New Case Again Reveals The Importance Of Special Needs Trusts: Limited Government Funds Available For The Disabled In New Jersey

Limited public funds available for the disabled in New Jersey has forced government agencies to prioritize recipient needs, resulting in rules which impose severe restrictions on expenditures, like the “one computer per recipient lifetime” regulation highlighted in the following case.

In Pichardo v. N.J. Department of Human Services (App. Div., October 1, 2009), Julia Pichardo appealed from a final decision issued by the Department of Human Services, Division of Disability Services, denying her request for funding to repair or replace her laptop computer, which was provided to her through the Traumatic Brain Injury Fund (the “Fund”). Julia suffered a traumatic brain injury several years ago, and was therefore eligible for assistance from the Fund. Julia needed a new or repaired computer “to finish her education and for her work as a substitute teacher.”

In New Jersey, the Fund is “the payor of last resort, for the costs of post-acute care, services and financial assistance” for residents of the State who, like Julia, suffer from traumatic brain injuries. The Fund is administered by the Department of Human Services (“DHS”). There are often insufficient resources available in the Fund to meet all applicants’ needs. In that event, the DHS establishes priorities for the expenditure of the Fund’s resources. As part of the process in which priorities are established, regulations were adopted by the State limiting the purchase of a computer for Fund recipients to the “one computer per recipient lifetime”, and excluded computer repairs and upgrades as valid Fund expenditures.

The Fund, along with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, provided the public funds necessary to purchase a computer for Julia in 2005. Two years later, in 2007, Julia requested that the Fund pay for repairs for her computer or purchase a new computer for her. The Fund denied both requests, citing the regulations mentioned above as the basis for the denial. The denials were affirmed in administrative appeal. Specifically, the DHS held that the “one computer per recipient lifetime” regulation was adopted to maintain the fiscal integrity of the Fund, and was therefore justified. Julia again appealed.

On appeal, Julia argued that the “one computer per recipient lifetime” regulation should be invalidated as inconsistent with the Fund’s enabling legislation. She also argued that the regulation “does not take into account changes in technology or changes in one’s ability to use technology”. The Appellate Division affirmed, deferring to DHS’ interpretation of the Fund legislation.

Apparently, the only way Julia can obtain repairs for her computer or a replacement computer is through funds available in a special needs trust, which would permit her to maintain her eligibility for Fund expenditures while giving her access to supplemental funds which could be used to improve the quality of her life. I blogged about special needs trusts previously here, here and here, among many other blog posts on the subject. For further information, visit the Special Needs and Disability Planning section of the Law Office of Donald D. Vanarelli website, or call our office at 908-232-7400.