When it comes to securing the financial future of individuals with special needs, traditional planning falls short. Advanced special needs planning requires a comprehensive and tailored approach to ensure long-term stability, quality of life and maximize benefits. At The American College of Financial Services’ recent Advanced Special Needs Planning Symposium, experts in this space delivered complex solutions—but what if you are a financial professional who is just starting your educational journey when it comes to special needs planning?

Typically, financial professionals assume they have no clients in the special needs community or may underestimate the amount. At the symposium, attendees learned from an industry expert, Pat Bergmaier, CFP, ChSNC that “Disabilities do not discriminate.” Bergmaier shared that a little more than one in four people living in the United States will experience disability in their lifetime. Statistically speaking, a financial professional is likely going to have some sort of special needs planning in their book of business. Thus, having foundational knowledge is paramount for financial professionals to ensure the best experience for all clients.

The symposium experts provided six initial steps to empower financial professionals to navigate the complexities of advanced special needs planning with confidence and expertise.   

Step 1: Assess Individual Needs
Begin by understanding the unique goals of the individual with special needs or their caregivers. Consider their current and future requirements, including medical care, therapies, education and daily living expenses. This holistic assessment will serve as the foundation for developing a personalized plan.

Hope Trust’s, Joshua Fishkind, J.D., MBA, challenged the audience to ask all clients: “Do you have a loved one with emotional, mental, physical or addiction challenges?” By asking more thought-provoking questions, paired with appropriate sensitivity, a professional may uncover more needs than those on the surface. 

Step 2: Establish A Support Network
Build a strong support network of professionals and trusted advisors, including attorneys, financial planners, therapists and others. Collaborate with experts experienced in special needs planning to ensure all aspects of the plan are addressed comprehensively.

“Traditional planning falls short of meeting the goals of special needs families with little to no coordination amongst experts such as financial planners and attorneys. Families, who have little time, must drive the communication, coordination and planning alone,” says Mary McDirmid, ChSNC, ChFC, who works alongside other professionals in the Special Abilities Network to deliver a comprehensive experience for clients who have loved ones with special needs. As a professional, when in doubt, coordinate and potentially delegate.

Step 3: Maximize Government Benefits
Understand government benefit programs such as Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Work closely with professionals knowledgeable in these programs to optimize benefits while preserving eligibility.

Step 4: Create A Comprehensive Financial Plan
Develop a comprehensive financial plan that integrates budgeting, insurance, estate planning and investment strategies. Consider the inclusion of special needs trusts, ABLE accounts and other vehicles to protect assets and provide for the individual's long-term financial stability.

Step 5: Build A Life Care Plan
Coordinate a multi-disciplinary life care plan that addresses both present and future needs, encompassing healthcare management, education, vocational training, social integration and housing.

Step 6: Continually Monitor And Review
Regularly update the special needs plan as circumstances evolve. Monitor changes in government policies, benefits and personal circumstances to ensure ongoing effectiveness. Maintain open communication with the support network to address emerging needs promptly.

Joellen Meckley, JD, MHS, ChSNC, executive director of the American College Center for Special Needs, commented on advisors getting educated regarding special needs. “So often, family members and financial professionals with the best intentions, but who do not have expertise in special needs, will name a disabled adult child as a beneficiary, potentially jeopardizing their access to public benefits,” she said, referring to parents’ wills, retirement plans or life insurance policies. “It is vital that financial professionals take a deeper dive into special needs planning issues, as the repercussions could change the trajectory of many lives.” 

By following these initial six steps, a financial professional can start mastering advanced special needs planning, unlocking the possibilities for a brighter future. Each step is vital in creating a comprehensive plan that accounts for each individual's unique circumstances. Embrace the expertise of special needs planning professionals, stay abreast of changing regulations, and foster a lifelong commitment to updating the plan. With dedication and the right resources, you can provide the security and peace of mind that individuals with special needs and their families deserve.

Remember that you can expand your opportunities at The American College of Financial Services with the Chartered Special Needs Consultant (ChSNC) Program, where you can gain the expertise to guide families and caregivers through complex benefits and financial systems and help them find the peace of mind they deserve.

Lindsey Lewis, MBA, ChFC, CFP, is the director of The American College Center for Women in Financial Services.