Mary Anne Ehlert learned about the importance of financial planning – and special needs planning – because her own sister, Marcia, had to live with cerebral palsy.
Since Ehlert began helping to set a course for her own family, she has set up a general-purpose financial planning firm, Ehlert Financial Group, and Protected Tomorrows, an organization that helps families make plans for members with special needs.
The number of families affected by diagnoses of conditions such as autism and Down’s syndrome has been growing rapidly. Meanwhile, “the number of people who know how to help these families is not growing exponentially,” Ehlert said in an interview.
Ehlert said she likes the special needs market because she likes helping families with special needs, and she gets quick returns on her emotional investment in her clients’ well-being.
“You don’t have to wait till someone dies” to see arrangements in action, Ehlert said.
The special needs market can be a good fit for many long-term care insurace (LTCI) and disability insurance specialists who want to diversify – but not for all.
LTCI and disability insurance specialists understand how physical and mental limitations can affect a family and how complicated government aid programs can be -- and they know how to protect a family against the possibility that parents, siblings or others acting as caregivers may run into health problems and eventually need care themselves.
But, just as the LTCI market has a business culture that's similar to but distinct from the culture of the disability insurance market, the special needs market has a culture that's similar to but distinct from the cultures in the LTCI and disability markets.
Here is a list of seven warning signs for agents who are considering the special needs market but might be better off lookng at other markets.
1. You’ve never met any children or young people with serious disabilities and never want to do so.
Ehlert said she thinks anyone who wants to branch out into the special need market either has to have personal experience with people with special needs or has to go out and get that experience, by volunteering with the Special Olympics, the Arc or similar organizations.
2. You like simple, straightforward cases.
Most LTCI and disability insurance professionals enjoy thinking about challenging situations.
The special needs market has plenty of challenging situations.
“It’s a very technical field,” Ehlert said.
Anyone involved in the market in any way needs to know about guardianship, powers of attorney, government aid programs work, trusts and private insurance programs, Ehlert said.
3. You are not an accountant or an attorney, and you are prone to spouting legal and accounting advice.
Ehlert said that one of the keys to working with families with special needs is working with a team of professionals. Another key is to know enough about what insurance agents can and cannot say about various special needs planning topics to stay out of trouble, she said.
Ehlert is careful to state on the Ehlert Financial website, for example, that Protected Tomorrows “is not a Registered Investment Advisor and does not engage in offering financial or legal advice.”
4. You’re a gossip.
One of the topics an agent in the special needs market needs to study carefully is privacy. Agents also need to understand the dynamics of family communications.
“You need to really understand who your client is,” Ehlert said. “What right do [family members] have to talk to you, to share that information?
5. You hate numbers and financial details.
Families with special needs need help with the numbers.
6. You’re a financial professional, not a social worker.
Agents in the special needs market need not have master’s degrees in social work, but financial professionals who naturally lean toward doing social work may have an advantage, Ehlert said.
Next week: How to build a special needs practice.