DeSoto County residents with disabilities may now be able to "Achieve a Better Life Experience" with the implementation of the Mississippi ABLE program, which will allow individuals with disabilities to open savings accounts without losing federal benefits.
In December 2014, Congress passed the Stephen Beck, Jr. ABLE Act, which enabled eligible individuals with disabilities to save money for qualified disability expenses while also receiving public benefits. The Mississippi Legislature passed Mississippi's ABLE Act in April 2017 and appointed a nine-member Mississippi ABLE Board to oversee the program in May 2018.
In October 2018, the board voted to join with the National ABLE Alliance and has now launched the program for Mississippians in partnership with the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services.
"As the state agency dedicated to helping Mississippians with disabilities, we are perfectly equipped and extremely honored to be working with the state's ABLE Board to implement ABLE in our state," said Chris Howard, executive director for the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services and vice-chairman of the Mississippi ABLE Board. "We truly believe this program will help in providing financial freedom to so many we serve."
The program originated when a group of parents of children with disabilities could not save funds in their child's name for fear of losing essential benefits that allow independent living. Many individuals with disabilities and their families depend on federal assistance such as SSI, SNAP and Medicaid, and disabled individuals previously could not be eligible for public benefits with savings over $2,000 for SSI and $4,000 for Medicaid. ABLE accounts now allow disabled individuals to build a more promising financial future by building assets through savings and investments without losing benefits.
"ABLE is a ground-breaking program for individuals with disabilities," said Rick Courtney, chairman of the Mississippi ABLE Board. "Those who receive benefits have always been told that they couldn't save money without jeopardizing their benefits. ABLE changes the rules. This is really significant on so many levels, but especially for capable adults with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities who want to save for their children's future like other parents."
ABLE accounts can be used for daily transactions or long-term savings, and income earned in the accounts will not be taxed if spent on qualified disability-related expenses. Qualified expenses include expenses such as education, housing, transportation, health care, financial management and other expenses that help individuals increase or maintain health, independence and quality of life.
"ABLE accounts are all about independence," said Lynn Fitch, Mississippi state treasurer and ABLE board member. "They promote saving for a life of independence that many people with disabilities and their families can't afford. And that is good, not only for Mississippians with disabilities but for all of Mississippi."
To qualify for the program, the individual must have acquired their disability before the age of 26 but does not necessarily have to receive SSI or SSDI benefits as long as they meet Social Security's disability criteria. There is no cost to open an account, but the fee to maintain an account is $3.75 per month. Anyone can contribute to the account, and contributions may qualify for a state income tax deduction.
Individuals with savings over $100,000 will become ineligible for SSI benefits but will remain eligible for Medicaid and other federal benefits, and accounts can be used together with a special needs trust. The maximum yearly contribution to an ABLE account is the same as the annual gift tax exemption, and the maximum balance for an account is $235,000.
Rebecca Treadway, executive director of the Arc Northwest Mississippi, a local advocacy organization for individuals of all ages with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said that this new program will allow all disabled individuals much more freedom.
"[The ABLE program] impacts every individual with physical and intellectual disabilities," said Treadway. "This is a huge win for individuals with disabilities everywhere."
For more information or to sign up, visit www.MississippiAble.com.
Brent Walker is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.