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INTERVIEW: Long Island Advisor On His Specialized Offering For HNW Families Impacted By Autism

Harriet Davies

14 September 2012

Charles Massimo, founder of CJM Wealth Management, launched a specialist offering within his practice around three years ago catering for families impacted by autism. He has since found that there is latent demand for such specialized services.

Massimo, who has two sons on the autism spectrum, says the practice is “something near and dear to my heart.”

It is also something that affects many, and – as with other disabilities or long-term illnesses - has serious financial consequences. A Harvard study in 2006 estimated it could cost about $3.2 million to take care of an autistic person over his or her lifetime – a figure which has presumably risen since.

Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that around one in 88 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder by the age of 8. Meanwhile, Mark Roitmayr, president of Autism Speaks, estimated in a CDC press briefing this year that around $137 billion annually is spent due to autism in the US. Massimo says that breaking this down to an individual family level is an indicator of the challenge families face.

Autism also impacts the family practically. “I know, day-to-day, what a 24/7 job it is,” says Massimo. “Many of these children will be dependent on their parents for their entire lives.”

Discussing families’ reactions when confronted with such challenges and costs, Massimo says: “They feel incredibly overwhelmed.”

His clients are wealthy families, but he says “even wealthy families feel overwhelmed by cost” because they have so many other goals – education of descendants, retirement planning, philanthropic giving, lifestyle – that they’re also hoping to meet. However, “wealthy .”

His advice to families is “you have to take a leap of faith” – he thinks one of the most common emotions is to feel debilitated when confronted with difficult financial and emotional issues, but he says the worst thing is to “do nothing.”

Financial services providers are starting to wake up to these kinds of needs. Mass Mutual, for example, offers an outreach program for individuals caring for a person with a disability or other special needs.

For this, the firm has designated “Special Care Planners,” which have received advanced training and information in estate and tax planning concepts, special needs trusts, government programs, and the emotional dynamics of working with people with disabilities and other special needs and their families. The certificate program was offered by The American College in Bryn Mawr, PA, exclusively for the firm’s financial professionals.

On the education and certification front, Massimo says he's "started to see certain things pop up” at individual firms. Eventually though, he thinks some kind of industry-wide accreditation signifying that a professional is trained in the wealth management needs of families affected by disabilities such as autism could well be on the cards. “I’m sure we’ll see the industry going that way,” he says.