When financial advisor Greg Phelps accompanied his wife and mother to a country music festival in Las Vegas last October, he hadn’t imagined the night would end in such a gruesome way. The three of them sprinted hand-in-hand across the concert grounds as bullets slugged into the ground near his wife's feet.
Luckily, they all made it out alive, but another planner was not so lucky that night. Worried clients began calling after learning that Steve Berger, a 44-year-old advisor with hybrid RIA EFS Advisors in Cambridge, Minnesota, was at the concert and missing. Two days later, the death of the father of three was confirmed.
In an online essay, Phelps, who is the founder of Redrock Wealth Management in Las Vegas, wrote about the questions that have dogged him since that night.
"Being shot at with no means to defend myself, my wife or my mom, changed my life. Why am I here today? Why did I survive and others did not? Why do my boys still have a mom and dad, and others don’t?" Phelps wrote. "Everyone hurt or deceased in the incident was special in their own way. … Why am I here? What’s the purpose?"
Now, a new project is providing one way for Phelps to answer those questions. He is one of about 40 fee-only planners across the country who have banded together to provide free planning services to victims of the Las Vegas shooting.
In the aftermath of the shooting — in which 58 concert goers were killed when a gunman opened fire into a dense crowd of some 22,000 revelers — donors from around the world poured more than $31.4 million into the Las Vegas Victims Fund. The organization's website said it intended to distribute all of those funds to approximately 532 claimants, including survivors and victims' families, by the end of last month.
Some survivors who receive a settlement may want to invest that money. But the danger is that they’ll fall prey to unscrupulous salesmen parading as financial advisors, says Ben Edwards, an associate professor of securities law at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and the director of the law school's Investor Protection Clinic.
"It's a particularly vulnerable moment when someone receives money,” he says. “One of the reasons why we thought [the project] was important is because of what we see every day running a securities clinic. You have retirees coming into your office crying about how they have lost their life savings. You see people hurt because someone who calls themselves a financial advisor has come after them."
Like other volunteers approved to help victims through the project, Phelps had to demonstrate he runs a fee-only firm. He is a member of NAPFA. All project volunteers are either members of NAPFA, the CFA Institute, the Garrett Planning Network or the Institute for the Fiduciary Standard.
Holding a CFP designation alone is not sufficient, according to Edwards, because many CFPs take commission income, which presents conflicts of interests. Commissions can tempt advisors to sell potentially inappropriate investment products to their clients, he says.
"We are trusting in the folks who signed up to keep the promises they made. We felt comfortable doing that because of the organizations they belong to," Edwards says. "That's not to say there is never a problem with a fee-only practice, but we believe that the risks are lower."
Volunteer planners are not allowed to solicit any of the survivors they work with for business, but may continue to work with anyone who requests an ongoing planning engagement.
Phelps says he has become friends with a couple he expects to help once they receive an anticipated payout. The couple lost their 29-year-old son in the shooting, and Phelps helps run a fundraising campaign to save their home from foreclosure.
"This is a wonderful family who had one son and the son lived in the back of their property and literally helped the mom and dad pay their bills," Phelps says. "He was a journeyman pipefitter. He goes to the concert and gets shot and killed and they are trying to figure out how do we pay their bills."
Officials at the victims fund did not immediately respond to questions regarding the pace of payouts and the amounts for differing types of claims.
For now, the biggest problem facing the project is finding the people who may need planning help, both Edwards and Phelps say.
"It's so frustrating," Phelps says. "We are literally trying to find 500 needles in a 22,000 haystack. There is no registry of people who were there that night."
While he waits to help people through the project, Phelps is doing what he can to help elsewhere. He says he is running public service announcements about another nonprofit, LOVEWINS, that is featuring a different Route 91 casualty every month in an effort to help their survivors.
Phelps guesses that only a couple hundred survivors may know about the planning project. He's hoping to get the word out to more.
"I don't know why I breathe the air and 58 people can't," Phelps says, "and I have to honor them. I have to do what they can't."