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Special Needs, Special Designation

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Caring for a special needs child can be rough. Not only are there medical and educational issues to consider, but financial matters can be a huge challenge, particularly if the child’s caregiver dies.

Since advances in medicine have extended the lifespans of many of the disabled, making it ever more likely that a caregiving parent may no longer outlive her child (life expectancy for those with Down syndrome was formerly only 18–20 years; now they may live into their 70s and even 80s), it is more likely that the child will run into financial or other difficulties, some foreseen, some not. And the actions of financial professionals who are not knowledgeable about the special circumstances that govern the care of a special needs individual or, worse, who are only out to sell products, can cause problems that are completely avoidable.

There’s a new certification, however, that seeks to make the financial aspect of caring for a person with disabilities not just easier, but more reliable. The Chartered Special Needs Consultant (CSNC) is a new designation developed by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual) and The American College, and has been devised to help financial services professionals better prepare themselves to assist their clients in planning for special needs children—and to give parents and caregivers a reliable source to turn to for financial advice in those situations.

MassMutual has already devoted considerable time and attention to its SpecialCare program, aimed at families with special needs children and their unique life care planning needs.

“What we’re discovering,” says Joanne Gruszkos, director for the SpecialCare program and its founder, “is that since the special needs community and the press have picked up on autism and a variety of other things, it’s become a hot item. A lot of people are looking to help families, and unfortunately many [of the families are] getting exploited.”

The new special designation is one way to avoid this, she says.

MassMutual took things one step further than its existing program, in response to feedback from its own agents and the families they serve, as well as the special needs community in general. The company has underwritten the development of the new certification’s curriculum, initially to be offered exclusively to MassMutual agents, but in 2013 to be opened to others.

The CSNC designation, according to Gruszkos, is an intensive 3½-day program specifically focused on special needs planning that builds on experience the consultant must already have to enter the program: a generalist designation such as CLU, CHFC, or CFP, or an MSFS degree. “Those requirements are mandatory from The American College,” she says. In addition, candidates should have three years of experience in the financial services industry. “From The American College’s perspective,” she adds, “having a generalist designation assures consumers that this agent has training, and this [the CSNC designation] is a layer on top of that.”

Says Gruszkos, “We’ve always been working with people with disabilities and [their] caregivers, but realized that our field reps were trained in innuendoes in tax law and planning.” She adds, “With science keeping people alive a lot longer … parents are predeceasing their [special needs] children [more frequently than they used to]. We’re helping parents plan for possibly not outliving their children.” The parents of special needs children, she says, “want to live one day longer than their child [to ensure] quality of life.”

Gruszkos points out, “People are being sold products that don’t work; special needs children are being named as beneficiaries on life insurance and group insurance and retirement plans.” But with the new designation, she explains, “We’re a one-stop shop. We provide education, help them plan, give them access to a variety of tools, and take the stress out of their lives, if we can.”    

Marlene Y. Satter can be reached at [email protected].


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