Tennessee launches program to help disabled, families save tax-free for expenses

Tennessee state Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, speaks to the media in 2012.


ABLE TN is a state-administered savings program aimed at helping individuals with disabilities or their families save and invest with tax-free earnings to help participants maintain independence and quality of life.Requirements for participants include:› Must have a disability diagnosis on or before their 26th birthday.› Be eligible to receive Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability Insurance or have obtained a disability diagnosis by a qualified physician.› Individuals or legal representatives are required to sign the ABLE TN certification statement› Accounts must remain under $100,000. Qualified expenses include education, housing, transportation, employment, health, prevent and wellness, assistive technology and personal support services.For more information, visit AbleTN.govSource: Tennessee Department of Treasury

NASHVILLE - A new Tennessee program is now available to help people with qualified disabilities and their families or legal representatives save, invest and earn money tax-free to fund allowable expenses such as housing and health needs.

State Treasurer David Lillard said Tennessee is among the first states to offer an Achieving A Better Life Experience program.

photo David Lillard

The ABLE Tennessee program, administered through the Tennessee Department of Treasury, is designed to help people with intellectual and physical disabilities save with no impact on federal means-tested benefits so long as the 401k-style investment accounts are less than $100,000.

It is expected to help people and families with problems in areas ranging from Down syndrome to military veterans left physically devastated by war-related injuries.

To qualify, officials said, the disability must have been present before someone's 26th birthday.

Moreover, individuals must be eligible for either federal Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance benefits based on blindness or disability. Or, they can join by having a qualified physician provide a disability diagnosis.

The accounts can be opened by family members or other legal representatives and accept investment money not just from them but other relatives, including grandparents, and friends, officials say.

"Families are so ready to open these accounts," Lillard said last week at a news conference rolling out the program, made allowable under recent changes to federal tax law. "The Tennessee Treasury team has put together a very high-quality savings program."

The money can be used for qualified expenses in areas ranging from housing, education and training to health, assistive technology and personal support services.

Lillard said the accounts will be easy to set up and manage, emphasizing his department has plenty of expertise as it manages more than $56 billion in assets through various investment programs. That includes the state workers' pension fund and a highly rated 527 program that helps Tennessee families save and reap investment earnings tax free for their child's college education.

The treasurer said the state is able to drive down costs of investment fees charged for 401k-type accounts to 0.35 percent on most investment options. For example, an account with a $14,000 balance would incur an annual fee of less than $50.

"The earnings on these investments in these accounts will be tax-free as long as the funds are used to cover the costs of qualified disabilities expenses," Lillard said. "Further, there will be no impact on federal means-tested benefits for accounts with a balance less than $100,000."

Jennifer Maynard of Murfreesboro, whose 17-year-old daughter Meghan has Down syndrome, was at Lillard's state Capitol news conference unveiling the program and said she expects ABLE will help.

"You know, you can work and save money and encourage her to be independent, but at the end of the day, you just want to know she'll be OK and have what she needs," said Maynard, noting that with swimming lessons, school cheerleading and other activities her daughter is enjoying a good life today.

But, she noted, "something you really do worry about when you have a special needs child [is] the future."

State Veterans Services Commissioner Many Bears Grinder said that with some veterans returning home disabled from recent overseas conflicts ABLE Tennessee is a "wonderful idea" for providing help.

"I think it could be very helpful for some folks," said Heidi Hoffecker, director of development at Chattanooga's Orange Grove Center, which provides a wide range of programs and services for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Carol Westlake, executive director of the Tennessee Disability Coalition, said, "We're very excited about the program, actually. There's no perfect program for everyone. But it'll make a huge difference for a lot of individuals who are middle income."

In some cases, parents or close relatives don't have enough personal or family resources to provide for all needs but aren't poor enough to take advantage of some programs, Westlake noted.

photo Tennessee Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, participates in a Chattanooga Times Free Press legislative roundtable in January 2009.

Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, co-sponsored the House bill allowing the state to create the ABLE Tennessee program after Congress approved changes to federal tax law.

"My wife and I are parents, and we know what it's like to worry about your children and their financial future," Brooks said. "We wanted this resource to be available to help the thousands of Tennessee parents who need more help to save for the costs of care for their children."

Brooks added he believes the program "will be very beneficial to many Tennessee families.

"I was thrilled to be a part of it," he said. "This is part of what good government is about."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.