I attended a spring “boot camp” of the Special Needs Alliance last weekend. I have been a member of this organization since 2002. It is an invitation-only professional organization of lawyers who have expertise in planning with families who have disabled family members. These lawyers are a reliable place to start when a family needs to know about trusts, Medicaid benefits, special education, settling a personal injury suit, housing, Social Security benefits, food stamps, estate planning for other family members who want to support the disabled family member, and accessing many other services and benefits that may be needed. There is only one other lawyer in New Mexico who is a member of the Special Needs Alliance.
The boot camp was held in San Antonio, Texas, and was attended by over one hundred lawyers from all over the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska. One of the benefits of the organization is that clients can be confident that each of the lawyers is expert and sensitive to the needs of disabled family members. If you have a family member in Florida, we can refer you to an expert there, several experts actually.
The focus of this boot camp was the complexities of settling personal injury law suits with a plaintiff who may be permanently disabled. As it happens, Ruth Pregenzer of our law firm made a presentation to the New Mexico Trial Lawyers on Friday, March 11, on this very subject as well. If a person is permanently disabled, the settlement has to take into account not only the amount of the settlement, but the structure of the settlement, such as whether it should be mostly cash, or should it be structured in an annuity. Should there be a special needs trust created? Does the plaintiff require a guardian ad litem to approve the settlement? Does the plaintiff require a guardian or conservator for the future? What are the actual health needs of the plaintiff, and will those needs be met by health insurance, or Medicare, or will the plaintiff require Medicaid? Did Medicare, Medicaid or another health insurance or health care provider pay for the expenses of the injury related to the accident? How much will Medicare have to pay in the future for the health care of the plaintiff? If there is to be a trust, who will be the trustee? What about other family members who have been affected by this injury, do they get to recover as well? Does the life care plan that was submitted to the court as part of the settlement really address the real needs of the plaintiff, and what if any modifications need to be made now? Are the injuries in this law suit shared by other plaintiffs around the country and what level of organization is needed to accommodate the settlement of all of those claims?
A main conclusion of the boot camp was that having a special needs lawyer involved in the case very early on allows the personal injury attorney to understand the breadth of the issues that folks who are permanently disabled face for the rest of their lives. Once the settlement is entered into, there are many many issues that remain in the life of the plaintiff, that unfortunately some personal injury attorneys are not aware of and do not take into account.
Finally, I need to say that the members of the Special Needs Alliance are special lawyers. They bring to the practice of law in this area a caring perspective as well as deep understanding of the complexities of the issues facing folks with disabilities that clients truly appreciate. We are proud to be associated with them.