Special needs child, special needs trust

Alexander v. Harris — So. 3d — (Fla. 2d DCA May 17, 2019)

This interesting Second District Court of Appeal opinion kept with the public policy of having a legal obligation to support a child, supporting the Florida Supreme Court’s longstanding decision of Bacardi v. White, 463 So. 2d 218 (Fla. 1985).

In Alexander, the father was the sole beneficiary of a special needs trust, established with funds from the settlement of a product liability action brought on the father’s behalf after he was catastrophically injured in a car accident as a minor. The special needs trust is a spendthrift trust that provides him with supplemental income while maintaining his eligibility for public assistance.  (citations omitted).

Because the special needs trust is a spendthrift trust, it contains restrictions on how the distributed funds can be utilized. Here, the father did not exercise any control over the trust, could not seek to compel the trustee to make disbursements, and did not personally receive disbursements because they went to third parties on the father’s behalf and for his benefit.

The mother argued on appeal that the spendthrift provisions were unenforceable against a valid child support order, under Fla. Stat. §736.0503, and that discretionary disbursements were not protected from continuing garnishment for support payments.  The Second District agreed, and reversed the trial court, holding that the father was not relieved from his obligation to support the child by way of the special needs trust, and that a continuing writ of garnishment was appropriate.

In so holding, the Second District explained that the discretionary disbursements made by the trustee are not protected from continuing garnishment for payment of child support. See Berlinger v. Casselberry, 133 So. 3d 961 (Fla. 2d DCA 2013).  In that case, the court explained that Fla. Stat. §736.0503 did not prohibit a former spouse from obtaining a writ of garnishment against discretionary disbursements made by a trustee exercising its discretion.  Here, in Alexander, the mother exhausted the traditional methods of enforcing a valid child support order and the father’s sole available income for payment of support is the trust.

The Second District acknowledged the conflict and competing public policies between the enforceability of spendthrift and special needs trusts and the necessity to pay support such as alimony or child support pursuant to court order – i.e., the conflict between the compliance with strict federal regulations involved like those for a special needs trust, as against the applicable state laws that any other trust is subject to in the state.  The Second District explained that the legal obligation of support, and in this case, the support of a child, does not shield the father from his support obligation. Therefore, a continuing writ of garnishment is appropriate in this case.

Should you be faced with a similar support obligation and competing interests of a special needs trust, it is wise to consult an experienced trust attorney to explain and advise you on these issues.