In 2006, Patti Klein would routinely work up to 90 hours a week in her anesthesiology practice. In her free time, the Bergen County, N.J., doctor ran 5K road races or bicycled with her husband Martin Shenkman, an estate planning attorney in nearby Paramus, N.J., and longtime NAPFA member.
While training for a bike trip with her husband that year, persistent numbness in her arm prompted her to get an MRI. She was right in suspecting that doctors might find some compression in her spine, but they also found something more sinister: a multiple sclerosis lesion.
"In retrospect," she says, "I did have little signs that I had it, but not anything that you would see a doctor about."
The discovery marked the end of life as she and her husband had known it. When it came to planning for a different future, the experience was even harder than they'd expected. After the diagnosis, Shenkman recalls, "I was really taken aback that there was nothing available to help us plan for a chronic illness. The resources were nonexistent." If a physician and a planner-attorney were having such a tough time, the couple wondered, how hard was it for other people?
Ever since, Shenkman's goal has been to make this specialized planning information readily available, both for his wife and the other estimated 130 million Americans who live with chronic disease, often with inadequate financial preparation. In the past six years he has built an extraordinary pro bono second career - while traveling the nation in the couple's Airstream motor home - by helping more than 10,000 people to live with and plan for lives like his wife's, marked by chronic illness.
For his contributions to this pervasive, but little-recognized cause, Shenkman is the 2012 recipient of the Pro Bono Planner of the Year Award presented jointly by Financial Planning and the Foundation for Financial Planning.
Cathie Restivo, pro bono committee chair of the San Diego chapter of the FPA, is the runner-up for this year's individual award for her tireless work helping wounded military veterans. Two teams doing groundbreaking planning work in the Miami area and in San Diego are the winner and runner-up respectively in the team category. Read on for profiles of the recipients in this, the second anniversary of the awards.
"We thank these individuals for representing the profession as a whole and caring for people at all level and walks of life," says Jim Peniston, executive director of the planning foundation. "If you didn't care for people and you didn't want to help people, this wouldn't be the profession that you would be in. But I think it's important for all planners in their community to give back with some of their intellectual capital."
Contributions of the individuals honored this year are difficult to overstate. Many devote, or have devoted, hundreds or thousands of hours to clients who could not otherwise afford or access planners' expertise.
Two of them, Restivo and Jim Dell, of the Professional Alliance for Children, which helps families of critically ill children in San Diego, ultimately found their pro bono work so absorbing that they gave up their planning practices. Others have found creative ways to give hundreds of hours to others while continuing to serve their paying clients.
All of this year's recipients are incubating charitable models or services that they expect other planners and communities might copy or use, hopefully with fewer start-up challenges than they faced. "Everything I've developed I've put up on my website for other planners to use," Shenkman says.
Restivo says it's important to train people who will further your mission. "When you've created momentum you can no longer do everything yourself. That's why I started working on training other volunteers to do the same thing."
Their examples might provide ways to serve in your community.
Pro Bono Planner of the Year
For six weeks every year, Shenkman crisscrosses the country with his wife in a silver-skinned Airstream motor home accompanied by her therapy dog Elvis. They stop at conferences for financial planners, estate planners, trust officers, accountants and nonprofits, as well as patients. At each one, Shenkman teaches experts and those with illnesses to properly prepare their clients or themselves financially for a life with chronic illness.
In every talk, he shows a slide of the universally recognized symbol for a person with a disability, a blue stick figure in a wheelchair. "What is wrong with this?" he asks the crowd. The image, a symbol for all Americans with disabilities, represents maybe that 7% who require a walking aid, Shenkman says. The rest don't need any help getting around.
"The rest of them may look absolutely normal" when their lives are anything but, he tells the audience. "Our culture is biased toward acute illness, where you break a leg, get a cast and get better. But with chronic illness, you don't get better, you get worse. There's no get well card for M.S. or Parkinson's."
Klein endures unpredictable attacks of fatigue that makes her feel as if she's drowning in quicksand, Shenkman says. "I think it's hard for many people to conceive of fatigue as being disabling," Shenkman says. "But for many people with M.S., it's the most disabling symptom of all." The episodes require his wife to lie down almost immediately. At airports, there is often no place where she can comfortably or safely do this.
"Sometimes it comes on like a light switch," Klein says. "One minute you can function and then, two minutes later, I cannot." Her husband has stood over her to keep people from stepping on her. In addition, her medication and special foods, both of which must be refrigerated, sometimes perplex airport security and cause long delays.
After a few years of exhausting and frustrating airplane travel experiences, the Shenkmans switched to an RV, which solves all of these problems. It's an example of one way that they have learned to customize their lives and live successfully with Klein's illness. The RV gave rise to one of the two names for Shenkman's website. Both RV4TheCause.org and ChronicIllnessPlanning.com direct people to the same site. There they can find papers and articles, checklists, videos, links, podcasts and webinars by Shenkman on living with a variety of chronic diseases or conditions. He hopes to separate the site into sections for professionals and consumers.
BROADENING HIS EXPERTISE
Since his wife's diagnosis, Shenkman has broadened his health care expertise beyond M.S. to include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. He plans to add Crohn's disease and colitis soon. He estimates he has spent about 100 hours researching each disease. He then writes articles on planning issues related to each specific condition, which he publishes in a varierty of magazines. "I don't think it's fair to expect every planner to spend 20 to 30 hours on a disease," he says, "so I've done it for them." (Shenkman also writes regularly about estate planning for Financial Planning.)
His disease-specific work has lead him to partner with some of the major nonprofits supporting education and research, including the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's research and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, among others. Recently, he wrote a book for the latter.
"In the past, people rode out on horses with swords," says Arney Rosenblat, a spokeswoman for the MS society. "Marty is a 21st century warrior. He just goes forth in his RV to make the world a better place."
Rosenblat says she marvels at the time Shenkman donates to both planners and other professionals and needy clients. Among them is planner Mitchell Eichen, a wealth manager and founder of the MDE Group in Morristown, N.J., with $1.5 billion in assets under management.
A few years ago, one of Eichen's largest clients and oldest friends was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Though a centimillionaire, the client and his advisors, including Eichen, experienced the same frustrations finding information that Shenkman experienced after Klein's diagnosis. Eichen turned to Shenkman for help.
"One of the big misconceptions [about chronic disease] is that if you have money you are OK," Shenkman said. "The fact that they have wealth in no way insulates people from all the challenges that they will experience." Eichen paid Shenkman a modest hourly wage for his help.
Over several weeks, Shenkman helped Eichen and his client devise a detailed trust that farms out the management of his money and the task of, one day, dividing assets among his heirs to an array of family, friends and outside professionals. In each case, they hired independent accounting firms to monitor the cash flow and investment decisions of the trust's assets to build confidence among the man's many heirs.
"The notion of setting up the multiple levels of review process was to ensure that things are never questioned" once the client cannot make decisions on his own, Eichen says, crediting Shenkman for creating this structure. "The best part was [the client] was empowered when he was still in a place to make these decisions."
"My client," Eichen says, "was really clear in saying I don't ever, ever, ever want anyone to fight over money."
Shenkman notes, "The same process can apply to someone with more limited resources. You just do it more creatively." In such a case, planners establish a durable power of attorney and consolidate a client's holdings into a limited number of places so they are easier to monitor. A duplicate of each statement is sent to an independent outsider to monitor the holdings.
"The concept is to protect" the client with chronic illness, Shenkman says, "not only when they die, but when they are still alive."
Cathie Restivo, Pro Bono Planner of the Year Runner-Up
Jose Carlos was a 23-year-old corporal with the U.S. Marines two years ago when he came to meet planner Cathie Restivo of San Diego. He carried all of his financial statements and receipts stuffed into grocery bags. On the cusp of being discharged after two tours in Iraq, his newborn son lay in a hospital's neonatal intensive care unit. His wife had just died in childbirth.
"My wife took care of all the money," Restivo remembers Carlos telling her. "I don't know what to do."
Over several meetings, Restivo worked with the young veteran to help him outline goals. They also worked on budgeting, paying bills and setting aside money for spending. At their end of their time together, the Marine had hammered out a detailed financial plan.
"She made me feel like someone cared after what happened," says Carlos, who lives in Mission, Texas. "What she has taught has stuck with me."
Operation Homefront, a nonprofit based in San Antonio, Texas, that assists military families with financial problems, estimates that Restivo has donated more than 2,500 hours of her time in the past two years to veterans and active duty military personnel such as the widower. Mostly, she runs workshops training other planner volunteers to work with wounded soldiers and their families. Restivo closed her own practice in 2009 to devote herself fully to pursue her passion of helping people with their financial lives.
"Because I didn't have planning clients," Restivo says, "it allowed me to step back in a much bigger way than if I had had my practice at the time."
As the pro bono director of the San Diego chapter of the FPA, Restivo's influence extends far beyond her work with Operation Homefront. Elsewhere, she is developing a program for victims of domestic abuse through a local YWCA. She has mustered 15 volunteer planners to help amputees and other disabled veterans at a local Naval hospital to plan for their financial futures while they recover. She is working with a local network of shelters to provide financial counseling for homeless people. She also helped advise this year's runner-up honorees in the team category, Jim Dell and Jon Beyrer, as they started up their nonprofit that helps families with critically ill children.
After three years in the pro bono hot seat for her local FPA, Restivo is now actively recruiting her replacement. She is also building most of her other programs with an eye to making them run without her. This will allow her to go back to earning income for herself. However, she won't be reopening her planning practice. Instead, she will be working as a salaried employee for LFE Institute, an organization that provides paid financial counseling and instruction to employees of large firms and other professional audiences. In the meantime, she will continue on a volunteer basis with Operation Homefront and other organizations.
Restivo says there's a deep lack of financial planning skills across all income levels in the country, a much bigger problem than most people realize. "The need is huge," she says. "In fact, it's larger than most people can probably even quantify. On Saturday [at a workshop], I had a first-year military family that is $16,000 in debt. And the wife of a commanding officer says, 'We are getting ready for retirement and we have nothing saved because we have no control over spending.'Ã¢Ã¢,¬Ã¢?°"
Restivo adds, "It affects literally everyone's life."
The State Farm Literacy Laboratory at Florida International University, Pro Bono Team Winner
In the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, people in the blighted community of Liberty City, Fla., suffered disproportionately.
"They had so many foreclosures, it was horrendous," says planner Helen Simon, who is also a finance professor at Florida International University. "All I could think of was if [the residents there] only knew better."
In response, Simon has helped her university provide basic financial literacy education to more than 700 middle school and high school kids from Liberty City over the past four years. The students received this training through the university's State Farm Financial Literacy Laboratory, which was founded in 2008 with a grant from the insurer. Simon and her team at the lab are the winners of this year's team pro bono award for their contribution to fostering financial literacy in a community in great need of it.
"A lot of these kids grow up in pretty rough circumstances," says Shaun Hoyes, the lab's associate director and a recent MBA graduate. "We like to show them the other side of the fence."
Simon helped bring in State Farm and, later, J.P. Morgan. One of her savvier moves was to emphasize research that shows college students can better reach middle school and high school kids than adults can. University finance students teach many of the lab's courses and act as mentors. Adult instructors also teach courses to university employees and to other adult students.
The next five or 10 years will demonstrate just how effective the lab is in affecting local lives, Hoyes says. In one early encouraging sign, one of the schools whose students study at the lab, Miami Northwestern High School, was recently given a statewide assessment grade of B, up from D. Hoyes thinks the lab's coursework and mentors may have helped.
Another strong sign came recently when a group of high school graduates from the lab spoke at an event for alumni of Miami Northwestern High School. The kids explained how they were teaching their parents how to get out of debt, applying to college themselves and aware of which loans they should - and should not - obtain to finance their educations.
"Many of the alumni were crying" while hearing their stories, Simon says.
More proof of the lab's effectiveness is that 10 of the student intern instructor recently got jobs at J.P. Morgan, Simon says.
It's been particularly gratifying, according to Simon, to see students and their families climb the rungs of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, a psychology theory on human motivation. After their basic needs for safety and sustenance are provided for, they are then free to pursue true self-actualization, to use Maslow's term.
"There are an awful lot of people who haven't gotten to that highest level at the top and it's so rewarding to be there," Simon says, adding that she hopes people increasingly come to appreciate how important financial literacy is for the next generation.
"These people will be running the world when we are in our wheelchairs and I want to make sure they know what they are doing," she says.
Hoyes says he hopes to see the lab replicated elsewhere around the country. "We're pretty encouraged by what we've achieved so far and are looking to expand and move forward," he says.
The Professional Alliance for Children, Pro Bono Team Runner-Up
The trauma families experience when one of their children becomes critically ill is often severely compounded by the ensuing financial devastation produced by high medical bills and loss of work.
"I was just struck by how few resources exist to help families in this situation," says Jim Dell, who co-founded a charity in 2011 that helps families of critically ill children at Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego. His co-founder is fellow FPA member Jon Beyrer.
The Professional Alliance for Children gave planning assistance to 30 families in its first year and is on track to help 60 additional families this year through its growing network of volunteers from the FPA and the local bar association.
One family Beyrer and Dell helped this year was from the island of Saipan, an unincorporated U.S. territory in the western Pacific Ocean. The family's 14-year-old boy had been diagnosed with bone cancer on the island and flew with his mother to San Diego for treatment. There he received a terminal diagnosis. His one wish was for his father and two younger brothers to join him before he died.
To help, Beyrer and Dell started working the phones and calling the Make-A-Wish Foundation to see if the organization could pay for the family members' travel. The greater challenge was the diplomatic one. To visit, the family members would need special immigration admission known as humanitarian parole. Luckily, Tom Young, one of the nonprofit's key volunteers, had retired from a diplomatic career. He helped locate the right numbers to call to help secure travel rights for the family.
Just 48 hours after learning of the child's plight, the boy's father and two brothers stepped off a plane in San Diego. They were able to spend six days with him before he succumbed to the disease.
"I don't know how you quantify the value of something like that," Dell says. "It's priceless."
Dell and Beyrer have ambitious goals for their charitable venture. They have created a model that advisors elsewhere can use to launch franchise nonprofits. Planners in Phoenix, Orange County, Calif., and Los Angeles County, Calif., have expressed interest, they say.
Beyrer knows firsthand about the need for such help. Five years ago, his infant daughter underwent heart surgery at Rady after her birth. As a planner, he had top-notch medical insurance that covered most of the costs. But the shock and turmoil of that time, he says, marked him. "Families at that time can't think straight," Beyrer says.
In many cases, insurance doesn't cover bills and families face the risk - or necessity - of filing for bankruptcy. The stress can be so severe that the parents end up divorcing. To help a family they recently worked with, Beyrer and Dell said they personally negotiated with the employer of a father whose son needed heart surgery. The planners persuaded the company not to fire the man because he wanted to skip work so he could be present for his child's surgery.
"You hope that you help the family move on from the disaster," Dell says. "When you see the children, they provide the motivation."
Ann Marsh is a senior editor and the West Coast bureau chief of Financial Planning.