A case that has a special needs element requires a slightly different approach than a “typical” life planning case. Special needs cases can require some unique considerations. To fully understand this market, it’s important to first recognize what special needs are and aren’t.
The special needs spectrum is wide and the community, when viewed as a potential market, is quite broad. It can include those individuals who develop a special needs circumstance in their adult years, not just those born with special needs, as well as the elderly. Adults can develop a special needs circumstance from a car accident, disease, stroke, etc. And, as the adage “you can’t always judge a book by its cover” teaches, special needs aren’t always what you can see.
When approaching a client with a special needs circumstance, it is time to slow down. This is often a long-term, permanent circumstance for this client.
During the initial meeting, the goals should be to build a relationship, educate and gather general information. Don’t discuss solutions at this time as it is important to not thrust an end result on the client too early. The family may be sensitive and a little wary of an interest in their very personal struggles. Finally, it’s imperative to understand their daily challenges and the fears that keep them up at night.
I try to paint a picture for them of what life could be like with a game plan in place, where all of their wants and wishes for their loved ones have been addressed and planned. Education about the special needs planning process, the types of legal structures that are available to them and an idea of some of the provisions they have already made are also things that should be covered.
During the discussion, identify whether they are in the “mourning” stage or the “acceptance” stage of the diagnosis for the individual with special needs. This is a valuable underpinning to the relationship going forward as it helps to understand how to “meet them where they are.”
This understanding allows the agent to determine what recommendations to first put into place. A client who is in the acceptance stage is “ready to act” and will be more inclined to move quickly on recommendations as opposed to a client who is still in the mourning stage and “knows they need to do something, but is overwhelmed in starting.” Where the client is in the mourning state, take a slower, more deliberate pace to the recommendations and implementation.
Important facts to determine at this first meeting are the nature of the special need and the identity of the individual. The individual with special needs could be either elderly, over the age of majority but not elderly, or a minor. The condition and age of the individual will be the pivotal foundation on which the entire plan rests.
If the individual is a minor or is incompetent, guardianship will need to be addressed. If the person is elderly, then this is an end-stage and not a long-term plan. Additionally, who the individual is and what assets they have will be a pivotal component in determining which type of special needs trust (SNT) might be needed.
Third party trusts are created and funded by someone other than the individual with special needs and are most often seen by planners. Reference this decision tree graphic as a resource: