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June 20, 2023
On June 15 and 16, The American College of Financial Services held its first-ever Advanced Special Needs Planning Symposium: a collaboration between industry thought leaders, faculty of The College’s Chartered Special Needs Consultant® (ChSNC®) Program, and the American College Center for Special Needs.
Over the course of the two-day conference, attendees from across the country got a more detailed look at how to plan for and best serve individuals with special needs and their caregivers with financial planning designed to ensure a successful and secure financial future.
A Deep Dive Into Specialized Knowledge
The symposium began with a welcome address from Joellen Meckley, executive director of the Center for Special Needs. Meckley thanked the around 50 financial professionals at the conference for attending and pointed out some notable facts: firstly, that the symposium was the largest in-person event ever held on The College’s campus; and secondly, that the Center for Special Needs had received a grant from the Christopher Reeve Foundation. Reeve, an actor who famously portrayed Superman in multiple movies, was himself severely disabled after a catastrophic horseback riding injury and was a well-known activist for those with special needs.
Meckley noted that the grant would go toward expanding the operations of the Center for Special Needs. She mentioned that grant funds would be used to support a project currently in development: a five-part video series on financial wellness for advisors, caregivers and clients who are facing paralysis, including modules on budgeting for disability, public benefits, and taking control of your financial future.
“Many people are drawn to this form of practice because they have family members or loved ones with special needs,” she said, noting that nearly everyone in attendance raised their hand when asked if they knew or were close to someone with special needs. “Most conferences like this are for lawyers – but this one is for you.”
Morning sessions were led by staple College thought leaders laying out many different specialized areas of financial planning that affect those with special needs. Tom Brinker, JD, LLM, PFS/CPA, AEP®, ChFC®, an adjunct professor of special needs planning, used his expertise in both tax planning and as a parent to a child with special needs to present a compelling lesson on tax strategies involving changing IRS regulations and tests for tax exemptions on housing, education, activities, and more – all while dropping some important and eye-opening facts.
“One in six children today has some kind of disability,” he said. “Rates of autism have risen dramatically across the country over the last decade – but is it really because more people are autistic, or just that we’re finally recognizing this condition for what it is? Either way, the need is growing and we need financial professionals who are educated to address it.”
College faculty members and staff including Lesley Mehalick, JD, LLM, an adjunct professor of taxation and special needs planning, Lindsey Lewis, CFP®, ChFC®, director and chair of the American College Center for Women in Financial Services, and other experts in the fieldshared their own insights on how special needs affect their distinct focus areas and constituencies, including the fact that most caregivers for those with special needs are women to Medicare and Medicaid, public benefits, Social Security, and more.
Impacts on Individuals and Caregivers
Some of the most impactful sessions of the first day of the symposium addressed the real-world implications of having to care for a person with special needs. In their workshop on ABLE accounts, meant to give adults with disabilities more financial and life independence, Kelly Piacenti of MassMutual and Jerry Hulick of Caring Consulting Group talked about the need for more awareness.
“We are the largest minority population in the country, and the business case for this space is huge,” said Piacenti, a key organizer of the event and leader of the Center for Special Needs Advisory Board. “We need allies, and advisors who say they don’t have any clients for whom this knowledge is relevant probably do and just don’t know it. Disability can happen anytime, and benefits available for those with special needs constantly shift. We need advisors who ask the right questions and can keep up with all the changes.”
In his session, Pat Bergmaier, CFP®, ChSNC®, discussed the very real possibility of caregivers needing to plan for a “retirement for three” – for them and their child with special needs, who may not be able to live on their own.
“Many parents don’t know how to face the fact that their children may need care even after they are gone and will need a way to maintain their quality of life,” he said. “Sometimes, they’re faced with the awful thought that it might even be better if their child were to pass away before them. But it doesn’t have to be this way. After the age of 18, things really open up for young people with special needs and their caregivers when it comes to benefits available: do the work and make a plan.”
Jason Fishkind, CEO of Hope Trust, also mentioned the need for sensitivity in working with caregivers and those with special needs, as well as the knowledge gap among financial professionals.
“Even though two in seven households are supporting someone with disabilities, very rarely is there a financial advisor with a broad understanding of the various issues confronting them,” he said. “You need to be an expert on this subject and know how to talk to them. The products and planning involved are so complex that it’s not something just anyone can do.”
An Emotional Call to Action
After departing for the evening, the symposium attendees reconvened the following morning, when they were welcomed back by George Nichols III, CAP®, President and CEO of The College. Nichols spoke about his own past experiences in the special needs space as the State of Kentucky’s mental health commissioner, as well as his own father’s struggles with dementia.
“The physical and emotional toll of caring for those with special needs or mental health issues is overwhelming,” he said, speaking of the challenges caregivers and families face. “Special needs planning isn’t just about kids anymore, either – many more adults are also being diagnosed with disabilities. The College is dedicated to building a powerful network of allies and thought leaders to meet this need.”
In a panel discussion, several experts in financial planning encouraged attendees to refer to special needs planning instead as “quality of life planning,” as much of their work is about ensuring individuals with special needs have the best lives they can possibly have. They also pointed out the importance of local efforts and building community in planning, as well as the value to financial advisors and firms to specialize in the field. With so few advisors experienced in this type of planning, they pointed out, you can easily corner the market in your given area – and once you help one family, others in their network will come flocking to you.
In another session, lawyer Ethan Ordog spoke about an often-forgotten aspect of special needs planning: making arrangements for elderly family members or clients who may not have the mental capacity to make their own decisions anymore and ensuring they are not exploited.
“Advisors are more and more being found at fault for elder exploitation because courts and juries find they should have known it was going on, but failed to act,” he said. “There are major differences between power of attorney, conservatorship, and guardianship – don’t trust your clients to figure them out. Laws, life, and needs are constantly changing, and it’s our responsibility to stay up-to-date on all of it.”
Mental health professionals from outside the financial services space were also heard at the symposium. Abby Grasso of PLAN PA, a special needs organization in Pennsylvania, spoke to attendees about the importance of approaching those with special needs and their caregivers with understanding and respect.
“Sympathy and empathy are not the same thing,” she said. “One in five US adults experience mental illness, and 17% of youth experience mental health challenges. When you talk to them, don’t try to change the subject or offer silver linings. Just let people know that you are there for them and that you understand what they must be feeling.”
The symposium ended on a high note, with many financial professionals present taking home significant lessons to apply in their practices.
“The information has been outstanding, and so much more than I anticipated,” said Robert DiLaura, a senior financial planning manager at Charles Schwab. “The ability to network with people who are like-minded and also working in related fields that we need to know about has been extremely valuable.”
“What I learned in the very first session probably paid for my coming by itself, and there’s been even more than that,” said Julie Smith, a financial advisor with Ameriprise. “It’s been wonderful to get different points of view and learn from others. I’ve gotten just as much from my peers as I did from any of the presenters, who were excellent.”
The event also honored the efforts of those present in the special needs planning space, including recognizing and celebrating Jerry Hulick’s 50-year anniversary as a member of the MassMutual family.