The Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) is complicated.
To achieve a strong understanding of ODSP, you need to read and understand hundreds of pages of ODSP Policy Directives. My experience is most people on ODSP and their supporting family members are so overwhelmed with daily living, they don’t have the energy or experience to wade through the directives.
It seems they aren’t the only ones.
Many people turn to their ODSP workers for guidance on ODSP policy. One may assume you could explain your situation to an ODSP staff person who would not only accurately explain the rules, but also your options. Over the years, I have come across too many situations that fly in the face of this assumption.
ODSP is a “means tested” benefit. To put it simply, it is there for people with disabilities who can demonstrate they are in financial need. But it is not that simple.
ODSP has a basic rule. You are not allowed to have more than $5,000 in assets to qualify for ODSP ($7,500 if you are married). So, many people think they are not allowed to have more than $5,000 to their name and receive ODSP. But there are exceptions. The Registered Disability Savings Plan is an exception. ODSP recipients can have hundreds of thousands of dollars in their RDSP accounts without jeopardizing their ODSP. The RDSP is not the only exception.
If a single person on ODSP receives an inheritance or gift of cash, they have options. As I have written in other articles, an ODSP recipient is allowed to have up to $100,000 in a combination of cash value life insurance, segregated funds and a government regulated trust. The RDSP is not the only option and it is certainly not always the best option.
I am not surprised that most people on ODSP or who want to apply for ODSP are not aware of these other options. But I am somewhat surprised there are ODSP workers who are also unaware of these exempt assets.
Here is a somewhat typical example. A client of mine in her twenties received over $150,000 from an inheritance about 10 years ago. She was not on ODSP but she and her family thought it was best that she applied because her disabilities prevented her from securing and maintaining sustainable employment. We decided to put $95,000 into a segregated fund account and the remaining amount into an RDSP. When she went to apply for ODSP, the ODSP worker told her she had too much money and was adamant that a segregated fund account was not an exempt asset, despite her and her parents’ insistence that it was. Eventually, I supplied them with a printed copy of the relevant ODSP policy directive stipulating segregated funds are exempt assets up to $100,000 (as long as she didn’t have a cash value life insurance policy or a government regulated trust). The ODSP worker relented in the end.
This was not the only incident. I have come across this type of situation too many times over the years. Now I arm my clients with the appropriate ODSP policy directives before they meet with an ODSP worker and even then some clients still face resistance. I instruct my clients to stand firm and direct ODSP workers to their managers or their legal department, if necessary. We have been successful in every instance.
To an extent, I can understand ODSP workers who do not voluntarily discuss the ODSP the exempt assets I write about. ODSP policy directives are complex and go on for hundreds of pages. As well, I do not think they can be expected to provide financial advice as this could possibly put them in a difficult situation.
I have a much more difficult time when they provide false information. When an ODSP recipient asks a worker if a particular type of asset is exempt or not, should they not be provided with the correct answer? Before they answer, should there not be a duty to review ODSP policy and/or speak to others at ODSP? It can mean the difference between maintaining and losing ODSP income and health benefits. Sadly, I have met people after they have spent down almost all their money because they were told they had no other choice.
It seems to me that ODSP workers walk a fine line. They are there to help their clients and they are there to review ODSP eligibility. I believe ODSP workers want to help, but they are also saddled with the responsibility of making sure program guidelines are followed. On one hand they are advocates, on the other hand, auditors. That is a difficult balance for anyone to maintain.
My advice to people is that they should not view their ODSP workers as the sole source of information and guidance. If they can, I suggest they read relevant policy directives, such as 4.1 — Definition and Treatment of Assets and 5.1 — Definition and Treatment of Income. I personally answer ODSP related questions and provide relevant advice on a highly regular basis. I have helped many clients secure and maintain ODSP without having to make unnecessary financial sacrifices. In some cases, I refer people to lawyers who understand the relevant legislation and pursue legal channels when necessary.
Advocating for yourself, your child, relative or friend is not always easy when faced with the complexities of ODSP, but, no matter how challenging it may be, I suggest you should not accept an ODSP worker’s explanations of ODSP policy and rulings as correct in all situations.
You may also want to read: An Open Letter to ODSP Caseworkers
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You can contact Ron Malis at firstname.lastname@example.org