Even for the best-prepared parents, raising a child is an undertaking as often rich in reward as it is rife with frustration. Every child, no matter their age and abilities, faces challenges that cannot always be allayed through the unconditional love parents strive to provide. But for loved ones with guardianship of children with special needs, there’s a completely different level of concern that sometimes supersedes the ordinary struggles of helping teenagers or young adults find their place in the world. Some disabilities can make it difficult for a child to secure gainful employment, while others could preclude the possibility of them ever living an independent life. Smiling family with special needs child turning 18

You don’t have to accept uncertainty. Ross & Shoalmire, P.L.L.C. has spent years helping families in Texas and Arkansas protect children with special needs on their journey into adulthood. Read more to find out how special needs trusts and powers of attorney preserve benefits eligibility, or send us a message online to schedule your no-obligation consultation.  

How Childhood Disabilities Can Disadvantage Adults with Special Needs

Although disabilities exist on a spectrum, children diagnosed with certain disorders typically face similar obstacles to success. We outline some of the most common categories of special needs disorders and disabilities.

Acquired Brain Injuries

Acquired brain injuries (ABI) are any type of brain damage that occurs during or after birth. They’re often caused by infection, disease, and traumatic injury, and can be diagnosed at almost any age. An ABI can affect children in markedly different ways. Typical effects could include: 

  • Mental or physical fatigue
  • Difficulty processing information
  • Behavioral changes 

People with ABIs don’t necessarily suffer from intellectual or learning disabilities, but they sometimes struggle to process and retain information at the same rate as individuals without similar injuries. Depending on the severity of an ABI, children and adult dependents may need additional help in education and could require life-long support if their disability makes it difficult for them to find and hold a steady job. 

Autism Spectrum Disorder 

Autism spectrum disorder is neither a disease nor a standalone diagnostic category. Instead, it’s a blanket term that refers to a wide range of disabilities, including Autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and atypical autism. However, every type of autism has the potential to affect a child’s:  

  • Social interactions
  • Communications patterns 
  • Behavior 

Some people with autism spectrum disorders, such as Asperger’s syndrome, can excel in school, have meaningful relationships, and attain remarkable professional success. Conversely, others may suffer from impaired cognition and struggle to perform everyday tasks.  

Since the expression of autism spectrum disorder varies immensely between individual children and adults, the Social Security Administration and the Texas Department of Health and Human Services rely on stringent criteria for determining whether to allocate care or extend benefits. 


Deaf-blindness is any disorder involving substantial hearing and visual impairment. Children who are deaf-blind may not exhibit any intellectual impairment but are often reliant on parents and other caregivers for their basic needs. 

Furthermore, few schools and workplaces have the resources needed to accommodate deaf-blindness. Although educational and employment opportunities do exist, they’re limited and can force individuals to rely on public assistance programs for basic sustenance. 

Intellectual Disabilities

An intellectual disability is classified as a condition that limits an individual’s capacity to learn at an age-appropriate level and function in daily life. Examples of intellectual disabilities could include: 

  • Down syndrome 
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome 
  • Fragile X syndrome 

In many cases, serious intellectual disabilities are obvious from an early age. Some, like Down syndrome, typically require ongoing and lifelong support

Physical Disabilities

Physical disabilities can be caused by birth-related conditions, traumatic accidents, or progressive neuromuscular diseases. They include: 

  • Paraplegia and quadriplegia 
  • Cerebral palsy 
  • Polio 

Some physical disabilities are accompanied by intellectual and cognitive impairments, while others aren’t. However, any serious physical disability could permanently impede mobility and present significant obstacles to an independent life. 

Protecting a Child With Special Needs’ Access to Critical Resources After Age 18

Few families start off with the knowledge and skills necessary to help a child with special needs navigate life’s many uncertainties. Over time, parents often learn which strategies and techniques work best to provide care, comfort, and support. 

However, a child’s 18th birthday can present unexpected complications. Even if they have extraordinary needs, turning 18 still marks a passage into adulthood, whereafter they become legally responsible for their choices and actions. Some children with special needs may also wish to attend college or embark on a career.

But, in many cases, children with special needs require additional resources to ensure their health and happiness—which can be cost-prohibitive, effectively necessitating that parents and children collaborate to preserve eligibility for government benefits.  

If your child with special needs has turned 18 or is about to, here are some important considerations to discuss with an estate planning attorney. 

Decision-Making Capacity 

In Texas, a child with special needs is typically considered an adult when they reach 18. Being an adult comes with its own set of responsibilities: even if a child suffers from a severe intellectual disability, they have a fundamental right to make independent decisions about their finances and health care. 

Parents may find it difficult to help their child: 

  • Open a bank account
  • Apply for public benefits 
  • Make informed decisions about health care 

However, a child’s entrance into the adult world doesn’t preclude a parent from offering much-needed support. For instance, a power of attorney directive, for instance, helps parents and children collaborate in decision-making, letting families take the initiative. Powers of attorney serve different purposes

  • They can be used to obtain and oversee medical care. 
  • They can provide consent to a life-saving procedure.
  • They’re also used to monitor financial responsibilities, such as opening a bank account or applying for public benefits. 

Similarly, guardianship arrangements establish an additional layer of protection for adult dependents who don’t have the skills or mental capacity to assert their own rights. 

Changes in Supplemental Security Income Eligibility 

Supplemental Income Security, or SSI, is a federally-funded program that extends financial assistance to low-income individuals with disabilities and who have few assets. For many adults with special needs, SSI is a critical lifeline that provides a steady income while affording them some measure of independence. 

However, SSI requirements are different for children and adults. Since income and asset thresholds are low, parents may not feel they can establish a life-maintenance account without risking their child’s entitlement.  

Depending on your family’s needs and long-term plans, Ross & Shoalmire’s experienced team of attorneys will help you determine whether a special needs trust or other arrangement could help preserve a child’s SSI status while still offering additional resources for housing and other requirements. 

Education and Career Transitions 

When your child is in high school, you’ll likely have an involved conversation about their long-term educational plans and possibilities. Although some children with special needs are more than capable of academic success, others might need social therapy and vocational training to ease their transition into the adult world. 

Texas, like many other states, also gives families the option of keeping their child in high school-level academic programs beyond what would ordinarily be their senior year. 

Long-Term Living Arrangements 

Your child may eventually ask about independent living, or become qualified for housing assistance.  

However, like SSI, eligibility for housing assistance can change drastically—not only once they turn 18, but also as their life progresses. Paying rent or other expenses on an adult dependent’s behalf might help them retain their entitlements, but doing so over the course of many years places a significant strain on a family’s financial resources. 

Again, here’s when a special needs trust can help to mitigate many of these concerns, giving parents a chance to establish maintenance funds that don’t interfere with public benefits programs. 

Financial Protections

Any significant change in an adult dependent’s financial circumstances—even an inheritance—can suddenly and unexpectedly alter their eligibility for a wide range of social services and government resources. 

Ross & Shoalmire have the knowledge to help you explore different forms of financial protection, including: 

In most cases, financial protections should be established as early as possible. ABLE accounts, for instance, let benefits recipients receive funds beyond the SSI eligibility threshold. However, annual contributions are capped and may require the formation of a secondary trust to afford their full range of benefits.

Brad Crayne
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Brad Crayne helps clients in TX and AR with estate planning, asset protection, probate, and medicaid planning.