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Surviving 9/11: How advisors have helped clients impacted by tragedy

The emotional loss after the unprecedented terror attacks of 9/11, 17 years ago Tuesday, was unlike anything experienced by this generation of Americans.

An advisor had to come up with a plan for someone who went from a humble income to high-net-worth almost overnight and via the most extreme circumstances.

There was an outpouring of financial support after 2,753 people were killed in New York, 184 in Washington and 40 in Pennsylvania, and funds sprang up to help support the victims and families. And in the wake of one of the defining moments in American history, financial advisors were called upon to help people in situations they couldn’t have imagined.

Here are two planners' stories:

New York-based Wells Fargo advisor Stephanie Ackler has a client who was widowed after a hijacked plane slammed into one of the twin towers, killing her husband who worked in a restaurant there.

More than 1,600 people lost a spouse in the attacks, according to New York Magazine, and 3,051 children lost a parent that day.

“The emotions and the fear from everyone were palpable,” Ackler says.

The woman and her son — he was six when his father was killed — received more than a million dollars in victims’ compensation benefits.

A family lawyer introduced the woman to Ackler in June 2004, and Ackler rushed to design a plan for someone who went from moderate assets to substantial assets almost overnight, and via the most extreme circumstances.

“I don’t even think she probably ever thought a check this large would ever be coming,” Ackler says.

While the client was willing to set up funds and investments to ensure her son’s future, Ackler was met with resistance when it came to the client's personal retirement planning.

“It was really trying to connect with her about the need for this larger investment planning in a way that she’d never been exposed to,” Ackler says. The client “really retreated very much from this process” when it came to an investment strategy that would help support her and her child, she adds.

Despite Ackler’s advice the client took large sums of money out of her portfolio to finance large purchases or invest in businesses that eventually went under. The money was all but gone by about 2016, the planner says.

“It was painful,” Ackler says. "She was very conscientious of her son’s money and letting that go for long-term growth and working with us. But for herself, she was fraught with emotion, no investment experience and she ended up spending the entire amount of money.”

Even now the client speaks with Ackler only about her son rather than her own finances.

Getting through to clients when they aren’t willing to face the reality of a situation can be difficult for advisors in any situation. But mix in something as horrific as 9/11, and advisors are facing a new set of challenges. This is something Edward Jones advisor Ed Zapson is too familiar with.

In 2015, Zapson met a member of the FDNY who worked at Ground Zero, as the World Trade Center site came to be called after the attack. The fire fighter had developed cancer after his exposure to the toxins emanating from what first responders dubbed “the pile.”

In their first few meetings, Zapson took the same approach he would for any other couple with a family, keeping in mind the father's illness would eventually become a factor.

“As we continued to meet I came to understand a handful of things,” Zapson explains. “The first was he wasn’t fighting cancer, he was dying of cancer. Whether he was keeping a stiff upper lip for the sake of his family or whether he truly believed he was still fighting, I don’t know.”

This presented a challenge for Zapson who needed to plan for the possibility this man would not live to the end of the year. But the fire fighter and his wife also wanted to plan for what Zapson calls “their happily ever after” like any other married clients.

Thanks to the fire fighter’s pension and benefits from victims’ compensation funds as well as the couple’s savvy saving, the financial part of the plan was simple, Zapson says. But the emotional aspect was an entirely different story.

Zapson found himself giving the couple advice that he wouldn’t necessarily give to other married clients, such as the benefits of retiring early and spending “large chunks” of the money that was coming in.

“Certain investment decisions, I will admit, I steered what should have been a longer-term decision to a shorter-term approach,” Zapson says. “They were in their late 50s at the time and I don’t usually encourage people in their late 50s to stop working, but I encouraged his wife to stop working at that point.”

Zapson also encouraged the couple to buy a house on the shore — something they hadn't planned on until later in their lives. When the fire fighter passed away in August 2017, he'd had a few years to enjoy the beach house with his family.

“I know it sounds funny to say this but the financial aspect was supremely easy,” Zapson says. “But keeping my composure and being able to speak frankly to a man I believed was dying … I’ve never had trouble speaking frankly to someone who knows they are dying. But speaking to a family where it looks like he’s dying, but we’re not going to make that the assumption, took a certain amount of acting skill to keep myself level and to present [both plans] as ‘I don’t know which plan we’re going to use A or B so let’s write them both out fully' and keep a smile going on.”

Zapson and the firefighter’s widow are currently working on the creation of a memorial foundation in her husband’s name.

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