Planning for families with special needs

Mary Anne Ehlert launched her company, Protected Tomorrows, to fill a growing niche in the financial services industry - families with special needs. And she has first-hand experience - her sister suffered from cerebral palsy. Based on her own experience, Ehlert decided to take a proactive approach in helping families affected by disabilities. Nearly 77 million Americans are living with disabilities, Ehlert says. And those numbers continue to grow.

For Ehlert, it's more than a numbers game and Protected Tomorrows is more than special needs financial planning. They are advocates, life planners and supporters. Through her licensing program, advisors can learn how to help these families achieve their goals and address the tough, emotional question of "What happens when I'm gone?

Senior Market Advisor: How did you decide to focus on financial planning for families with special needs?
Mary Anne Ehlert: Seventeen years ago, I started a financial planning company and after 20 years in banking, I decided that I would work with families with special needs because I had a sister with a disability. She had cerebral palsy. I started working with families a lot of the time helping them through financial and estate planning, but what happened over time is that they kept saying "Okay, so the special needs trust is done and the financial piece is done, now what?" For the first 15 years, I focused on what these families want and need. We became advisors - beyond financial and estate plans. The biggest issue was "What is going to happen when I'm gone?" So, we worked on that. We developed a process over time.

We found a lot of people who need help but couldn't afford it, so we started The Special Needs Network. The purpose is to advise families complimentary as well as to do research in the world of autism and disabilities. We found the waiting list of families who wanted to help was getting longer and longer. I couldn't hire people within my financial planning company fast enough.

SMA: How is the organization structured?
ME: The financial planning company consists not only of financial people, but we have special workers on staff. In 2003, I said OK, my mission is not to just run a financial planning company. It was much bigger. These families really need their advisors to take them through the process that we had built. At that time, I said we have a process, and No. 1 is really getting the families to recognize that there is this huge issue and to verbalize it: "What is going to happen when I'm gone?" It's all the pieces. It's not just about death. It's about life.

SMA: Can you explain your process?
ME: We have developed a licensing program in which we train and license advisors to do what we do because we couldn't serve the need anymore. It was too big.

SMA: How does your licensing work?
ME: A licensing program is where you allow people to use something you have developed, as long as they do it your way. It's actually a legal license to be trained by us and to use our brand. So in the financial world, I know there are all kinds of certifications you can get. This is not a certification. This is a license to use a brand - to be licensed as a Protected Tomorrows advocate. What we teach them is all the technical stuff they have to know - special needs trusts, SSI, Medicaid, Medicare, things like Medicare B. All the things they really need to understand and technically, help the family. Then we help them understand assisted living, what is early intervention - all these things, all the acronyms and how do you play into all that. Secondly, we teach them how to market to families. We teach the advisors how to do the speech that I've been doing for 17 years. And it's not a selling tool. We're not talking product, we're talking process. We teach advisors how to approach families. We teach them how to take families through the process. Then we teach them how to fit it into their practice, because if you are an advisor, you can't just stop what you are doing.

SMA: What happens after you train advisors?
ME: After we train them, we support them. Once they get home from our training class, we try to make sure that we support them and make sure they are out there doing the right thing because we want them to use our process right. We have a support staff here that is calling them saying, "Did you give the speech to your family? Did you give the speech to your staff? Are you ready?" Then we teach them how to approach organizations and we introduce them to organizations like Special Olympics and Easter Seals. We send letters out introducing them as one of our advocates. Then we have a back office that supports them.

SMA: Are you commission or fee based?
ME: We're fee based. It's not financial planning. It's life planning. So we teach the advisors to take the families through this process and, at different stages in their lives, meet different goals.

SMA: Tell me about The Special Needs Network.
ME: The Special Needs Network is our 501(c)(3). We are starting to work with trust companies to try to find a way to do a pool trust. A 501(c)(3) is really a critical component. We don't want Protected Tomorrows to be known as only working with high-net-worth individuals because disabilities impact everybody. The majority of people think disabilities impact people who are poor. Disabilities don't care if you are rich or poor. But money doesn't always solve the problem. So the advisor's job is to listen and to help the family put things in place that is going to make sure that their family has piece of mind.

SMA: What type of advisor is most successful going through your program?
ME: We don't just license advisors. We are now licensing teachers and retired people. You don't need to be a financial advisor to do this. But, if you are not a financial advisor, you probably have to pair up with one. If you are a nurse and you are going to take someone through this process, there is a financial component that they need help. We don't license advisors just because they say it's a big market. There are 77 million disabled people in this country. People have called us and said, "Wow, the market sounds really big." I won't talk to them, because if that is their first comment, they're not getting it. You won't be successful unless you can relate. We tell people that you're going to have to learn this. It's a new market. It's a niche. You have to have patience for these families. If you think you're only there for the commission sale, it's the wrong business. Because there's a whole lot of listening and a whole lot of legwork when the family says,

"You know, I found a great school advocate." Take the time to meet the school advocate because that's a resource for all of your other clients. The kind of person who is perfect at this is someone who has a family member, No. 1, or has worked somewhere in their lifetime in the special-needs world.

SMA: Are successful advisors that you work with female or are they male?
ME: Male. When I started my business, for the first 15 years, I had no males working for me. But I think it has more to do with this industry. The people who are signing up with us are mature and there are less women who have been in the industry longer.

SMA: Why are mature advisors more successful in this niche?
ME: No. 1, they can afford it. No. 2, they get it. Maturity has a way of showing wisdom that allows us to say, "You know what, life is not just about money. It's about adding value, too."

It's interesting, because I think the baby boomer generation, some of us have worked really hard and some of us have seen our parents age or - like me - have a sister who needs support. It changes you. It changes your purpose. For me, it's a drive. That's why we go after advisors around the country to do this because there's this huge need.

SMA: How do you define special needs?
ME: We consider a special-needs person as someone who can't provide for himself. It includes babies, mid-life adults, as well as seniors. We work with all kinds of families. So it is someone who needs care.

SMA: How does the solution differ among different needs cases? For example, how does an advisor approach a family dealing with cerebral palsy versus a family dealing with Alzheimer's?
ME: One of the things we teach is that you have to understand what the need is when you are talking to the family. The person who is coming to you is looking for peace of mind. The advice and solution we give is different for someone who is mentally ill versus somebody who has Down syndrome versus somebody who has Alzheimer's. But the process is the same.

SMA: How do you get word out about all that you do?
ME: In 2003, we trained two people. My mission was to make sure this process works. In 2004, we continued to train more people. In 2005, we trained 14 people. We now have 16 people trained. In 2005, we developed relationships. We developed all the marketing materials, we spent a lot of time and energy in doing expos. I was at the NAFA conference with the expos and booths and presentations and families and presentations and financial meetings. In 2006, my focus is a couple of things: One is building relationships with financial organizations. The other is working with hospital associations. There should be one of our advocates in every hospital.

Our goal in 2006 is to have 100 advisors. I think that is very conservative.

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