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Disability advice: the niche that’s gone mainstream

When is a niche not really a niche? How about when it’s almost 20% of the population, and most of the elderly. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) states, “Four million people in Australia (18.5%) reported having a disability in 2009, according to the results of the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers … The rate of disability increased with age. Almost nine in ten people aged 90 and over (88%) had a disability, compared with 3.4% of those aged four years and under.”

Many people hope disability is an inconvenience that happens to other people, but of course it can hit anyone at any age. In particular, we have an ageing population where most people can expect to live to 90 years of age or longer. So 88% of us can expect to live with our own disability, and add to that our ageing parents and the reality of this issue will confront nearly everyone at some time in their lives.

That’s certainly not a niche. It should be considered as part of every financial plan.

Disability is not easy to define. The four million number includes problems such as loss of sight that is not corrected by glasses, arthritis which causes difficulty dressing, and advanced dementia that requires constant help and supervision. A stricter definition, being people who require assistance with core daily activities because of severe or profound restrictions, gives about 1.2 million. They are supported by an estimated 2.6 million carers. The number of Australians 65 and over with a severe or profound disability is expected to grow to 1.5 million in 2031.

GH Snip1 040414

GH Snip1 040414

Source: ABS 4430.0 - Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings.

Special legislation relating to people with a disability

The regulations designed to assist people with a disability and their families should be better known by advisers and their clients. It would be unacceptable for any financial adviser to overlook the basic rules of a financial topic like superannuation. It is part of the required knowledge set which influences every Statement of Advice. It is equally unacceptable that there is not widespread understanding of special regulations applying to people with a disability of all ages, including the very young. While there are issues of eligibility and definition, there are significant opportunities to improve the financial outcomes of a large proportion of the population.

Some important regulatory issues relating to disability include:

1. Ability to access superannuation at an early age

The Australian Taxation Office provides conditions of early release of super under the Superannuation Industry Supervision Act 1993 for a person with a ‘permanent incapacity’. This is called a ‘disability super benefit’. The superannuation trustee must be reasonably satisfied that the person is unlikely to engage again in gainful employment for which they are reasonably qualified by education, training or experience. At least two medical practitioners must certify this, and there is no limit on the amount that can be released where the person is permanently incapacitated.

Clearly, such a release may alter the traditional planning horizons. Early access means the money may run out quicker. Traditional thinking around retirement ages of 60 or 65 may not apply, and a release may affect other support payments. It’s certainly a step which should only be taken after considering many options.

2. Excepted person for tax purposes

Disabled children may be taxed as adults and have access to adult tax-free thresholds and tax scales. Parents of children with disabilities may be able to reduce their tax payments by saving money or earning income in the name of the child without the usual low tax thresholds applying to children. Financial planners often warn people not to invest in their children’s names, but this advice may need modifying for a family supporting a child with a disability.

Generally, a minor is an excepted person if they are:

  • disabled and likely to suffer from that disability permanently or for an extended period
  • working full-time, or had worked full-time for three months or more in a year (full-time work that was followed by full-time study)
  • entitled to a disability support pension or rehabilitation allowance, or someone was entitled to a carer allowance to care for them
  • entitled to a double orphan pension and received little or no financial support from relatives, or
  • unable to work full-time because of a permanent mental or physical disability and received little or no financial support from relatives.

3. Special Disability Trusts

Special Disability Trusts (SDT) carry exemptions from gifting and assets test rules under social security legislation, and certain expenses relating to care can be charged to the SDT. These rules encourage people to set up trusts for the future care needs of children with disabilities. The Department of Social Security answers more questions on the operation of SDTs here.

People with disabilities and their financial advisers should consider these rules in the design of a financial plan for the client, their carers and their family.

Benefits include a gifting concession of up to $500,000 combined for one or more eligible family members. There is also an assets test assessment exemption of up to $609,500 (as at 1 July 2013 indexed annually) for the beneficiary, which might assist retention of other entitlements. Plus all trust income is excluded from the income test assessment of the beneficiary.

The beneficiary must be deemed as severely disabled and the Trust Deed, Contributor and beneficiary must comply with certain conditions. A particularly restrictive rule is that the beneficiary can only work up to seven hours per week. While the SDT is primarily required to spend its earnings on the care and accommodation needs of the beneficiary, up to $10,750 per year (indexed) can be spent on other items.

Eligibility is not straightforward, and a Centrelink Special Disability Trust team will assess the beneficiary against the legislated criteria for medical impairment, care needs and work capacity.

4. Disability support pensions

These pensions provide support for people with a disability that either prevents them from working, or earning above a minimum threshold. Eligibility includes:

  • aged 16 years or more and under age pension age
  • permanently blind or have been assessed as having a physical, intellectual, or psychiatric impairment
  • unable to work, or to be retrained for work, for 15 hours or more per week at or above the relevant minimum wage within the next two years because of the impairment

More details are available on the Department of Human Services website. The pension is means tested on income and assets. There may also be eligibility for a pension supplement and a mobility allowance.

For anyone thinking disabled people do not have much money because of their difficult employment circumstances, there’s a large group of litigation lawyers, insurance assessors and medical practitioners who know one large subset needing top quality financial advice.

Planning for disability support

People with a disability have complex financial needs, especially after a volunteer care giver can no longer provide support. These needs are not addressed simply by buying a large life insurance policy for the primary care giver and hoping money lasts through the life of the person with a disability. They often require lifelong guardianship and financial assistance. Protecting government benefits while still assuring financial support are paramount.

These issues are heightened by longer life expectancy and longer term dependence on expensive medical care. Caring for older people with disabilities will present challenges for families, friends, volunteers and paid service providers. There will be insufficient paid carers, residential aged-care facilities and community services as government departments will be slow to recognise the demographic changes. The prevalence of profound disability which results in a need for residential care increases from about 5% at age 70 years to 50% at age 90 years. In other countries with rapidly ageing populations (for example, Germany and Japan), the response has been to introduce insurance for long-term care. In Australia, we are having our own debate about products such as deferred annuities. Such approaches need to be considered. The best solution, if it can be afforded, is to build enough financial resources to withstand the cost (if not the emotional turmoil) of whatever life throws at you.

(And there’s an entire article on disability services without mentioning the National Disability Insurance Scheme.  That’s for another day).


This information is general in nature and only summarises some of the relevant legislation. It takes no account of personal circumstances and financial advice should be sought before taking any action.

Brian Carrall
March 29, 2017

In the process of setting up an Special Disability Trust for my Son. I am lucky enough to have come across a group called Disability Law Qld & know the legal side of the SDT. Now, for the life of me I'm having big issue's in finding an Accountant & Financial advisor who understand how these Trusts work & give advice on. I live on the Gold Coast, but am more than willing to travel anywhere to get this advice. So, if anyone can help me in this I would be very grateful.

Craig Ellis
March 30, 2017

Brian, my name is Craig Ellis (I used to work with Graham Hand in a previous life, hopefully he will vouch for me!) and work at Morgan Stanley wealth management. I am in Perth but am sure we can help you remotely (we run bespoke Financial Planning and in particular Investing with a true Strategic Asset Allocation focus), if you would like to discuss further please call 1800454704.

Jennifer Jackson
April 10, 2014

Nice overview Graham of the issues around disabilities and the considerations that should be had for estate planning.

The use of Special Disability Trusts (SDT) in a parent's Will in particular can provide a very effective way of maintaining Centrelink entitlements for a child (including adult children) with a disability, whilst also protecting the inheritance from exploitation. I have drafted dozens of these in Wills over recent years for clients and I'm sure they are plenty more people out there who are unaware of what can be achieved.

We have also assisted many Parent's themselves to become eligible for Centrelink benefits by setting up the SDT for their child during their lifetime and utilising the $500K gifting concession.

Very important for clients to receive specialist advice in this area and be aware of the restrictions as well as the benefits!

April 06, 2014

I find this article of great value. I am new to the field of advising, however I did enter it because of the good that a financial adviser could have brought to me as a parent of a severely disabled child. These are great points to consider during provision of advice and as a parent worried for the future of my child and his normal siblings

I try to keep abreast of the NDIS, and I can attest to the complex needs of my child and his future. I do find it confusing that a NDIS fund planner is provided for in terms of funding, but there is no mention of a financial advisory services being covered to help the carer/disabled person in structuring their finances for the challenges ahead.

In terms of superannuation above, I presume you are talking about the people who were disabled after a working life or through spouse contribution? I don't see any way of contributing to a child's super.

Great overview. Thanks.

Tony Sherlock
April 04, 2014

Chris, my compliments to you. Your current edition of “Cuffelinks” is excellent with a lot of material worthy of retaining for later reference.
Thank you
Kind regards

Tony Sherlock


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