Are You Living?

I think all of us have been guilty, to some degree, of losing sight of what’s truly important. Here’s a hint – it’s not how many hours you work. That’s not to say you cannot, or shouldn’t, derive great satisfaction from the work you do – it just shouldn’t be how you define yourself.

Human beings are meant to be multi-faceted creatures, we each have gifts and talents – it’s what makes us wonderfully unique. Sometimes those gifts are fairly obvious; for example Michael Jordan, and other times much more subtle requiring exploration and an open-mind to find. Self-actualization, while important, isn’t today’s topic though. Today my focus is more about harmony – achieving that “work-life balance” we hear so much about.

Personally – I don’t think most of us will ever achieve a true balance, but what’s important is we try. There are going to be times when you have to work late because there is a major project or something similar – and not every scenario will be within your control. 20 years in the Navy meant a lot of missed birthdays and anniversaries, and I wish I could say I made it up by really being “present” when I was around – sadly I did not.

It’s hard, sometimes, to keep perspective when we’re being bombarded from all sides by everybody else’s opinion and lifestyle choices. It can make us wonder “are we doing it right?” Perhaps we are insecure about a relationship or our position at work, so we compensate by working harder. Or perhaps we go the other way, thinking “well I’m screwed no matter what, may as well have fun”. But neither of these are constructive solutions, nor do they address the core issue. When we have children we raise them to be honest and forthright – where does that go when we become adults?

There is a point to all this rambling, I promise. Life, like so much else, will give you what you put into it. Balance is important, but it’s up to you to control that balance. If work or school is too much, ask yourself why you’re doing it. I don’t have a “right” answer for why you should do something, but it should matter to you. It’s never too late to take a moment and just “be”; took the passing of my wife to help me realize there is much more to life than work. What relaxes you? Is it running 10 miles before most people wake up, or watching Netflix with your significant other until 2 am? Whatever it is, make sure you incorporate it into your life – don’t let it go.



Featured Organization – ArtStream

ArtStream is a sleeping giant waiting to be awoken. This organization’s mission “to bring to adults with disabilities creative and performance opportunities that help them gain the confidence to engage with the world” doesn’t begin to touch upon the other amazing things they are involved in (which I will get into in much more detail below). If ArtStream only helped individuals with disabilities find their voice and self-confidence they’d be worth being involved with – but wait until you learn what else they do!

Who They Are

(Taken from their website) – “ArtStream is a consortium of professional artists who are passionate about bringing the arts to everyone.” They are always looking for new artists with a passion to bring the arts to others and help unlock and nourish their student’s creativity and self-expression.

What They Do

They have (4) inclusive theater companies – Arlington, Virginia; Gaithersburg, Maryland; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Silver Spring, Maryland. Each company is directed by a trained theater professional, and not only do they perform on stage – they create their own scripts. So EVERY performance is unique!!!! 

These are NOT a skit requiring a low level of skill; each actor/actress is expected to know their roles intimately and perform. Modifications and assistance is provided, but having watched a few performances I can tell you the individuals onstage are the real deal – they’ve worked very hard to perfect their craft!

They offer leadership programs – self-advocacy; public speaking, role-play for the real world; social skills training and private lessons. To me – there couldn’t be a better fit for this type of training than theater professionals, because it’s all about teaching people how to react to social situations and a theater company can model just about anything you can think of. After all – didn’t Shakespeare himself write “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII).

And, through the Deborah Jean Arts in Hospitals and Hospice Program, they are bringing the arts to health-care; to patients and caregivers. For those of you who haven’t experienced what it’s like to spend weeks, months or even years either in a healthcare setting yourself or visiting one you care about; imagine having little to know freedom of choice or the ability to express yourself. Program participant’s are given choices, and are able to express themselves through the medium they choose. Having spent my last three years of Active Duty at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, I can tell you this is HUGE!

What Else Should I Know

ArtStream programs are eligible for LISS funding – you just need to work with your provider; and if your provider isn’t affiliated with ArtStream, let ArtStream know and they will work with you and the provider to remedy that. They are actively engaged at Walter Reed, and have been recognized by the DAV through multiple grants from the DAV’s Charitable Service Trust – most recently this year (2016).


I am not an employee of the  ArtStream, and any errors noted are my own. If I have misrepresented, or misstated anything please provide constructive feedback so I may make the appropriate change(s). I will be posting about at least one organization a month, using information and notes I took when I met with them – as well as additional research I completed online. All opinions and views are my own.

Medicaid Payback

Recently I’ve found myself answering questions about Medicaid payback. This is an aspect of Medicaid planning, and needs to be considered in that context – not as a stand-alone concern. However, it’s easier to explain what it is in a few paragraphs than delve into the complexity of Medicaid planning.

What is Medicaid Payback? In a nutshell, if the state is paying for an individual to receive any type of services (healthcare, home and community-based programs, etc…); the state is required to recover those expenses from the estate of the individual. There are limitations to this recovery, “States may not recover from the estate of a deceased Medicaid enrollee who is survived by a spouse, child under age 21, or blind or disabled child of any age. States are also required to establish procedures for waiving estate recovery when recovery would cause an undue hardship” (Medicaid.Gov).

To be eligible for Medicaid individuals need to meet income and resource limits, showing they cannot afford to pay for the afore-mentioned services on their own (Medicaid Eligibility). The state will provide the family with an accounting of what is owed, however if the individual or the individual’s estate does not have enough to pay it all back it will not carry forward to the family. Because we’re discussing just eligibility through disability, I will not be reviewing the 5 year look back or related strategies.

It’s important to note – the new ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) Act has a provision requiring Medicaid payback. So although the money in the account will not affect Medicaid eligibility (> $100k it’s suspended but not lost); when the account holder passes away any money remaining in the account will need to be applied towards the Medicaid payback before paying out to beneficiaries. Some may say “this isn’t fair”, so let’s explore that. If you were paying 100% of someone’s medical expenses, most of us would want to be paid back. And since Medicaid is a social services program, it’s funded by our tax dollars – so in effect we’re all getting paid back; at least in the sense the money coming back in reduces the amount needed to be raised through taxes (the only way for governments to raise money).

Some special needs trusts have the same provision – specifically first party special needs trusts. Why? Well, a first party trust is established using resources an individual with special needs owns – unlike a 3rd party special needs trust which is established for their benefit using someone else’s resources (Special Needs Trusts). This could be an improperly titled inheritance (making the individual the beneficiary instead of the 3rd party trust), a divorce settlement, lawsuit settlement, etc… This is not limited to children with Special Needs.

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with the Medicaid payback provision – I don’t think it’s something to be overly concerned about; because at the end of the day the individual is receiving the services they need giving the families some peace of mind. If you would like to avoid the payback, then pay for the services out of pocket. This would allow any remaining assets to pass to you, although you may find yourself spending much more than you’ll receive; especially if the care takes place for years.




Get Your Head Out of the Sand

Recently I attended a Transition Fair put on by the Partnership for Extraordinary Minds with Montgomery County Public Schools, and the information made available to families was amazing. Unfortunately, the average number of participants in each break-out session was between 5 – 8 people. The target audience was for families in Montgomery County who had a child in High School. For those of you not in the know, transition planning is a HUGE deal when you have a child with Special Needs (it’s a pretty big deal even without); because your child goes from an “entitlement” status to a need and funding status. Meaning your child may have a need, but there may not be money; or you may not necessarily be able to prove the need exists.

I frequently have families tell me they’re “too busy”, or “it costs too much” – but this doesn’t make the need to plan go away. All they’re doing is removing the power to do something in a controlled fashion and ensuring they will go into panic mode when services stop, scrambling to put things in place and lamenting how there are no resources to help them. I’m a single parent (widowed) of a child who has Special Needs – I get it! It can be overwhelming and scary, but ignoring it only feeds the monster allowing it to grow. Reach out to your support network, ask for help.

The single biggest thing I learned when my wife passed away was I didn’t know anything, and I didn’t know what questions to ask to determine where to start. Sound familiar? The best way to start is reach out to an organization that works with your child’s diagnosis. Don’t know of any, ask the school or Google – I will bet in 98% of the cases there is an organization out there. Maybe not local, but they don’t necessarily have to be local to be a resource. Attend resource fairs, schools will often send flyers home advertising them; but if you haven’t seen one reach out to the school and ask (or Google). If there’s not a resource, or there isn’t one close by – start your own. Doesn’t have to be disability specific, could just be a group of parents who want to know somebody else understands and can relate, and may be able to offer tips on how to cope. That’s how most of these non-profits started anyway.

The main point is don’t be an island. People want to help, but just like you don’t know what questions to ask – they don’t know what to offer. Next time you see your doctor, ask them “what are some resources/organizations people in situations similar to mine are using?” This goes for any professional you’re working with. We want to help, but many of us assume (wrongly) that silence means everything is good. Don’t be afraid to speak up, the earlier you get help the better. There is absolutely no reason to shoulder everything – this means when you find a resource you have to let some control go.

Not everyone is going to have a natural support group of family and friends. But, and I devoutly believe this, there are resources out there for everybody. Resources don’t mean free, although if you look hard enough you’ll probably find some that are. Resources mean you can sleep at night; let that knot between your shoulders, or the sinking feeling in your gut, go. The worst thing you can do is nothing. If you feel you have nowhere else to go – reach out to me and I will help you.

Special Needs Trusts

I’ve found there is a lot of discussion around special needs trusts, and it runs the gamut from families having never heard of one to families thinking the trust is the ultimate solution. Trusts, in general, are designed to fit specific circumstances – special needs trusts are no different. There are several types of special needs trusts, and picking the correct one is extremely important. It’s also important to consider who is managing your money, my general opinion is family members shouldn’t be Trustees – and I’ll explain why in more detail in a bit. The biggest advantage to using a special needs trust is the ability to maintain social security and Medicaid eligibility, despite having greater than $2,000 of assets. 

What is a Trust

Webster defines a trust fund as “money that belongs to one person but is legally held or managed by another person or by an organization”. Breaking this down, the person the money belongs to is the “beneficiary”. The person or organization holding and/or managing the money is the “trustee”. The person(s) or organization(s) who provide the money is the “grantor”. There may be also be a “primary representative”, somebody who represents the beneficiary and is authorized to make requests for money (disbursements) from the trustee; and a “remainderman”, somebody who receives benefits after the beneficiary passes away.

Types of Trusts

Let’s discuss the types of Special Needs trusts that are out there, and when it may be appropriate to use them. The trust I think most comes to mind is a third-party special needs trust. This is a trust set-up using assets from somebody other than the individual with special needs for their benefit. The other types of trust is a first-party special needs trust and a pooled trust. Let’s explore in more detail

A third-party trust can be established by anybody on behalf of somebody else, really the only limit is it cannot be created using the beneficiary’s assets. So if grandparents want to pay for all their grandchildren to go to college, but one grandchild is unlikely to because of disabilities, they may put the money into a third-party special needs trust for that child. However, if an individual with a disability comes into money – perhaps a structured settlement because of a malpractice suit, or they were designated as beneficiaries in a life insurance policy; they can not create a third-party trust.

This is where a first-party trust is utilized. If an individual has more than $2,000 (as of 2016) of resources they run the risk of losing eligibility for Social Security and Medicaid. As the person with Special Needs accumulates resources, they would put the extra into a special needs trust for their benefit.

The biggest difference individuals and families need to be aware of between a first-party and third-party special needs trust is Medicaid payback. Put simply, this means the State is going to take money from whatever remains in the trust to pay itself back for the cost of Medicaid (the medical benefits the individual received while living). The States will provide a very detailed invoice, and if the remaining amount in the trust is not enough the balance will be forgiven. Likewise, if there is more than enough in the trust to pay the State back, the balance will go to the remainderman.

A pooled trust is a trust administered by a non-profit organization, and houses trusts for multiple individuals in separate accounts. There are quite a few advantages – the limits for contributing and having the money managed are often much lower, it’s administered by a professional organization, and in many cases they will accept an established trust. There are (3) local pooled trusts – First Maryland Disability Trust; Shared Horizons (DC); and the Arc of Northern Virginia Pooled Trust.


In the beginning I mentioned family members shouldn’t be trustees. This is a pretty broad and sweeping statement, and it’s meant to be. A trustee has a critical role to play, they manage the money in the trust, and are responsible for ensuring they continuously act in the best interests of the beneficiary. I think it can be difficult for family members to remain impartial, especially when large sums of money are involved. The upside to having a family member or friend as Trustee is they really know the individual, and they know what you would want. 

So what about a corporate trustee? After all, they may not know anything about the beneficiary, how can you be sure of the beneficiary will have the quality of life you want them to have? First – not all corporate trustees are created equal. Do your homework, learn about the company(ies). Advantages include – stewardship, companies who act as trustees typically have a lot of experience managing assets. They’re less likely to spend frivolously, making sure the money is really used for the beneficiary. Banks, like Sandy Spring; and trust companies, like Cumberland Trust; are examples, but it’s up to you to do the leg work and interview them. It’s also important you collaborate with your estate planning attorney to ensure the trust outlines what you want.

Using a pooled trust eliminates the need to pick a trustee. Instead, you would select who the primary representative will be; and they will request funds from the trust on behalf of the beneficiary. The non-profit managing the trust will evaluate the request and approve it, request more information, or disapprove it. Again – in the interest of the beneficiary using the trust document as a guide.

This is a lot to think about, and thankfully you’re not alone. Work with your team – your financial planner, attorney, accountant and support network to weigh the pros and cons of each choice. These decisions are heavy, as they should be – but once put in place will provide peace of mind knowing your loved one will be taken care of after you’re gone. Ultimately you have the final say, but leverage the knowledge and experience of those around you. The worst thing you can do is nothing at all.


Why Hire a Professional?

Over the years I’ve been asked, and I used to ask myself, why hire a professional – I can do this myself and save some money! This has ranged from things as complex as my estate plan to as mundane as getting a housekeeper; but they all have a few common themes.

  1. Can you focus the time and energy required to do the task well, without sacrificing something else in your life?
  2. Do you have the most up to date knowledge, and more importantly, do you know what questions you should be asking yourself?
  3. Yes – you can do it, and you have the time; but do you want to?
  4. How much will it cost to fix if you mess something up? Would it be less expensive in the long run to hire a professional?

So let’s address these questions, and explore why – depending on the situation – it makes sense to go with a professional.


We’re all busy, I’m sure at some point we’ve all wished we had more time in the day to get everything done. Knowing this, do you really want to add something else? To the best of my knowledge, nobody has added another hour to the day; and we still need sleep to function. So rather than just say “I’ll do it”; consider – when will you do it? What do you have to say “no” to, so you can fit this into your schedule? Finally – which will bring you more satisfaction and happiness? Sounds a little corny, perhaps; but we’ve got a limited time here and there are enough external stressors – why add one more?


Ok, so my housekeeping example probably doesn’t require very much knowledge – so that’s a case where question number 2 more than likely doesn’t apply. But let’s explore (3) other major areas – taxes, estate planning and financial planning.

I don’t think anybody is going to argue with my assertion that the tax code is ridiculous. Thankfully most of us (as individuals, not business owners) only need to worry about this once/year; and not everyone will need to hire an accountant or tax preparer. There is software available to submit your federal return for free, and a nominal rate for your state. However, as your life becomes more complex – multiple properties, children, starting a business, etc.; the need for a professional becomes much more pressing. They will know what questions to ask, and depending upon who you hire; will be by your side if you should be audited. As you leave the world of 1040EZ behind, and start adding 1099 (fill in the type) and schedule A’s; I’ve found it beneficial to have someone who can explain just what I’m looking at.

Estate planning doesn’t have to mean setting up trusts and appointing guardians. It can be as simple as identifying primary and contingent beneficiaries on your accounts. An estate planning attorney will ensure your wishes are clear, and are outlined within state guidelines. Sure – there are online resources like LegalZoom; but these are designed as “simple” solutions. For example, if you’re in a blended family with multiple children and are concerned about who gets what and when; an attorney is a much better resource. They’re also a great resource if you want to know what the state says you can or can’t do – nothing worse than your heirs trying to untangle a mess because the documents prepared online don’t fit within the State’s statutes – which unfortunately often occurs.

Financial planning is more than (or should be) talking about your retirement accounts and what to invest in. This is one aspect of your plan, and if you’re working with somebody on this – great. But there are many more details to your life – buying a home, paying for a child’s wedding, dream vacations, etc… Financial planners can, and will, help you understand what resources are available and how to apply.  They know, and will explain, how all these pieces fit together to provide financial security; and they make themselves available when you have questions because you’re at a crossroad (for example, leaving a job, or thinking of early retirement).


We’re human, and we don’t always like the things we’re supposed to do – so we put off doing them. We know we should eat healthy and work out, but (and I’m as guilty as the next person) we’ll get to it “tomorrow”. Hiring a professional makes us accountable – now we’re more likely to do it because it’s costing us money. Hiring a personal trainer is different than having a gym membership; there’s more commitment. When you pay a professional don’t think of it as giving up control, because you still have a say in what’s happening. Instead, think of it as making somebody else do something you really don’t like doing (in my case – housekeeping and yard). I know I can do this stuff, it’s not difficult and doesn’t even really take that much time. But I don’t like to do it, so I procrastinate. Then, when I finally suck it up and start, it’s so much worse than it has to be. Sound familiar?


“It’s so expensive!” Professionals cost money, there’s no way around it. You’re paying for their experience, education and time; just as you get paid for the work you do. I’m guilty of trying to save money just to have it blow up in my face – with everything from car repairs to painting a house. Many of us don’t think twice about what we’re spending on our cell phone or cable bills, but when it comes time to hire somebody we’re suddenly Ebenezer Scrooge trying to squeeze every penny until it bleeds.

Be realistic – if you attempt to do this yourself, and it’s more involved than expected; how much could it cost? Weigh that against what it costs to hire a professional. Professionals are often insured, so if something goes wrong there are protections in place. Shop around, get quotes or look at websites to see what average rates are – much of this is public information; and if somebody is unwilling to give you an estimate now you have a valid reason not to hire them.

Consumers need to be careful, no doubt. I’m not suggesting every problem needs a professional solution; I’m advocating for people to keep an open mind and be honest with themselves. If you know you need to do something, and you haven’t done it yet; it’s probably time to hire somebody. True issues and concerns don’t get easier or smaller over time, quite the opposite. The longer it’s put off the more difficult it is to overcome inertia and get it done. Life is too short to live stressed out, especially when so often there are solutions available if we just get out of our own way.