Protecting Tomorrows with Mary Anne Ehlert: The ABLE Act

Published 03/09/2017

In this ongoing series, we feature comments from Forum partner Mary Anne Ehlert, a highly regarded specialist working with families of individuals with disabilities.


On February 23, Forum Partner Mary Anne Ehlert was part of a speaker panel for the webinar “The ABLE Act: EnABLE Savings for Life.” The group covered various topics on the ABLE Act, which amends Section 529 of the IRS code and allows individuals to set up accounts and save for loved ones with a disability.

Special guest speakers included Karen Milligan, Special Olympics Illinois; Brian Rubin and Benji Rubin, Rubin Law; Chasse Rehwinkel, Illinois State Treasurer’s Office; and a special introduction by Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs.

“The ABLE Act: EnABLE Savings for Life”

In addition to sharing the webinar here, we asked Mary Anne to discuss the benefits of setting up and funding an ABLE account for a loved one with special needs. Following are Mary Anne’s comments on ABLE, how such an account can be a valuable addition to a comprehensive special-needs life plan and why ABLE accounts are not replacements for special-needs trusts.

More About the ABLE Act From Mary Anne Ehlert

The new legislation known as ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience), which was passed as a federal law in December 2014, enacted a new opportunity for planning for the financial security of a person with a disability. An ABLE account, also known as a 529A, provides a new tool available to save for the future.

Individuals with a disability are often limited to the assets they can have in their name. Due to this limitation, individuals were restricted from having families save directly for them or even from saving for themselves. As we all mature, we are taught the value of savings. Yet, if you have a disability, you were restricted from funding your own future.

The ABLE account now allows individuals with a disability to save for their own future and to have that savings grow tax free. This account will NOT count in the allowable assets a person with a disability can have to receive needs based funding. The account is similar to a 529, but has very specific differences.

It is similar to the 529 that the savings are tax free, and the total amount that can saved in the account is the same (set by each state). The disbursements from the account are tax free, the funds are used for allowable expenses. Each state determines the investment choices that are available for their plans.

However, there are more differences than similarities.

The ABLE Act at a Glance

  • The maximum that can be funded into a 529A per year is the annual gift amount (currently $14,000 per year).
  • A person with a disability can have only ONE account.
  • The funds in the account can grow up to the maximum amount, but if they are greater than $100,000, the SSI received by the person with the disability will be suspended until the account goes back below $100,000.
  • Upon the death of the person with the disability, the remaining funds will have a payback to the state for Medicaid expenditures made for the benefit of the person with the disability. The payback will only be for Medicaid funded since the start of the ABLE account.

Understanding How This New Tool Fits in Overall Planning

An ABLE account is an important tool in overall planning, but it is important to understand that it is just ONE of the tools available. There are very specific circumstances in which an ABLE account can be used wisely, but it is definitely not a replacement for a special-needs trust.

However, there are times when a small amount is gifted directly to the person with the disability, requiring the expense of a special type of payback special-needs trust. The 529A provides a new alternative and eliminates the expenditures required for legal fees.

Knowledge of how to use each tool is critical to successful planning with the family of a person with a disability. The basics are only covered here. As families begin to use ABLE accounts, we will gain a more extensive understanding to help families take advantage of this new savings vehicle.


About Mary Anne Ehlert

Forum partner Mary Anne Ehlert is a financial professional and sister to an individual with disabilities. She serves on the boards and committees of several organizations that provide services to children and adults with special needs, including the Board of Directors of Special Olympics Illinois, the Strategic Planning Committee of the National Disabilities Institute in Washington, D.C. and the Advisory Board of Integrative Touch for Kids in Tucson, Arizona.

An advocate for special-needs families, Mary Anne has appeared in a variety of publications and travels extensively to speak at local and national conferences on planning. In one of her latest projects, she is working to help start a new Tails for Life Training facility, which provides service dogs to children with disabilities, including personally training two pups.


Mary Anne Ehlert is President of Protected Tomorrows, Inc. which provides advocacy and planning services for individuals with disabilities and their family members. Clients of Protected Tomorrows, Inc., may also be clients of Forum Financial Management, LP. The fees earned by Ms. Ehlert in this outside business activity are separate and apart from the fees clients pay to Forum for advisory services. Protected Tomorrows, Inc., is not affiliated with Forum Financial Management, LP.