New accounts will help people with disabilities save for the future

Joan Scott, caretaker, left, walks with John Sheehan, who has autism and cognitive disabilities. He is the owner of John's ShredCycle, a business that provides shredding and recycling services
Joan Scott, caretaker, left, walks with John Sheehan, who has autism and cognitive disabilities. He is the owner of John's ShredCycle, a business that provides shredding and recycling services (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Like many parents of children with disabilities, Richard and Carol Dean of Columbia have to perform a juggling act to take care of their daughters' finances. They keep close tabs to make sure Jill, 33, and Amanda, 39, never have more than $2,000 in their bank accounts.

The sisters are developmentally disabled, and even a small nest egg could render them ineligible for government assistance such as Medicaid. That makes it tough for families to set aside money for loved ones who might need their help.


Soon the Deans and others will have a tool to help save for the future. Starting in fall 2017, Maryland will offer a new savings account that allows people with disabilities to set aside money without losing eligibility for benefits.

A law passed in this year's General Assembly session will allow families and disabled people to set aside up to $14,000 a year — up to $100,000 total — without affecting eligibility for Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid and other government programs. The account can have a total of $350,000 in it, and officials say an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Marylanders may be eligible to save.


The idea behind ABLE accounts — which stands for Achieving a Better Life Experience — is similar to setting aside tuition money through the College Savings Plan of Maryland.

"Just like a family is encouraged and supported in a college savings plan to save their money toward college, the ABLE accounts are a vehicle to help people with disabilities and families to save money for expenses related to their disabilities," said Brian Cox, director of the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council, which advocates for people with disabilities.

The accounts also can make managing money simpler, especially for people with disabilities who earn wages. Edgwater resident John Sheehan, who is autistic and has cognitive disabilities, once lost his Medicaid coverage for a month when he had $12 too much in his bank account after his Social Security check was deposited early. Sheehan, 50, also earns money from a shredding and recycling business called John's ShredCycle.

When Joan Scott, his caretaker, realized the mistake, she was heartsick. "I said to John, 'You can't get sick,'" she recalled.

Scott said having an ABLE account will make it easier to manage Sheehan's money and help him save for the future.

"I was so excited when it passed," Scott said. "It will be such a relief."

For the Deans, it's critical to set aside money for their daughters' future needs — especially given the reality that their children could outlive them. "Our goal is that when we die, they're taken care of," Carol Dean said.

To be eligible for an ABLE account, an individual can be any age but must have a qualified disability — intellectual, developmental or physical — that began before age 26. Money saved through the account can be used for a broad range of expenses, including housing, transportation and technology that can assist the disabled.

The idea for the accounts was hatched about a decade ago around a kitchen table in Northern Virginia.

Parents of children with Down syndrome were frustrated that they could set up college savings accounts for their nondisabled children, but nothing for their children with disabilities.

Sara Hart Weir, president of the National Down Syndrome Society, said that inequity prompted a lobbying effort that led to the federal ABLE Act, legislation that modified the tax code and opened the door for states to set up the accounts.

By the time it passed in 2014, 85 percent of Congress had signed on as co-sponsors — an impressive feat in the oft-gridlocked nation's capital. Such unified support "rarely happens, and it rarely happens on a bill that amends the IRS tax code," Weir said.


Dozens of states passed their own laws to create the plans. In Maryland, officials set up a task force in 2015 to study the issue, then approved a bill this year that was largely drafted by task force members.

The measure was among the first signed into law by Gov. Larry Hogan this spring. Hogan also put a small amount of money in this year's budget for startup costs — the program will be administered within the College Savings Plan of Maryland.

"People see this as a huge opportunity for planning and saving and being more independent with money," said Anne Blackfield, director of interagency affairs for the state's Department of Disabilities.

Blackfield, who is blind, said someone like herself could use money in an ABLE account to pay for cabs or other transportation, given that public transportation doesn't always get people where they need to go. Or she could use it to buy a new cane, which sometimes isn't covered by insurance.

Scott and the Deans were among advocates who lobbied lawmakers in Annapolis. Cristine Marchand, director of The Arc Maryland, said it was moving to see people with disabilities testifying in Annapolis for the bill, which sailed through with bipartisan support.

Marchand said Sheehan's story illustrates how the accounts will make it easier for people with disabilities to work and be productive. She called the accounts "the ticket to people working, not losing benefits, being able to save money and get the supports they need."

Del. Eric Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat who was among the lead sponsors of the Maryland bill, said many disabled people have a fragile safety net because avenues to save money have been limited.

As they become older and their family support wanes, they can face dire financial situations. According to a U.S. Census Bureau report, in 2010 about 29 percent of people in America between ages 15 and 64 with severe disabilities were living in poverty — compared to 14 percent of people with no disability.

Bromwell said having a way to save money will encourage more people with disabilities to work. He called the accounts "a huge first step of getting people with disabilities out of perpetual poverty."

In the Dean family, Richard and Carol have had to pay particular attention to daughter Amanda's finances, as she has an Arc-supported job in addition to receiving Social Security. Amanda receives about $1,600 per month and, because her expenses are low, it's easy to cross over the $2,000 threshold.

Richard Dean, a businessman who is board president for The Arc Maryland, said encouraging people with disabilities to work and save money makes good sense.

"This is promoting self-reliance," he said. "How can you be against that?"

In addition to Bromwell, Marchand said, state Sens. Brian Feldman and Craig Zucker of Montgomery County, both Democrats, and Sen. Andrew Serafini of Washington County, a Republican, helped move the bill through Annapolis.

Although the program won't be in effect until fall 2017, Marchand said she is already getting calls from clients and their families with questions about how soon they can open an ABLE account.

"People are really excited to get started," she said.



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