, both also needed help to manage their wealth and administer trusts that are specifically designed to help disabled people maintain government benefits while retaining access to money they have either inherited or received in a lawsuit settlement.
In Senita’s case, her family chose to work with Michael Duckworth, a wealth manager at Merrill Lynch in Pittsburgh who manages a team of advisers there, known as the Duckworth Group, which specializes in setting up special needs trusts.
Cook’s family chose to work with Achieva, a nonprofit Pittsburgh-based organization dedicated to making sure people with disabilities have the same chance for success as all people. While Achieva was founded in 1951, the organization in 1998 established Achieva Family Trust, a special needs trust department.
“Everything is new to you when something like this happens, and Achieva has all the answers and resources,” said Kara’s mother, Terri Cook.
Achieva Family Trust has about $100 million in assets under management for more than 2,000 people. The money in the trust is managed by PNC Banking Capital Group. The minimum amount to set up a special needs trust fund with Achieva is $500.
“It’s important to understand that our mission is different from that that you might find at a financial organization,” said Maria Smith, director of education and outreach at Achieva. “Our mission is really to improve the lives of people with disabilities. That’s why we were created.”
MassMutual Financial Group has since 2004 specialized in helping special needs families. The company sponsors the MassMutual Center for Special Needs at The American College, which developed a first-of-its-kind Chartered Special Needs Consultant professional designation.
Duckworth’s career was primarily focused on serving high-net-worth clients. But 12 years ago, someone referred a family to him with a 2-year-old son with disabilities. The family had come into a substantial sum of money they wanted to protect, but they were also concerned because the child was receiving government benefits that were critical to his care and quality of life.
“The person who asked me to help the family with this said it was really complicated and they were having a hard time finding anyone who knew how to help this family,” Duckworth said. “I knew this child’s life was going to be better because I had put in that effort. I had a new client, so that was good for my business. I liked the idea that I could do something that felt great and it was also good for the business that I was trying to grow. That’s really where it started.”
Today, the Duckworth Group serves 190 families. About 45 percent of them are families that have a member with special needs. The other 55 percent are business owners, executives at public companies or people who have accumulated wealth through work and good fortune.
Although Achieva administers three types of trusts, by and large, most of them are pooled trusts, with the average account balance being about $45,000.
Disabled people receiving Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income benefits through the federal and state government can shelter money they have either inherited, won in a settlement or worked for in a pooled trust where the funds will be available to supplement government aid without costing them their benefits. Those additional assets can pay for things to improve their quality of life the government does not provide, such as a specially equipped van for transportation or adaptations in their home.
Pooled trusts collect the funds of all the beneficiaries together for investment purposes. The one large pool of money is, however, accounted for individually. If all the funds in the pooled account have not been spent by the time the individual with a disability dies, all remaining money becomes part of a charitable trust to benefit other individuals in need who have disabilities. Pooled trusts can only be administered by a nonprofit, such as Achieva.
Another type of trust Achieva administers is the payback trust. Money in a payback trust can be used in the same way that money in a pooled trust is used. If all the funds in the payback trust haven’t been spent by the time the person with a disability dies, the remaining money is used to “pay back” the state department of public welfare for the cost of providing medical assistance to the individual. The trust agreement will direct how to distribute any money that remains after the pay back.
The third trust available through Achieva is a common law trust, in which friends and family can provide for a loved one while preserving their eligibility for government aid. The individual with a disability cannot create a common law trust. But a common law trust is flexible and can benefit additional family members and friends.
While Achieva Family Trust adds case management and social work expertise to the traditional role of corporate trustee, Senita, 23, said the advisers she works with at Merrill Lynch also have gone the extra mile to help her. She said they are even advising her on how to establish a nonprofit organization and raise $300,000 to build a spinal cord injury rehabilitation facility similar to one she benefited from while she attended college.
“I tell my friends all the time, they are not only my financial advisers. We’ve become more like friends,” said Senita, who graduated in 2014 with degrees in business management and finance.