Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

We’ve discussed some of the big disasters in life that can significantly change our financial picturethe death of a spouse and divorce. Today we will explore another life crisis that can substantially impact you: your finances after a disability (your own or your spouse’s).

If you face a disability of yourself (or your spouse), it’s crucial to realize that disabilities aren’t often temporary, especially as we get older. The disability may limit many of your everyday activities and will require some significant planning and adjustment. Unlike death and divorce, which can each be terrible in their own right, a disability can be ongoing and have a continuous, lasting impact on your financial picture. You’re facing a new normal that you’ll need to adjust to.

Fortunately, there are ways to get control of your finances after a disability. Yes, the picture of your life as you planned it might be different, but you can start to move forward with the right financial strategies. Here’s what you need to do if you or your spouse is facing a disability.

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Understanding What it Means to Face a Disability

To understand what facing a disability means, it’s essential to understand the history of disabilities and how they’re defined. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) came into law in 1990; this civil rights law prohibits discrimination towards people with disabilities in all aspects of public life—including schools, jobs, transportation, public places, and private places open to the public.

The purpose of the ADA was to ensure that people with disabilities are afforded the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. It provides civil rights protections to people with disabilities, like the protections provided to individuals based on sex, religion, national origin, age, and race.

In the ADA, disability is considered a legal term rather than medical. The legal definition is different from the definition under other laws, such as Social Security Disability-related benefits. According to the ADA, a person with a disability is a person with an impairment, mental or physical, that substantially limits their major life activities. The definition includes those who have a record of such impairment, even if they don’t currently have a disability.

It’s unlawful to discriminate against anyone based on their association with a person with a disability. Interestingly, though, the ADA doesn’t include a list of conditions considered disabilities under the act, leaving it somewhat open to interpretation.

The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) came into place in 2008 and was made a law on January 1, 2009. The ADAAA made several adjustments and clarifications to the definition of disability.

These changes in the ADAAA apply to the titles of the ADA, including:

  • Title I: Employment practices by private employers with 15+ employees, governments (state and local), employment agencies, labor unions, and agents of the employer and joint management-labor committees.
  • Title II: about programs and activities of state and local government entities.
  • Title III: for private entities, considered places of public accommodation.

Under the ADAAA, the regulations also identify medical conditions that would easily be considered a disability within the meaning of the law. This list isn’t exhaustive, of course, but it is helpful as a starting point for navigating the system. The conditions include physiological, functional, or mobility impairments; they can be fluctuating or intermittent, chronic, progressive, stable, visible, or invisible. Some of the conditions involve extreme pain, and some involve less; other conditions involve none at all.

The medical conditions in the ADAAA include:

  • Deafness and Hearing Disabilities
  • Blindness/Visual Disabilities
  • Partially Missing or Completely Missing Limbs
  • Mobility Impairments that Require a Wheelchair
  • Autism
  • Cerebral Palsy [neurological condition]
  • HIV infection
  • Multiple Sclerosis [neurological deterioration]
  • Muscular Dystrophy [muscular disorders]
  • Major Depressive Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder + Anxiety Disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Organic Brain Disorders

Navigating Your Finances After a Disability

Understanding how the ADA defines disabilities and the protections it affords can help you navigate forward. If you face a disability, it’s essential to know your rights and understand that there are protections in place to ensure employers and others can’t discriminate against you based on your diagnosis.

If you oversee your household finances already and you’re facing a prolonged disability, it’s important to make sure you have everything in order. Discuss your financial picture with a trusted partner, family member, or financial advisor. Depending on your condition and the current state of your health, it’s better to act as quickly as possible.

Disabilities can occur suddenly due to an accident or injury or a slow process (such as in a degenerative neurological condition). Of course, it’s best practice for all of us to have our finances in order because we could all have an accident at any time. Still, most of us don’t think about it until it’s too late.

If you are recently facing a difficult diagnosis, there is a lot to navigate, particularly with your health. Finances may take a back burner, but it’s crucial to address your financial picture as well. Make sure you have a living well set up and have appointed someone to handle money issues should you be unable to make decisions.

You may wish to share your login information and account information with someone that you trust. Let them know where your accounts are held, who the beneficiaries are, and what they need to know about your financial picture.

If you have disability insurance, you will need to contact your insurance carrier to ensure your benefits are available and you have a plan to access them as needed. No matter what situation you are facing, it’s imperative to be proactive about reaching out and asking questions.

Speak to your HR department at work. If needed, you may also want to contact an attorney (or at least have one in mind). Disability protections and laws are in place, but it’s crucial to familiarize yourself with your rights to ensure that you are covered with the proper safeguards.

Many hospitals and physicians also offer access to social services. A caseworker can help you figure out programs and learn what’s out there to help you in your particular case. For example, some programs could help you get a service animal or learn how to read brail in case of visual impairment. Other programs might help you gain access to mental health services, assistive devices, and equipment to make your home life easier too.

The new normal may be a challenge to navigate, but with some trusted assistance, you can find the best way to adjust. We never know what life will send our way, but most of us are more adaptable than we think.

Facing the Disability of a Spouse or Significant Other

Should your significant other become disabled, not only will you likely need to take over the finances, but depending on the type of disability, you may also find that you’ve become the caretaker. In some ways, this can be an even more significant challenge than facing our own disability. It’s especially hard if the need arises suddenly or if we’ve never been in charge of our finances before.

As I’ve said many times before, many of us don’t want to think about these worst-case scenarios. Still, it’s always better to plan and consider these situations before they become a reality (when possible). I recommend that everyone familiarize themselves with their finances thoroughly, even if they’re not the household’s primary bill payer or financial caretaker. You just never know, and it’s best to have that knowledge before you need it. If you haven’t had the “what if” conversation yet, now is the time.

To help assess how prepared you are to take over your household finances during a personal crisis like disability, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How comfortable are you with paying your household expenses?
  • Does the person handling finances have a budget in place?
  • Do you know if expenses are coming out monthly? Quarterly? Semi-annually or annually?
  • Do you know the location and PINs for the bank accounts?
  • Do you know the user IDs and passwords for your accounts online?
  • Do you know how to access your significant others’ email accounts?
  • Do you have Power of Attorney?
  • Are you a skilled home-healthcare provider?
  • If you’re working, how flexible is your employer?
  • Will you need to take a leave of absence from work?
  • Will any new reduction of income affect your overall finances?
  • Is this a short-term or long-term disability?
  • Do you have insurance coverage?
  • How will this affect your long-term financial strategy?

Many of these questions can and should be addressed long before you face a personal crisis. Accidents and illnesses can occur suddenly and at times without warning. It may seem uncomfortable to sit down and have the financial discussion, but once you’ve gone over these questions, you’ll have peace of mind knowing you’re both prepared for whatever lies ahead.

If you’re acting after the fact, it’s important to get as much information as you can right away. If your spouse is able to share financial details with you, have the conversation even if it’s difficult. Do it as soon as you can, especially if the path forward is uncertain. Should your spouse be unable to assist you, contact a financial advisor as well as an attorney. They can help you learn how to access the benefits you will need moving forward.

Similar to facing a disability of your own, when your spouse faces a disability, you may also be able to connect with social services. A social worker or counselor can help you figure out what programs are out there to support your situation and make life as comfortable as possible for you and your spouse.

Getting through a personal crisis is tough, but taking control of your finances will help it feel less chaotic and confusing. Remember that no matter what happens, you don’t need to go it alone. There are people out there who are ready with the knowledge to help you through it.

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