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Special Needs Planning, Pt. 4: Merrill Lynch Unveils Special Needs Calculator

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This is the last in a four-part special report on special needs planning for advisors and their clients. In part four below, a look at how advisors prepare to give this specialized advice .

Scott MacDonald, a Modesto, Calif.-based Merrill Lynch advisor who helped to develop this latest iteration of the special needs calculator, calls it a “user-friendly starting point” for families to look at planning for a loved one’s needs in conjunction with their own retirement needs, and how much they need to save or insure for.

He cites his own brother’s family as an example. “I have an autistic nephew,” he says, “very low-functioning, but he will be fine till [his] mom and dad are gone. Then he will need care giving and a group home, and how will they pay for that?” Such substantial expenses can be accommodated if properly planned for, but too often families don’t get that far in the process.

Scott MacDonald of Merrill LynchMacDonald (left) adds that there is also the necessity to plan for other, nonfinancial issues, such as writing a letter of intent to specify how the boy’s parents want their son taken care of—something that will specify for caregivers his “wants, loves, hates, and needs.”

Merrill’s specialized advisors who carry the Certified Special Needs Advisor designation have been trained to help with that, and also to consult with outside experts such as specialized attorneys and health care providers.

While Merrill stresses that its CSNA designation and “Special Needs Financial Services Program” are unique in the industry, MassMutual also offers a special designation catering to families with special needs–available at present only to MassMutual agents, and offered through The American College–called the Chartered Special Needs Consultant , and its own program to assist such families, called SpecialCare.

As reported last year in Investment Advisor magazine, that designation/program combination also delves into the more arcane aspects of special needs planning, which includes everything from the proper use of insurance for a special needs family to the particular aspects of estate planning and tax law that can make or break a plan for the long-term care of a special needs individual.

There is also, as previously reported by, the practice of advisor Mary Anne Ehlert, Protected Tomorrows, which offers webinars and partnering for financial advisors on the unique aspects of planning for special needs families.

Chris Sullivan of Merrill LynchIt takes approximately 18 months to qualify for Merrill Lynch’s CSNA designation, says MacDonald. According to Chris Sullivan (left), head of Special Needs Financial Services for Merrill Lynch, there are three core areas of training and coursework.

Part one, says Sullivan, “tackles the scope of the disability and special needs community and how no family is like another … advisors are also educated on the solutions, tools and resources available to them and their clients through the firm’s ‘Families of Children With Disabilities and Special Needs Planning Program,’ as well as training on a team-based approach to ensuring a family or individual’s financial, legal, social and medical needs are met.”

Part two, the “Legal and Personal Aspects of Special Needs Planning” phase, offers online coursework in estate planning for families with children with disabilities, the use of letters of intent and special needs trusts.

Part three offers additional education through phone-based sessions with outside professionals in the legal and special needs community, says Sullivan, as well as discussion of specific cases highlighting the uses of special needs trusts, estate planning, care management, work with disability organizations, pooled trusts, and insurance when working with families and other caregivers.

Advisors who earn the designation, says Sullivan, can remain engaged with the program via ongoing emails with additional information to broaden their knowledge of the field.


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