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For Families With Special Needs, Listening Is Key for Advisors

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Parents of children with special needs are facing a three-fold challenge when it comes to financial planning, according to Todd Sensing, founder of FamilyVest.

“You’re planning for a family that could be typical, you’re planning for family members that may not be, and you’re planning for yourself,” Sensing said.

“When you add in a wrinkle of, in my case two children with autism, it can become even more difficult,” he said.

Sensing has worked in financial services since the early ‘90s, and is intimately familiar with the emotional toll special-needs planning takes on families. His children have different capabilities, which makes planning for them that much more difficult.

“Every story’s different. Every story has special needs and fixes,” he said. “Maximizing success and staying on track and reducing errors and starting early and all these things – it’s very much more important when you have less room for error. When you’re trying to forecast the financial needs for possibly three or four different scenarios, it can be a very complicated task.”

Like any other client relationship, special-needs planning starts with listening, Sensing said. One thing that stands out above the financial planning basics, like saving and budgeting, is estate planning. “I start with a letter of intent, because it’s a non-legal document and it is a way for me to understand the relationship that the family has with the child, and what the child is capable of.”

Sensing uses a platform called Special Vest, developed by an attorney, that combines a letter of intent with a Dropbox-like dashboard.

“I offer it to all my clients to use as a starting point,” he said, to help them “express all of the peculiarities and issues and thoughts and life plans and all the things you could possibly think of if something were to happen to you or your spouse.”

“The emotional toil of some special needs cases, depending on where they’re at in the health cycle, can pose problems” for families and their advisors, he said. “There are different emotions, and just being able to take a step back and really ascertain what it is you’re trying to create and plan for.”

Advisors need to help families identify “what their vision of the future is and how that will need to be funded.”

Some families may have started a simple insurance plan because “it’s easier, and they feel they have taken at least the initial steps,” Sensing said. However, those plans may not be an effective “long-term solution,” and clients may need help “actually coming up with something more comprehensive.”

Regarding insurance, “the whole life type of policy that accrues value and what not is probably the way to go, more so than term,” as many people with special needs have disabilities that will last throughout their lifetime. Guardianship may also need to be established, especially if older children will have responsibility for siblings with special needs. “It’s a very big decision,” Sensing said.

In addition to letters of intent, special needs trusts and ABLE accounts are tools for advisors to families with special needs.

“Protecting the government safety net of Social Security and Medicare is important,” he said. “The $2,000 limit [to be eligible for public benefits] that the ABLE account allows you to get around is very important.”

The first $100,000 in an ABLE account are excluded from means testing for beneficiaries who receive SSI benefits, which are denied to claimants with more than $2,000 in savings.

Several states rolled out their ABLE account programs in December, including Alaska, Kentucky, Oregon, Rhode Island and Virginia. Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio and Tennessee also have ABLE programs, as does Florida, where Sensing is based.

“I can see various ways I’ll probably be using those, depending on the circumstances.” For example, Sensing said, young children who aren’t using the account to pay for qualified expenses yet may be better off if their assets are saved in accounts with more investment options.

— Read ABLE Accounts Yield Tax-Preferred Special Needs Savings on ThinkAdvisor.