Less “I Can’t”, More “I Will”

My son has Autism, and some days can be much more challenging than others – but if he’s taught me nothing else, I’ve learned nothing is impossible. When we first received the diagnosis he was non-verbal, and we were repeatedly told he would “plateau” regardless of how much therapy he had. This was many years ago, the medical profession is learning more about Autism every day and realizing they really don’t know what those with Autism are capable of. Academically, he will not be a Rhodes scholar; but where it matters – his social and everyday living skills, he’s blossomed. He’s never going to be a chatterbox, but he will engage with people – even initiate the conversation.

As parents I think most of us recognize and admit we’ll do anything for our children; but often I think we’re not as true to ourselves. We teach our children right from wrong, and hold them accountable; yet where is that accountability when we say we’re going to do something? Why is it acceptable for us to give in when the going gets tough, rather than opting not to take the path of least resistance and fighting for what we want. When somebody you are coaching says “I can’t, it’s too hard” you don’t let them off the hook. Yet for many of us when something seems too hard, we quit or find a work around – telling ourselves “it’s just as good” or “it’ll do”.

I get it, there is only so much bandwidth or energy a person has; and we need to pick and choose our battles. I can agree with that, but my issue is who is picking the battles we fight. Are we, or are we letting outside influences tell us what’s important. If you want something, it’s realistic and it’s in your power to achieve – then what’s really stopping you from reaching for it. To clarify, in your power to achieve does not mean you’ll have it tomorrow. Sometimes you will have to make sacrifices and be patient for that which you really want; but the feeling when it’s in your grasp is like nothing else in this world. The first time you achieve something you really stretched for you’ll understand you truly are unstoppable – the only thing that can get in your way is you.

This requires a paradigm shift. For those who pay attention, even minimally, to what others think or feel about them the first step will be putting that in perspective. Yes, perceptions are important at times – like the workplace; but they shouldn’t define who you are. It is not mutually exclusive to work for one’s goals and help other’s achieve theirs. Instead, find people on similar paths – use each other as leverage to get over the humps and roadblocks that will arise along the way. Motivate each other, when the words “I can’t” come out, challenge them. Is it “I can’t”, or is it “I won’t”?

Set milestones, and celebrate victories along the way. Not every victory has to be major, celebrating smaller victories keeps the momentum and motivation high. Setbacks only become failures if you stop; otherwise they are opportunities for reflection. What went wrong, why did it go wrong, and how can you prevent something similar in the future. Understand you cannot plan for every eventuality, especially when goals have a long time horizon; so accept there will be times when you will seem to hit a wall and tell yourself “I will overcome all obstacles”. You are powerful, why not use that power to achieve what you desire?!


Veterans and Survivors Pension (VA)

Not to long ago I helped my parents file a claim on behalf of my grandfather for Veterans pension; and it helped me realize how underutilized it is. I don’t think many veterans’ families are aware they, their family members or friends may qualify for it. In the hopes of helping raise awareness, I’m going to discuss what Veterans Pension is, how one qualifies and what Survivors Pension is. We as veterans need to make sure we’re asking for everything we’ve earned; it’s nobody else’s responsibility. We also need to be looking out for our less fortunate brothers and sisters. This fact sheet provides a good overview as well.

What are the Pension Benefits?

Veterans pension is a tax-free monetary benefit payable to low-income wartime veterans. There are income limits, with the income offsetting (reducing) the amount of pension received. The veteran’s income may be adjusted for medical expenses, including the costs of care in skilled nursing, assisted living, adult day centers and at home – as well as the premiums for Medicare and other insurance. If the veteran is collecting SSI or welfare, these benefits are NOT included in calculating income. Sources counted as income are gambling winnings, gifts of stock/property, inheritance, IRA & 401k withdrawals, social security and SSDI, VA compensation (VA disability), VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) and wages. The 2016 pension amounts are below, each year these values are set by Congress:

Veteran with no dependents = $12,868

Veteran with a spouse or child = $16,851 (+ $2,198 for each additional child, adult disabled children may be included)

Surviving Spouse/death pension = $8,630 (+$2,198 for each additional child, adult disabled children may be included.

What is Survivor’s Pension? 

Survivors pension is a tax-free benefit payable to low-income, un-remarried surviving spouse and/or unmarried children. It is also income limited, although the income may be adjusted the same way as the veteran’s – by reducing for costs of care and insurance premiums. There is no age limit for unmarried spouses, but the benefit for children will stop at 18 if they are not attending a VA approved school or permanently disabled before the age of 18. If they are attending a VA approved school the child’s benefit will continue until their 23rd birthday, and if disabled (permanently incapable of self-support) they will receive it for life.

What are the Eligibility Criteria? 

The following criteria are NOT mutually inclusive, the veteran only needs to meet one of these and have a yearly family income below the amount set by Congress (and shown above). Although the veteran must have served during war time (not in a war zone), given how long this country has been in conflicts it’s safe to say most will probably qualify. The veteran must be age 65 or older, OR totally and permanently disabled, OR a patient in a nursing home receiving skilled nursing care, OR receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), OR receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI). I think it’s important to note – you can be in a nursing home, receiving care and paying for the care with your retiree pension and still potentially be eligible for this benefit – depending on the cost of care. Think about your friends and family who have parents or grandparents receiving care – they may be able to offset some of those additional costs through veteran or survivor pension. 

Are There Additional Benefits?

There are two additional benefits veterans should be aware of – Housebound and Aid & Attendance (A&A) . Housebound may be added to the monthly pension if the veteran or survivor are substantially confined to their immediate premises because of a permanent disability. A & A is an increase to the monthly pension if a veteran or survivor:

  • Requires the aid of another person in order to perform personal functions required in everyday living, such as bathing, feeding, dressing, attending to the wants of nature, adjusting prosthetic devices, or protecting yourself from the hazards of your daily environment
  • Are bedridden, in that your disability or disabilities requires that you remain in bed apart from any prescribed course of convalescence or treatment
  • Are a patient in a nursing home due to mental or physical incapacity
  • Their eyesight is limited to a corrected 5/200 visual acuity or less in both eyes; or concentric contraction of the visual field to 5 degrees or less

How to Apply?

You can download the form from the VA’s website and submit the claim to the VA yourself, although I encourage you NOT to. Veteran Service Organizations (VSO’s) like the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) will submit the claim on your behalf and work as your representative to the VA, free of charge.

ABLE Update

Significant progress has been made in 2016 with two states – Ohio and Tennessee – allowing contributions to ABLE accounts; and several more states expected to follow by the end of the year. Some important things to understand about these plans, and ABLE accounts in general. First and foremost – they do not, nor should they, take the place of a Special Needs Trust. ABLE accounts have a maximum limit of $100,000 to continue receiving Social Security and Medicaid benefits (higher balances will suspend eligibility); and each state’s maximum balance will match the maximum balance of their traditional 529 plans. Special Needs Trusts do not have a maximum limit. Additionally, ABLE accounts are subject to Medicaid payback – depending upon the type of Special Needs Trust this is not the case.

Individuals can only have one ABLE account, and $14,000 per year is currently the total contribution limit. Recent legislature has passed allowing eligible individuals to open an ABLE account in any State, regardless of where they reside. Currently neither Ohio nor Tennessee offer a state income tax deduction for contributions, and it’s unclear if any states will incorporate this into their accounts. Qualified withdrawals –  withdrawals applied towards qualified disability expenses of the beneficiary, may be taken tax free. The definition of qualified withdrawals is extremely broad at this time – including expenses like buying an iPad or music therapy.

It’s important families have a plan for what the ABLE account is going to be used for. Although there are many investment options available, if the contributions will be applied to daily living, or short term goals, the best option is to leave the money in cash. The ABLE account vehicle provides a great opportunity for individuals with disabilities to have an emergency fund; something they’ve never been able to accumulate in the past because of the $2,000 asset limit for social security benefits.

How do you get the money out of the account? Both Ohio and Tennessee offer debit cards with their accounts, and I think it’s a safe bet to say most, if not all, plans will offer something similar. Tennessee has a 10 calendar day waiting period after a contribution has been made before funds may be withdrawn; Ohio’s waiting period is 7 business days for check contributions, and 5 business days for an ACH contribution.

Another important clarification: although the disability had to be diagnosed before age 26, there is no age limit to open an ABLE account. For example, if an individual is in their 50s, but received a disability diagnosis at the age of 16, they may open an ABLE account. These accounts are not just for families with children or young adults, if you’re unsure if you or a loved one will qualify consult an advisor or visit the ABLE National Resource Center’s web site.

ABLE accounts don’t solve all of a families’ problems, but they are a step in the right direction to providing individuals with disabilities independence and providing families with a sense of security. Although there is a contribution limit, there are no restrictions on who can contribute. An ABLE account should be considered another tool for the success of your financial plan.

Veterans – File your claims!

I’ve heard it far too often than I think I should – I’m not filing a VA claim, I’d rather leave the money for those that have seen combat; they really deserve it. This bothers me. As a veteran who served in several combat zones, although not boots on ground in Iraq or Afghanistan, I can attest to the fact there are a myriad of other hazards faced even when not in direct combat. But yes, those who have been boots on ground definitely need to apply.

I’m not advocating making something up – if you came out of the military in the same shape, or better, than you came in – GREAT! However, many of us did not. In fact, although we may not be eligible for any compensation right away, because  we have an injury that’s not impacting us AT THIS TIME we may receive a 0% rating. Filing the claim and getting a 0% rating is better for the veteran than not filing at all. By granting a 0% rating the VA has acknowledged the injury or illness is service connected. This is important because if/when this condition gets worse it’s already been tied to your time in the military and the VA simply looks at the severity; you’re not trying to prove it happened when you served 30+  years ago.

Filing claims as soon as possible minimize the possibility of other causes clouding the issue. Various Service organizations, like the DAV, VFW and American Legion will help service members file claims and then follow the claim through the process on the veteran’s behalf. You don’t have to be a member, and the service is free. They will also help you prepare the claim, ensuring it’s not submitted without the necessary proof – minimizing the wait time you may otherwise encounter. This is still not a “speedy” process; it can take between 8 – 12 months for a fully developed claim to be processed. If you don’t have all your documentation ready the wait time may be as long as 2+ years.

The VA uses 38 CFR Book C to determine disability ratings. This is a very comprehensive list of ailments, and it outlines exactly what is needed to qualify. This is not a suggestion to go page by page trying to find what will get you the most money. It IS a suggestion that you review your medical records and start being honest about what your health is like while on Active Duty. The VA has a history of taking a long time to acknowledge illnesses and injuries, but when they do those who have a documented history are taken care of. Some recent examples are vets stationed at Camp LeJeune between 1953 – 1987 and the VA’s burn Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry.

To find what the sum of multiple ratings will be, use the combined ratings table. VA compensation increases if you’re married, have a child or a dependent parent. If you have a disabled child the compensation will remain in place after he/she turns 18 – but you will need to file the request and prove the child’s disability. Be honest with yourself, should you die of a service connected disability there are benefits your family is entitled to. So things like high blood pressure, diabetes, etc… need to be brought up, not hidden, during your annual exams. It may seem like the end of the world at the time, but in the long run it can really help your family.


Quality Trust

The DC Quality Trust is an independent, non-profit advocacy organization focused on improving the lives of children and adults with disabilities and their families in the District of Columbia and beyond. Their Mission is “to be an independent catalyst for change in the lives of people of all ages with developmental disabilities in the District of Columbia and beyond. They partner with people and their families so they can succeed, thrive and experience full membership in the communities they choose.”

Who They Are

So we know their mission, but who are they? First and foremost, the Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities is not a Trust. They are an advocacy agency focused on assisting children and adults with developmental disabilities in the District of Columbia. They were founded in 2001, as part of a class action lawsuit (Evans v the District of Columbia) settlement – which closed the District’s institution for children and adults with intellectual disabilities (Forest Haven).

I think it’s important to share their  values, because to me this is really what helps set them apart.

  • They presume capacity, promote it, expand it and defend it in all their actions, policies and practice
  • People should control all aspects of their lives, as desired
  • Supports should reflect a lifespan approach
  • Families are a critical advocacy partner

The second and third bullets resonate with me and my circumstances. I think it’s easy to forget sometimes that individuals with disabilities are first and foremost individuals. The disability just happens to be something they have, it’s not who they are. So rather than assuming they can’t make any decisions, take a more liberal approach. Let the individual speak up for him/herself. At first they may not say much, especially if they’re older and have lived most of their lives doing what they were told. But eventually most will speak up – and this is what the Quality Trust is advocating for.

What They Do

Quality Trust was founded to be an independent monitoring organization. They conduct visits with people, going where they live and spend their days to ensure there is no abuse, neglect, personal theft, etc. They check in with those they monitor to verify the required supports are in place, and meet the needs of the individual(s).

They provide training to families; based upon inclusion, self-determination and collaboration with other organizations. The topics are individualized and tailored to meet the received requests and specific needs.

Quality Trust has a Legal Advocacy team which helps people get the supports services they need to live full and meaningful lives in the places and ways they choose. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Seeking eligibility and access to Vocational Rehab
  • DDA and Social Security services
  • Medicaid and end of life planning

What Else Should I Know

The Quality Trust has several other initiatives to help individuals with disabilities. Most notably is the Jenny Hatch Justice Project and Project ACTION!

The Jenny Hatch Justice Project is an integrated, multi-faceted resource and outreach center dedicated to advancing people with disabilities’ right to make their own choices and determine their own path and direction in life.

Project ACTION! is a regional coalition of self-advocates and self-advocacy groups from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.  ACTION! stands for Advocacy, Change, Training, Information, Organizing and Networking.


I am not an employee of the Quality Trust, 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.

Saving for College

It’s that time of year – when graduates and their families get ready to say goodbye and start the next chapter of their lives. For many the associated costs can be daunting, with parents wanting to help by paying for as much as possible. Very noble and a wonderful sentiment – but not necessarily the wisest course of action; unless they have secured their own retirement first.

The first thing parents should be doing, whether they’ve been saving for college or not, is encouraging their child(ren) to apply for FAFSA. This opens the door for a variety of funding sources, not just federal aid – scholarships, grants, etc… Also, don’t assume college is the only way to go; after all, not everyone knows what they want to do or even have a desire to attend. Other options include: military service; working; Profoundly Disconnected (Mike Rowe’s trade scholarships); and apprenticing with a trade.

For those with younger children, or if you want to start saving for your grandchildren, a 529 Plan may be the right tool for you. It could provide you with a state income tax deduction (talk to your accountant) and, if the money is used for education related expenses, is tax-free. However, there is a 10% penalty if it’s not used for educational expenses.

Another option is to pay the tuition directly. To maximize the benefit do NOT give the money to anybody but the school, otherwise it could be considered a gift and depending upon the amount you may need to file a gift tax return. Again talk to your tax professional and/or advisor for more details.

Finally, be realistic about what the student wants to achieve. Community colleges are much less expensive than universities, and offer much of the same lower level course work. Explore the opportunities within a chosen major before enrolling, it doesn’t make sense to rack up thousands of dollars of student loan debt if there’s little to no possibility of making enough to pay it back as soon as possible.



Long Term Care

Long term care (LTC) is probably the touchiest subject I discuss with all of my clients, and I would estimate approximately 85% do NOT want to insure for long term care. The reasons are varied – from it being too expensive to their children will take care of them. Yet statistically more people are going to need long term care than not, and it ends up being us (taxpayers) who are paying for them (Medicaid).

Let’s define what long term care is, because I think the image most people defer to is a nursing home. This is certainly the most expensive option; but long term care includes assisted living, home health services, etc… People want to stay in their homes as they age, unfortunately without proper planning this will not be their reality.

Medicaid will pay for treatment if you pass a means test. So you’ll hear people talk about doing Medicaid planning, working with an elder law attorney and financial advisor to prepare for the 5 year look-back. If you have significant assets, maybe this is worth it – but when you take Medicaid you’re giving up any rights you have to choosing your provider. You will have to take a Medicaid approved provider, and they’re not worried about whether you like it or not. Also – you remove the option of staying home for care.

Perhaps you think of self-insuring. Again, if you have significant assets could be worth it. But what does self-insuring really mean. It means you’re using money you’ve lived without in your younger years – money which you now cannot use for  personal pursuits (vacations, new home, etc…). Setting aside a fraction of that money to transfer the risk to somebody else means you can spend without worries.

Continuing Care Retirement Communities are growing in popularity, and there are several business models – but they can be expensive. On the positive side, they’re regulated by the states (information about Maryland’s may be found here CCRCs). Some will accept LTC insurance, reducing the amount out of your pocket.

Long term care insurance is pure insurance. It’s a sunk cost, the money is spent whether you use the policy or not. So is what you pay for cable and your cell phone. Many companies are offering hybrid products now, combining a LTC policy with life insurance or an annuity.

I have no idea what the best solution is for you; but, as is the case so often in life, the worst thing you can do is nothing at all. I don’t think there is any one perfect solution, it’s what works best with your situation. The most important piece to me is this – you really need to  understand what you are, or aren’t, with regards to long term care. I would start thinking about it in your late 40’s, as your kids are leaving the house for college and retirement is approaching. Ask your parents what their plan is. Failure to plan is a plan to fail.