Professional Excellence – Special Needs and Elder Law Planning – Michigan Law Center, PLLC

Michele Fuller, Founder and Managing Partner of the Michigan Law Center, PLLC, speaks on elder law planning; thinking about life after death is not on the topic of everyone’s list, but Michele touches on the importance of it. Her firm is focused on planning for persons with disabilities of all ages, preserving assets and helping to access resources to foster independence and vitality of life, and so she touches on the best interests for those with disabilities and changes she would like to see in elder law.


Many people would assume that it is best not to leave a loved one with disabilities anything in their will or trust so as not to disrupt their qualification for public benefits. Is this true?

Often people elect to disinherit a person with disabilities because they do not understand their options, or find it easier to leave an “extra” share to another family member who will care for their loved one with disabilities. However, this type of planning leaves the person who needs the most support without any resources. The person receiving the “extra” share has no legal obligation to care for their family member with special needs. The extra share can be pilfered away, used for their own purposes, subject to being disbursed to the future ex-spouse, or lost under a variety of circumstances such as a lawsuit or bankruptcy. The best way to protect a family member with special needs is a special needs trust. It provides a legal framework for a person who requires public benefits to meet their basic needs, like SSI and Medicaid, or someone who needs protection from predators or just needs some help managing finances. There are a variety of options for families of all levels of estates.


From your experience, what would you say are the most common challenges to face clients in the US as they look to plan their estates?

Some of the biggest mistakes I see business owners make is not planning for their own disability. They are typically highly driven successful people, so sitting down and strategising their succession plan is not something they are excited to do. There are different levels of planning that should be considered for business interests and personal affairs in the event of a short-term absence, long term or permanent disability, and upon their death. There needs to be processes in place and training on the business and personal side in each of these circumstances, as well as making sure legal authority and accountability systems are in place so that in the event of a short or long-term event, they have a business to come back to and an effective advocate for their personal care and needs. Then, upon passing, ensuring the next generation receives their assets in an efficient way without unnecessary costs.


Can you give me some examples of advanced elder law planning strategies you have implemented?

In the case of an elderly couple of modest means where one spouse needed immediate 24-hour care and the other spouse remained in the marital home, through the use of court orders and other techniques, able to preserve the marital assets for the spouse who remained in the marital home and obtain benefits for the spouse in the nursing home. We revised the estate plan of the well-spouse so that in the event they were survived by the spouse in the nursing home it would not result in rendering them ineligible for government benefits. About six months after the planning was complete, the well-spouse unexpectedly passed away, and was survived by the spouse in the nursing home. The estate was funded into a special needs trust to pay for any needs of the surviving spouse, and upon her death would be distributed to the children. As much as possible, we encourage people to pre-plan for long-term care needs through creating and funding irrevocable trusts.


Do you see the need for any legislative changes? What would you change and how if you had the power?

Several years ago I, along with several colleagues, drafted the Michigan Pooled Trust Act, which would allow individuals with disabilities of any age to place assets into a special needs trust. This is key to allow people to age in their homes rather than an institutional nursing home setting while accessing publicly funded in-home support services. This way, some public dollars are utilised to offset the cost of long-term care, and funds set aside are used to supplement care needs and maintain their homes, but at a substantial savings compared to a nursing facility. The best part is that people can remain in their homes. If I could have this passed tomorrow, I would.


How do you ensure that your estate planning services stand out from the competition?

As the outgoing Chair of the Elder Law and Disability Rights Section of the State Bar of Michigan, we are aware of pending legislation, which allows me to anticipate the needs of my clients. I also write and teach frequently, especially on new statutes or policies, which helps keep the firm on the cutting edge. We are also constantly looking for ways to innovate and improve client services, experience, and planning methods to meet their goals.


You have published many articles – which do you think covers the most important topic people need to be aware of?

That choosing an experienced special needs or elder law attorney is critical to prevent unintended consequences. Ask questions and be a good consumer.


Is there anything else that you would like to add?

For larger or complex settlements of litigation issues, a qualified settlement fund is an underutilised tool that can help control tax liability and buy time for plaintiffs to create an appropriate legal and financial plan that best suits their needs. This is typically a tool used in mass tort litigation, but has applications beyond that usage into a much larger variety of claims. This area of my practice was a natural extension of my background in special needs settlement planning, and has been an exciting area ripe for innovation.


Michele P. Fuller
Michigan Law Center, PLLC
12900 Hall Road, Suite 470
Sterling Heights, MI 48313
ph: 586-803-8500
fx: 586-803-8508


Michele Fuller is Founder of the Michigan Law Center located in Sterling Heights, Michigan. The practice focuses on elder law, special needs planning, Veteran’s Administration planning, and settlement planning, including a national practice establishing Qualified Settlement Funds (QSF).

Michele is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) and is serving her second term on the Board of Directors of the Michigan Chapter, and presented at the 2014 national conference. She is an Advisory Board Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners (ASNP), and served as Chair of the 6th Annual conference, in addition to being a frequent presenter at the annual conferences and webinars. She has also presented for the American Bar Association and American Association for Justice regarding various aspects of special needs trusts and planning.

The Michigan Law Center is dedicated to helping their valued clients meet all of their estate planning objectives.

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