When Mary Anne Ehlert opened her planning practice in 1989, she wound up building a practice around an area she knew a little too well: special-needs patients.

Her sister, Marcia, was born with cerebral palsy. Ehlert gleaned her own training in special-needs issues from lawyers and a helpful employee at the local Social Security office. Then one of Ehlert's sons, who is mentally ill, became blind - and both of her parents developed disabilities later in life.

Ehlert Financial Group, in Lincolnshire, Ill., now has more than 450 clients, with $146 million under management. About 60% of its clients have a special-needs family member - a clientele Ehlert says brings particular rewards. "I've been in financial planning for 25 years," she says. "This is different. Every client we help, in the end they say, 'We don't know how we would have done it without you.'"

Ehlert still works personally with 40 clients and employs two planners who handle the remainder. But she also wanted to help other advisors understand what's involved with planning for disabled family members. So in 2003, she created Protected Tomorrows, a separate membership-based firm that offers both resources for the disabled and specialized training for planners.

For planners, membership costs a onetime $395 upfront fee, plus $10 a quarter for online access to videos and references, or $50 quarterly for live webinars, as well. Webinar topics include annuities, taxation, special-needs trusts and federal benefits, and many are linked to online exams that can be used to meet continuing education credits. (The firm also offers some online resources directly to families and the adult disabled for a fee of $69.95 a year.)

Ehlert says Protected Tomorrows now has 40 professional members; another 150 advisors have access via group contracts.

Member Melissa Cox, a CFP at Fetterman Investments in Dallas, says the training has been worth the price. She's found that she needs to help encourage adult disabled clients to take charge rather than rely on government benefits. "I have used my training to show clients that it is never too late to start planning," she says.



Protected Tomorrows also recruits and trains planners, called advocates, who offer a comprehensive service that goes well beyond finances. Advocates pay $5,000 a year to use the Protected Tomorrows name; they also participate in a three-day on-site workshop and receive ongoing support and referrals, along with quarterly webinars.

"We give them training, presentations they can use before groups, marketing and a business plan," Ehlert says.

Five advocates now work around the country, providing clients with "a combination of financial planning and some social work," Ehlert says; she expects to train another 10 this month.

Using her eight-step process, these advocates help create what she calls a Future Care Plan to help families handle tough questions about housing, jobs, legal issues, schooling and family communication.

Clients may pay $1,000 to $3,000 a year, depending on the complexity of their case; that fee does not typically include a comprehensive financial plan or portfolio management services. There are currently about 200 active Protected Tomorrows clients, Ehlert says.

Like many planning clients, most of these need their advocate mainly to hold them accountable, Ehlert says. But sometimes advocates dig into the details: "We help people find housing, schooling and government benefits, bringing in social workers as needed," she says.

Ehlert is looking to recruit planners "who have had a practice for a while and want to do something new," she says.

One such advocate is Kirkland, Wash., advisor John James, who says about 10% of his clients use the Future Care program. His first step is at least two hours of exploratory questions. "I'll ask, 'What are your fears? How do you see your life playing out?'" he says.

When advocates need more expertise or mentoring, they can call for specific advice on government benefits, housing options, job services, education plans and the like. The firm has built relationships with national disabilities groups and refers advocates when local chapters request workshops. Advocates also get their name out through the firm's newsletter and website.

Advocates often end up delivering a wake-up call about the need to save. Kay and Randy Lewis, in Barrington, Ill., signed up for two years of service, at about $1,000 a year, to help their 25-year-old son Austin, who is autistic; he works part-time and can drive. Protected Tomorrows has helped the Lewises look for housing options and analyze how much they must save to support Austin. "It's quite shocking what you're going to need," Kay Lewis says.



Ehlert is not the only planner who has set up a separate operation to share specialized expertise.

Susan Bradley, a CFP in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., designed a program for clients who receive a financial windfall. The Sudden Money Institute, which she founded in 2000, offers a two-day workshop about the needs of clients undergoing any significant money change.

For $890, participating planners get a "Financial Transitionist" certificate, as well as credit toward CFP Board continuing education requirements. Its website now lists about 60 advisors who are designated at one of three levels: core, advanced or mastery.

And Joy Kirsch, an advisor in the Dallas area who lost her husband to suicide, founded the Widow's Journey in 2011, a nonprofit that offers advice and resources for new widows. The group also holds regular lunch seminars offering financial advice.

With her focus on widows, Kirsch has been an active member of Sudden Money's frequent phone meetings and annual conferences. "I've been talking to Susan and other members about taking the Widow's Journey national," Kirsch says, "but it's already exhausting."

Ehlert finds her efforts worth the work - and the need for her services growing. The expanding population of disabled "make up a significant market of consumers, representing more than $200 billion in discretionary spending," according to a U.S. Census report.

Increasingly, Ehlert predicts, planners will be working with more disabled adults, as well as parents. Medical advances make it possible for the severely disabled to live longer and do more; 5% of Ehlert's clients are now disabled adults. Indeed, the Census reports that nearly 38.3 million Americans, or 12.6% of the population, had a severe disability in 2010, up from 35 million five years earlier.

Yet a client's needs may be invisible at first. Ehlert urges planners to probe. "I ask, 'Is there anyone dependent on you for financial or emotional support?' I have to anticipate that if my client is providing emotional support, the chance that they'll have to provide financial support is higher." Often, Ehlert says, people won't even tell planners about a disabled child - and "if you do a typical retirement plan, you're not helping them."

At the least, James argues, planners should bone up on special-needs issues: "It's a significant part of your practice that should not be ignored," he says. "If you address it, you'll be the knight in shining armor."



Temma Ehrenfeld, a former Financial Planning senior editor in New York, has contributed to The New York Times, Dow Jones News Service and Reuters.