It takes a village to raise a child, according to an old saying, and it takes a variety of skill sets, resources and experts to properly help clients plan for a child with a disability.
When working with clients who have children with special needs, whether physical or mental, advisors should reach out for help from both the community and the industry. Clients might benefit from counseling resources, for instance, as well as lawyers, accountants and other professionals with expertise in estate planning and trusts for disabled persons.
"You want to deal with people who are specialists in that area [so that you] will be able to refer your clients to them with confidence," says Sara Kinnear, director, tax and estate planning with Investors Group Inc. in Winnipeg. "That may mean getting out there and joining other estate planning organizations and becoming familiar with the advisors in your community."
There are literally thousands of Canadians who could benefit from this kind of planning, according to Statistic Canada's 2006 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey. The survey found that 3.7% of Canadian children under the age of 14 (or 202,350) have a disability.
"While most people are thinking about maximizing their [registered retirement savings plan] contributions and taking a trip to Florida," says Mark Halpern, a certified financial planner and president and founder of illnessPROTECTION.com in Markham, Ont., "there are many families who have on their radar the significant financial planning challenge that comes with children who have special needs."
Even with so many people who could benefit from disability planning, in most cases it's the advisor, not the client, who starts the conversation. In his 22 years in the financial services industry, Halpern has never had a client come to him and say: "I have a child with special needs. I need to do some planning for her financial well-being."
Instead, the issue often comes up in a discovery meeting with new clients after Halpern starts a discussion about wills and whether the clients feel there's anyone who will have to be looked after once they are gone.
When advisors start talking to clients about a disabled family member, it's important to be tactful and understanding of the delicate situation. "You've really got to have your empathetic skills honed to their best when you're dealing with clients in this situation," says Susan Howe, a financial planning consultant with RBC Financial Planning in Tillsonburg, Ont.
Talking about a child's disability is very personal and clients may not want to share right away. To get clients to feel comfortable and to open up, advisors should explain why they need that information from the client. For instance, emphasize that it's important in order to provide the best financial advice possible, Howe says.
Although the conversation might be slow to start, the rewards of building trust with a client are well worth it. "It is really satisfying as an advisor," she says, "when you have the opportunity to earn the clients' trust and share with them some ideas that offer them some piece of mind as they move forward with their financial planning."
As well as speaking with the client about the disability, in order to provide the best advice, advisors also need to educate themselves about the services and benefits available in their province. Advisors should research the government ministry responsible for disability benefits as well as the specific rules and regulations around disability benefits, says Joel Crocker, a director with Vancouver-based Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN), an advocacy group for Canadians living with disabilities.
"It doesn't necessarily take a ton of digging, depending on how good you are at doing research," says Crocker, "but [programs are] very specific for each province."
Examples of different provincial programs include:
- Ontario Disability Support Program;
- New Brunswick's Social Assistance Program; and
- Ministry of Social Development in British Columbia.
This is the first in a four-part series on disability planning. Tomorrow: Using trusts to help clients secure their child's financial future.