Some financial professionals have clients they never even know about. Or if they do, they often never acknowledge them. When we are working with families-whether they are young, old, rich or not-so-rich—we are working with the entire family in an indirect, although very real way.

And that's where the disconnect can lie. Many families we work with have a member with a disability. And if we're not asking the right questions, we may be missing a major piece of planning that is needed for that family.

First, a little background: An estimated 15% to 20% of Americans have a permanent disability. (For purposes of this article, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities for that individual.)

The number of people with disabilities increases each year, so as advisors we must be aware of how this impacts the advice we give. Indeed, as more premature babies have been saved, the risk of those children having disabilities has risen. And as more women give birth later in life, the risk of genetic disorders in their babies increase. Also, such conditions as ADHD, depression and autism are being more readily diagnosed. All of this has combined to result in a larger segment of the population with disabilities.

With the rise of developmental disabilities such as autism, more young families will see the need to plan differently for the future. And with an increase in cognitive disabilities like Alzheimer's, older families (and their adult children) need to plan for long-term care from a different perspective.

Drawing from my own experience, how my family thought about our future security was tied into caring for my sister. My parents and my other four siblings were impacted both financially as well as emotionally.

Parents used to worry about making sure their child with a disability had a full life. But life expectancies were shorter. Due to medical advances, children have been able to survive illnesses and live longer with conditions that usually were fatal in earlier times.

But now, for the first time in history, children with disabilities will outlive their parents, leading to a real need to plan to make sure their child is taken care of. Seventy-six percent of individuals with developmental disabilities live at home. And in one-fourth of those households, the family caregiver was age 60 or older and the average age of the individual with the disability was 38 years old. So families now have a longer period of care giving responsibilities. How do statistics like this effect the planning that should be done? Financial advisors will play an important role in the lives of these individuals.

When providing advice, we need to remember not only are those with disabilities impacted, but their extended families also need to plan accordingly.

When we meet with clients, we need to ask point-blank: "Does anyone in your family have a disability or need special care?" And asking once is not enough. Things can change. We need to ask it at every annual review.

As an advocate for families with special needs, over the past 25 years, I have seen many families who were not asked the right questions. One family came to me asking for help for their 45-year-old daughter, who was living at home with them. They had home-schooled her and she had never once attended any special education program. No one asked why or offered suggestions. They told me I was the first one to ask them to think beyond their own life expectancies.

And recently, another advisor called to thank me for providing advice on how to approach the topic with his clients. He called me a week later to tell me he was excited that he was able to help one of his clients. He had never asked the question, and the client had never shared that they had a child with a disability. I mentioned that it sounded like he didn't have a true relationship if he hadn't even known this fact about his client. He agreed.

While many advisors have the best intentions when working with families, they often make simple, often costly, mistakes for these families who need special planning. Avoiding these mistakes is merely a matter of understanding the unique needs of the families and ensuring that you are thoroughly educated in key areas. Here are several key mistakes that even the most well-meaning advisors often make.

Not valuing authenticity: Not placing enough value on authenticity can mean the difference between keeping and losing a client. Establishing genuine feelings with your client is critical to building a successful and lasting relationship. It is essential to show each family that you truly understand the journey they are on and can relate to their unique experiences and requirements.

Two of the most important skills you must possess are listening and connecting. Your objective is not to merely dispense sound financial advice. Your ultimate goal is to create a meaningful relationship with each family that makes them walk away from your initial meeting thinking, "Wow, I really want and need this person on my team." Demonstrating authenticity is the first step toward becoming a member of that family's "team." Every family wants a financial advisor who is qualified and knowledgeable in their field to provide the best advice regarding their loved one with special needs. Just as important to them, however, is having someone that they can relate to on a personal and emotional level. These families are on an arduous journey, continually looking for doctors, schools, social workers, camps, babysitters and all-important funding. Each of these responsibilities has an emotional and highly personal connection.

Not acknowledging the family member with special needs: Sometimes clients are unwilling, or unable, to discuss the fact that they have a family member with special needs. Advisors should not rely on the family to bring this up during an initial meeting. While it is a sensitive and often emotional topic that many families are reluctant to discuss, it is key to preparing a comprehensive financial plan. But clients don't know that. It is incumbent upon the advisor to ask the right questions, so that any relevant information on this topic may be discussed in detail. I suggest the advisor ask one key question of every client: "When looking up, down and around at your family, is there anyone for whom you provide emotional and financial support who we have not already discussed?" This question is non-threatening and encourages the client to think about parents, children, siblings and any other responsibilities they may have. This is where establishing a meaningful connection to your client early on becomes critical. If the family you are working with is at ease and feels a level of trust with you, they are more likely to be willing to bring up and discuss an individual with special needs.

Letting families get overwhelmed: Families with individuals with special needs perform a complex juggling act every day. They must manage ongoing appointments with doctors, therapists and social workers; fill out endless government paperwork; and seek out recreational, social and even employment opportunities for their loved ones. Balancing all of these tasks can quickly overwhelm the best intentioned family. Advisors need to be sensitive to the fact that while their clients want and need their help, they need to be guided in a firm, yet gentle, manner, or the train can quickly come off the tracks. Because each family and their needs are different, advisors must find the best way to work with each individual family to ensure that necessary tasks are completed without the family becoming overwhelmed by the process. As we know, many clients can implement plans that we develop for them. But in the world of special needs, many times the families have so much on their plates, we try to take one step at a time.

For example, a client with four children, two of whom had been diagnosed with autism, came in for help in planning. They had brought their two children to the meeting so that I could meet them. (It is also important to recognize that the babysitter next door probably cannot provide typical babysitting services so many families bring their children to our meetings.)

During the meeting, the boys removed the pictures off my walls, removed the dirt from the potted plants and rolled up the rug on the floor. The parents were spending their lives dealing with doctors, school specialists and social workers. Yet they knew their estate and financial planning was important. I had a glimpse of their lives in our short meeting. Rather than overwhelm them with a complicated to-do list, we were able to identify the first crucial step to take, and hold their hands through that step. Only then did we progress.

Working with the wrong attorney: In creating a comprehensive special-needs plan, few things are more important than establishing a properly drafted special-needs trust. While your client may feel more comfortable having the trust drawn up by a family friend or their business attorney, this is a bad idea. Hiring an attorney who lacks the expertise in this area can have a devastating effect on the long-term financial security of an individual with special needs. We have had clients coming in with documents in which they disinherit their family member with special needs; others have a first-party payback trust instead of a third-party, special-needs trust; and those that do have third-party trusts sometimes are not flexible for the future.

Some of these situations are just wrong. Others are legally correct, but not appropriate for the situation. It's critical for financial advisors to develop relationships with attorneys who have specific expertise in this area. As this is one of the most critical pieces to the special-needs plan, advisors must emphasize the need to have the right attorney perform this task, regardless of cost.

Lack of understanding limitations on asset ownership: Government rules and regulations are complicated and change constantly. Making the wrong financial move when advising families on how to set up accounts for their family member with special needs can cost money in lost benefits. It is critically important that advisors understand the implications of where funds are established and maintained. Well-meaning relatives and friends may want to contribute to the care of an individual with special needs, but putting money into an account in the name of the individual can spell trouble. For example, a St. Louis family referred to us was looking for a post-high school program for their special-needs daughter. They found the perfect program, but were told they did not qualify. We researched the situation and learned the program was a Medicaid-waiver program. Therefore, Medicaid eligibility was required. It was then discovered that the financial advisor of the brother had recommended that his brother set up a UTMA account for his sister to provide for her future. There was an account with $30,000 saved for the sister, which stopped the application to the program, because it made her ineligible for Medicaid.

Failing to verify beneficiaries: An inheritance gone awry will cause a great deal of headaches, including unneeded expense, and may even require a payback to the government. Verifying all beneficiaries in a client's estate is another key component that cannot be overlooked. Again, well-meaning family members or friends may bequeath funds to a loved one with special needs, not realizing the financial implications this will have. Families must carefully set up inheritances so as not to accidentally penalize the very individuals they are trying to assist.

Not including extended family: Once a special-needs plan has been developed, it's best to share it with the extended family. Families may be hesitant to discuss their special needs plan with other family members for any number of reasons. Advisors must convey to the family the importance of sharing this information, as it is a safeguard to ensuring that future mistakes do not occur. Without shared information, a future caregiver may not know or understand key pieces of information that may detrimentally affect the individual they are caring for. Every detail in a special needs plan has intrinsic value, and not sharing every piece degrades the effectiveness of the overall plan. Advisors need to remind families that sharing this information will ensure that their loved one receives consistent, comprehensive care. Avoiding these pitfalls is not difficult and can make all the difference toward building a successful special needs plan and a lasting, meaningful relationship with the families you serve. What advisors can do is acknowledge the entire family, ask the right questions, and know the challenges these families face. Bring in the right team to help the family, and your client will acknowledge that you truly have their best interests at heart.

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