Back in the old days, when advisor C. Richard Hearn, president of STARCARE Associates in Newport Beach, Calif., wrote insurance policies for New England Life, he'd sometimes let his seven-year old son, Chip, tag along to client meetings. "Dad had a khaki-colored suit that looked so smart," says Chip, who recently turned 35. "I also had a matching khaki-colored suit. I'd be entirely silent during the meeting, until the final stage where it came time to do the paperwork. Then I would pass the contract across the table to the client and say, 'You sign here, where it says sucker.'"

The gag is vintage Hearn. Never more than two beats away from poking fun at himself or teasing a prospect, Hearn has built a following of patrons from coast to coast, based in part on his unfailing good humor. His practice has grown to some 300 clients, representing more than $50 million in assets. He does not so much land clients as seduce them: with flowers on special days, cases of private-label wine (CARE-bernet and STAR-donnay) and phone calls just for the heck of it. Hearn thinks nothing of flying across the country to visit a sick client or opening his beachfront home for two straight days of Christmas parties. "He's kind of like a bandleader, the guy standing up in front with the big baton and the goofy hat marching everyone toward the goal," says Chip. Yet there's nothing studied about his demeanor: "Hearn is the real deal," says longtime friend and colleague Robert "Kuppy" Kuppenheimer, a managing director with Nuveen Investments in Irvine, Calif.

Like many folks who relish life, Hearn came by his joie de vivre the hard way: through heartache. What some would consider a tragedy-the illness of Chip, a hemophiliac-has also been the source of an incalculable sweetness and joy that has transformed not only his personal life, but also his career. When Chip received a legal settlement due to a misdiagnosed broken leg, Hearn set about learning the ins and outs of special-needs trusts to preserve the government benefits that Chip needed to survive. These days, the center of his practice has migrated to encompass an unusual clientele: hemophiliacs and other disabled people who have won large personal injury settlements.

Given that there are 40 million disabled Ameri-cans-about 20% of the population-every advisor will run into a special-needs case sooner or later, says Jeffrey Lauterbach, chairman and CEO of The Capital Trust Company of Delaware in Wilmington, Del. Yet he estimates that fewer than 50 advisors nationwide have the expertise to make special-needs planning a significant part of their practices. STARCARE is one of the largest, serving some 60 disabled clients with more than 20 disabilities, from Down syndrome to dementia. In addition, Hearn serves as advisor to a group of hemophiliacs who recently settled a hard-fought product-liability claim against pharmaceutical companies that had supplied HIV-tainted blood products in the 1980s. "One day, I woke up and found these folks just sitting in my heart," he says. "Working with them doesn't just change your practice, it changes your life."

For the son of a car salesman and a secretary from Columbus, Ga., the change has been monumental indeed. Hearn has always demonstrated leadership and a strong sense of responsibility. At the age of nine, his father made him get a job; he went on to win paperboy of the year, an accomplishment that apparently impressed Ross Perot enough to hire him in 1970 as a systems engineer at EDS.

He and his wife divorced when Chip and their daughter, Laura, were young, and Hearn moved to Boston to take a job with New England Life, which, according to Chip, guaranteed first-class medical benefits. "He wrote a lot of policies," says Chip, who also reports his father's stints as an infantry company commander in Korea, and as a mid-career playboy, tooling around in a black Porsche 928, blasting Hall and Oates on the radio, with Chip stuffed in the luggage rack.

Once his kids were grown and no longer qualified for Hearn's insurance, he was free to pursue his dreams full time. Those included leaving the corporate world, becoming a financial planner and moving to balmy St. Croix for a year in 1987. Looking back, says Hearn, his "midlife crisis" taught him an important lesson: that clients, in fact, did not care where he lived, as long as he continued to serve their interests. So when he fell in love with the scenery of Corona del Mar, Calif., he decided to make his home there. Today, he spends half his time traveling to serve clients in 28 states.

On the surface, Hearn's primary client groups-disabled individuals and their families, celebrities, women and the elderly-do not seem to have much in common. Yet Hearn insists that he did not have to change his basic formula to accommodate special-needs clients. "Each of our clients has a place on misfortune avenue, and some of them have lived there for a long, tough time," he explains. "Maybe it's a widow assuming family financial responsibility for the first time at the death of her husband. Maybe it's an athlete who suddenly gets a big contract after his family has struggled in poverty for years. Or maybe it's a child with Down's syndrome who receives a personal-injury settlement after he is injured in a bus accident and becomes even more disabled." Without help, he says, these clients are ill-prepared to deal with sudden wealth or with the complex relationship between "love, loss and money."

Yet special-needs clients do differ dramatically from other recipients of sudden wealth. For one thing, the stakes are much higher. Improperly handled, an influx of more than $2,000 in assets could result in the cancellation of Social Security and Medicaid medical benefits-within a matter of months. To avoid losing benefits, large settlements must be channeled into the appropriate trust, often a special-needs or other type of grantor trust that can only be established by a parent, grandparent, court or guardian. "The consequences of losing medical benefits can be catastrophic, even resulting in loss of life," says Hearn.

Without a carefully crafted special-needs trust, a hemophiliac who has received $500,000, for example, would burn through the money in less than a year, says Chip, whose clotting factor alone costs $3,500 every other day. The trust allows for improvements in quality of life, such as travel and education, that go beyond the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter.

In addition, planning for special-needs clients is extremely complex. The entire STARCARE office staff devoted more than four months to understanding the complexities of various state and federal benefits plans, reviewing everything that had been written on the topic in the last 25 years. "There is no substitute for detailed knowledge," says Hearn, repeating his favorite Perot quote.

Even so, getting clients, lawyers, trustees, accountants, government benefit administrators and financial planners on the same page can be maddening. That makes it all the sweeter when he finds "that one Medicaid worker or attorney who really knows what he or she is doing and really cares."

Far more difficult than the financial issues, however, are the emotional challenges, Hearn says. "The families are fatigued from years of fighting to keep their loved ones alive and functioning on the highest possible level," he says. "Often, it's a matter of realizing that the money will not make up for their loss, no matter how much they have suffered. Helping clients through that realization makes for difficult, delicate, special days."

Yet adversity breeds focus, says Hearn, "and there's very little bull. With these clients, I get to talk about the important things-like keeping people alive." As with any caretaker, Hearn sometimes needs respite from the pressure. Most often, he uses humor to diffuse tension. Some days he takes a solitary hike. And sometimes, he just falls apart. "One Saturday after visiting two young men with the most heart-wrenching story you ever heard, I went straight to church and cried," he says.

Other specialists in this arcane area can empathize with Hearn. "These are people who have been traumatized and abused," says Michael Baum of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei, Guilford & Schiavo, the Los Angeles law firm that helped resolve the grueling 10-year litigation against the pharmaceutical companies that eventually resulted in a confidential settlement last year. "Many of them had been extremely poor all their lives and HIV-positive for 15 years. Some were too ill to work or had lost their jobs because of the stigma associated with HIV. In some cases, clients had died along the way, and we were dealing with surviving parents and spouses."

Hearn was in a special position of trust and respect with this group, says Baum, because his son was also a hemophiliac. "I could have been God's own financial planner and they wouldn't have noticed, but the fact that I was Chip's dad made all the difference," Hearn says.

Still, Hearn went beyond the call of duty, according to Baum. "Richard devoted himself to understanding the mindset of these people and their families, who had been so heavily traumatized for so many years. He went to their homes, developed financial plans and did it all with a sense of humor that somehow managed to make light of this unfortunate situation."

The financial requirements for these special-needs clients are by no means uniform. Typically, settlements are paid out in a lump sum calculated by approximating lifetime expected earnings, says Baum, who primarily handles aviation-disaster cases. The challenge is to ensure that funds are available both for short-term needs and unforeseen circumstances, as well as longer-term, should clients live healthy, productive lives. Thus, Hearn uses a combination of short-term, income-producing instruments such as money market funds and bonds and growth vehicles like stocks. For those in very poor health, Hearn has helped plan for the disposition of their wealth to family members.

These clients require a high degree of flexibility. While preserving the proceeds over time is the primary goal, Baum says, "often litigants need to reward themselves with something concrete that represents closure and a culmination of their struggle." In the case of a family member, Baum recommends that clients buy something their loved one would have wanted them to have, such as a special vacation, car or piece of jewelry. These symbols become important psychic touchstones, Hearn says, because "almost instantaneous with the settlement is the realization that no amount of money can undo what you have already suffered."

Communication, especially in hard times, is Hearn's great strength, Kuppenheimer says. During the last two years, as the markets have lagged, Hearn has accelerated the pace of client contacts. "He does not get hung up on terms like standard deviation and alpha and beta," says Kuppenheimer. "How many retail clients understand that? Instead he brings the issues down to simple terms and choices." Case in point: Hearn sent out a special newsletter the day of the September 11 terrorist attacks to reassure clients and show his true colors as a patriotic American.

"Some advisors were hiding under their desks because people's stocks were down," says Hearn. "But if you were ever looking for an opportunity for your life and practice, you just got it. Our stocks are down, and our dreams are in doubt. Our way of life has been threatened. If you can't find that opportunity in this moment, then you ain't looking."

Yet Hearn's great strengths are also his liabilities. His friends worry about his health and how long he can keep up the grueling pace. Given such a vulnerable clientele, the No. 1 challenge to his firm now is developing a solid succession plan. Hearn hopes to hire a junior partner who eventually would succeed him, yet he readily admits he can be difficult to work with. A new partner also would have to recognize the special challenges and rewards of working with his disabled clients.

Despite the challenges of special-needs clients, Hearn prefers to refer to them as "special opportunity" clients. The combination of complex financial instruments and low financial sophistication calls for a special level of care that is attractive to a client-focused advisor like Hearn. "People who have lived and suffered a long time with disability, death and adversity have a quiet, secret, special place they go emotionally. We can't go there with them. It's where they keep their strength, their dignity and their courage. Remarkable doesn't begin to describe the riches they have brought to my practice."