Many of the parents I work with become very anxious as their child approaches impending adulthood. Typically around age 17, I like to sit down with a client and their family and run through a few items it is important for them to consider as the "magic number 18" approaches:
A limited conservatorship is a legal process through which a family can protect their adult dependent child's rights and services by retaining certain decision-making powers. An application is made through the Probate Court of your county's Superior Court system. A family may file on their own through the court or engage an attorney. There are seven powers that may be granted: The power to fix residence; power over financial matters; power over educational decisions; consent to medical treatment; power over contracts; power of association; and power over sexual consent. The latter two powers are almost never granted for most individuals. No matter which powers are requested, I always recommend having more than one familial generation attached to the application to insure continuity of care and decision making for the duration of your child's life. A limited conservatorship does not return your child to the status of a minor; they remain a legal adult.
One of the best ways to find an attorney to file for limited conservatorship is to ask families with children who have just completed the process; certain attorneys have a great deal more experience with the process for intellectually and developmentally disabled individuals. Once an application is filed, a family must make sure that their child and the Regional Center are served with notices to comply with the law. Your child will be assigned a Public Defender, a Regional Center psychologist will conduct an assessment based on the powers requested and an investigator for the Probate Court will conduct their own assessment, after which a hearing will be held in court.
-Special Needs Trusts
There are a wide variety of Special Needs Trusts that can be used to hold assets on behalf of an adult dependent child, including property and funds. Care must be taken to structure these trusts properly - certain legal provisions allow for service providers such as Medi-Cal to seek reimbursement from such assets unless they are shielded.
-Applying for Supplemental Security Income
Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, is a cash-assistance welfare program administered by the Social Security Administration for individuals who cannot obtain or retain self-sufficient employment due to disability. It is quite separate from Social Security Disability Insurance, which one is only eligible for after having worked (thereby paying in to SSDI). SSI funds come mainly from the federal government, with a supplement from the state. Applications for SSI may be obtained at your local Social Security or Department of Social Services offices or from the Social Security website, www.ssa.gov. The mere presence of a diagnosis is not sufficient to grant SSI; care must be taken in the application process to demonstrate precisely what it is about your child's needs that prevent her from obtaining and retaining gainful employment.
-Special Education options
Broadly speaking, there are three "tracks" a teenager in special education can be pursuing: a diploma, which requires earning all required units and passing the California High School Exit Exam; graduation, which requires earning the prescribed units; or post-secondary education (also called "post-senior). By age 16, there must be some discussion of which track your child is recommended to pursue as part of the Transition Plan portion of their Individual Education Plan. Post-secondary programs are recommended for individuals who continue to need to work on life skills, mobility, and vocational skills training, and are available until age 22. Once a track is selected and an exit IEP held, an individual may not change their mind; for example, if a family selects the graduation track and exits school at age 18, the individual may not return at age 20 and request post-secondary education. Regardless of which "track" an individual pursues, classes at your local community college will be available through the disabled students' programs; most community colleges offer a disabled students services center to assist you and your child in enrollment, class selection, and certain accommodations that may be required.
If your adult dependent child is a Regional Center client, she has several housing options open to her: residential care homes, supported living, independent living, or remaining at home. Consultation with your child's service coordinator, school teachers, and other professional staff is recommended to arrive at the most appropriate goal given your child's unique strengths and needs. There is no legal requirement regarding residence - you do not need to have your child move out when they become an adult, though if your child remains at home and receives SSI, it is important to explore lease and renting agreements that may maximize your child's eligible benefit.
While impending adulthood is an understandably and unavoidably complex and anxious time for parents of special needs children, it is not an insurmountable one. Be sure to utilize the supports provided by organizations such as Jeena, Parents Helping Parents, your local Regional Center, and other families with needs similar to your own to help guide you and your child in the necessary decision-making.
James F. Elliott, M.S.W., has worked with children and young adults with a variety of special needs as a special education teacher, transition specialist, and crisis intervention trainer. He has spent the last five years as a service coordinator at San Andreas Regional Center. The opinions expressed here are solely his own and do not represent the opinions, policies, or procedures of San Andreas Regional Center.