Charles Massimo had already been working as a financial advisor for over a decade, when he and his wife happily welcomed triplets — two sons and a daughter — into the world. Two years later, their lives changed dramatically when the boys were diagnosed with autism. The boys wouldn’t be able to talk until they were about seven years old. Massimo’s vision of being the doting dad, driving them to Little League and Pop Warner practices, quickly turned into taking them from therapist to therapist, and “facing everyday with so many unknowns.”
As difficult as this was, it also served as an epiphany for Massimo. He realized firsthand that he could use his skills as a financial planner to help other families manage and prepare for the lifelong expenses that can come with caring for a loved one with a disability.
“Living through that personally, I started to realize the value I could bring to other families from a wealth management standpoint,” he says.
Massimo formed CJM Wealth Management in 2003 after leaving Smith Barney, and among the high-net-worth clients he serves, he has developed a specialty in planning for families with autistic children.
Today, CJM is a team of six advisors who all service this specific clientele, even though Massimo is the only member with a personal connection to autism. The firm has around $316 million in AUM, according to its latest Form ADV. About 30% of the firm’s clients are families impacted by autism. Other clients include family business owners and doctors, some of whom treat autism.
Some children with autism will likely need their parents’ financial assistance for their entire lives, Massimo notes. And although those families are in dire need of financial advice, they’re overlooked by the wealth management industry, he says.
From 2014 to 2016, one in 40 children between the ages of three and 17 in the United States were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, data from the National Health Interview Survey shows. The CDC first began tracking the disorder in the early 2000s, estimating that one in 150 children aged eight-years-old were autistic.
The condition is a complex one, usually involving challenges with socialization, communication and repetitive behavior. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and the disorder is more common among boys than girls, the CDC notes.
On average, it can cost around $17,000 more per year to care for a child with autism than it does for a child without the disorder, the CDC says. Health care, education, therapy, family services and caregivers are just some of the related expenses. For a child with more severe autism, that number increases to more than $21,000 per year.
When a family experiencing the disorder first comes to see a financial advisor, they are often overcome with stress and questions, Massimo says. For its part, CJM works to alleviate some of that burden by offering a variety of services including investment management, insurance optimization, income management, estate planning, tax strategies and multi-generational wealth management.
Families find the Deer Park, New York-based firm by referral and through Massimo’s charitable organizations. Massimo is a part of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's Autism Advisory committee, where he meets quarterly in Albany to identify the specific needs of the autism community and determine how the state can help address those needs more effectively.
At his firm, the first thing advisors do for these specific clients is allow the parents to vent. Part of the process can be therapeutic. Then the planner spends a significant amount of time getting to know the family and understanding their immediate goals, while also taking steps to ensure the autistic child is provided for down the road.
“There is a saying, and it is true, that if you meet one child with autism, you meet one child with autism,” Massimo says. “Every child with autism is so different. So [for the advisor] it’s truly understanding that individual first and understanding what the expectations of the parents are for that individual. If you don’t understand that, the planning really doesn’t add any value.”
Quote“Living through that personally, I started to realize the value I could bring to other families from a wealth management standpoint,” Massimo explains.
For the advisor’s part, working with these families is like working with two different clients — the child and the family — each with different objectives and requiring separate plans.
For the autistic child, the focus is on special needs trusts and estate planning around the disability. Both advisor and client need to be well versed in the area of life insurance.
For the parents, it is about overall wealth managment, saving for another child's college perhaps, planning for their own retirement and making their assets work for them.
“It’s being very clear on the goals and aspirations, understanding what the foundation is of where the parents are and what their resources are,” Massimo notes. “The second very important piece is aligning a team for these families that deals with special needs trusts, deals with insurance … and then it’s providing the non-financial team.”
Massimo’s goal for the practice is to offer more than just wealth management services. That non-financial team includes resources to help parents find proper schooling and therapists for their children.
“A family is so consumed with working with that child on a day-to-day basis, plus having a normal life, that we have to become more than a financial advisor for these clients,” Massimo says. “We have to become an advocate. We have to become a resource. We have to become a support center and many of our clients come to us for everything.”
“The relationships are much deeper and much different than a typical wealth manager client relationship,” he says.