For Michael Beloff, a financial planner with Barnum Financial Group in Shelton, Conn., The American College’s recent unrolling of a new Chartered Special Needs Consultant (ChSNC) designation, designed to help advisors manage the emotional and financial complexities of planning for families that have children with special needs, is a huge step forward for the financial planning industry.
Financial planning for families that have children with special needs has been Beloff’s specialty since he became a licenced advisor in 2002, and one that he has worked in, for the most part, in an isolated manner, since there are not a whole lot of advisors who work with special-needs families.
His interest in advising such families arose from his personal situation: “I have a son, now aged 15, who at the time was diagnosed with autism,” Beloff says. “I looked at my own situation and realized that if I had to do something for my son on a long-term basis, so would many other families out there.”
But at the time, the special-needs planning area was a totally new field, and Beloff had to start from scratch, doing the necessary research and putting together outreach programs and workshops. He was fortunate enough, he says, to join MetLife, which even at the time, had a national center for special needs planning, “and they certified 200 advisors internally to get up to speed with planning for the intricacies of this marketplace.”
But overall, “there were and still are only a few folk like myself who endeavor to figure this area out on their own, so any certification that can be done, either internally like MetLife does or externally like the new American College accreditation, and that can help advisors with the intricacies of planning in this area is a good thing, because there are so many pitfalls that advisors can run into.”
These complexities start when a child with special needs reaches school age since most services are provided by the local school districts, Beloff says. Advisors must be able to help families figure out what these are, help them understand what their children are eligible for and also help them figure out what other benefits their children can use. All of this, he says, varies from state to state, so it’s also important for an advisor to work with an attorney “who knows the rules of where you live” and can make sure that everything follows through.
Beyond the school years, “one of the real concerns of special-needs families from a planning standpoint these days is that there are so many kids in the system, and there are more kids under the age of 18 than there are over the age of 18 and being served by the adult system,” Beloff says. “The issue is will the states, given some of the financial concerns [they're] going through right now, be able to support the larger amount of adults coming through the system at same funding levels they have been? Or will families have to provide more than they have done?” Regardless, families that have children with special needs do have to spend more than other families to get these children into adulthood and even then, depending on the disability, “there’s a concern from a lot of families that their children will never be independent,” Beloff says. There are a range of disabilities, of course (and different disabilities imply different levels of state aid), and they determine life expectancies, future capabilities and so on, which in turn determine how much a family will be able to provide for their child.
Typically, advisors haven’t wanted to really serve this area because of the financial profile of many families. Many of the advisors that Beloff has come across through the years launched into the field on their own because their own children had disabilities of one kind or another. Since children with special needs require so much attention, only one parent can really work, he says, which means many families may not fall within the income brackets that advisors are typically targeting.
However, Beloff has seen the community growing since 2002, and he believes that more firms are now making an effort to train advisors in this very important area.
“Planning for families with special needs is a very complex area, and you need legal experts, tax experts and financial advisors who understand the issues and can go through them with their clients,” he says. “Most importantly, everything in this area is truly individualized and even within an individual diagnosis there may be splinters on what a child can do, what his or her life expectancy may be and in light of those, what the family may be able to provide.”