Michael Duckworth is a private wealth advisor whose team works with 83 families who have someone in their family with a meaningful to severe disability. So, when Bank of America Merrill Lynch announced that it is launching a new calculator tool today aimed at helping professionals like him with special needs clients, he felt it was tool whose time has come.

“It’s an easy tool to use,” says Duckworth, who is based in Pittsburgh, Pa. with an 11-member team. “But the thing that’s most important about it, apart from being easy to work with, is it allows clients and advisors to start a conversation,” he says.

The new special needs calculator tool works to project what a special needs individual will need in the future based on certain financial information and their projected life expectancy. The tool can account for certain financial information including the individual’s monthly expenses, such as health care, housing, special education and transportation, as well as projected employment income, and state or federal government benefits.

The calculator can also take into account the financial information of the parents of the special needs individual, including their number of years until retirement. The tool also has the ability to change the calculations based on expected return on investments and inflation rates. The calculator is accessible online, on iPads and other tablets and smart phones.

For Duckworth, the calculator can help the team when it begins working with new clients to illustrate how their financial decisions have an impact the outcome of the budget—particularly when it comes to managing cash flow and having a spending plan.

Duckworth’s team moved to Merrill Lynch in mid-2008 from National City Bank, now owned by PNC Bank. Looking for a new firm required six months of due diligence from the team to decide where they could best work with their special needs clients, he said.

Today, the team has about $550 million in client assets under management. It also has a separate service structure targeting more traditional ultra high net worth clients, including closely held business owners and C-level employees of publicly traded companies.

The team’s special needs practice is unique in that it works to anticipate all of the issues that come along with caring for someone with a meaningful to severe disability. That includes thinking about issues like if a family will need nurses or a home for an elderly person or child, what kind of house they will need and how care will change as a special needs child grows from 40 to 150 pounds, Duckworth says.

Two of the team members draw from personal experience, including Mary Arena Hagan, a lawyer by training who has an adult brother with Down’s Syndrome, and Helen Sims, who previously founded her own planning practice focused on special needs after caring for her disabled father.

Working with families with special needs has often led to very personal relationships, Duckworth said. When a special needs client was able to sit at the Thanksgiving dinner table for two hours without her chair after losing control of her lower extremities six years ago, Duckworth’s team also shared in the joy of her success.

“The impact of this work is not just about did I make more or less money than I could have,” Duckworth says. “It’s about, how did it affect my care, how did it affect the quality of my life or my child’s life. For advisors in this space, it’s a deeper level of responsibility.”

The launch of the special needs calculator, combined with other programs such as in internal firm designation that advisors can pursue at Merrill Lynch, should help other advisors as they start working with special needs clients, Duckworth said. His practice also regularly fields inquiries from fellow advisors looking for more guidance.

Duckworth said he anticipates that that demand will only increase in the coming years with the aging population.

“We have to put attention to it,” Duckworth says. “We have to make advisors understand that these are unique needs and the planning for these families has to live up to the importance of the outcome for each of the families.”

Lorie Konish writes for On Wall Street.


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